Sat, Dec 29, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Immigration built the US

While societies experience periodic backlashes against immigration policy, US history shows that new arrivals consistently pushed the nation forward

By Joseph Nye

Illustration: Lance Liu

The US is a nation of immigrants. Except for a small number of Native Americans, everyone is originally from somewhere else and even recent immigrants can rise to top economic and political roles. Former president Franklin Roosevelt once famously addressed the Daughters of the American Revolution — a group that prided itself on the early arrival of its ancestors — as “fellow immigrants.”

However, in recent years US politics has had a strong anti-immigration slant and the issue played an important role in the Republican Party’s presidential nomination battle in this year. However, US President Barack Obama’s re-election demonstrated the electoral power of Latino voters, who rejected Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney by a 3 to 1 majority, as did Asian-Americans.

As a result, several prominent Republican politicians are now urging their party to reconsider its anti-immigration policies, and plans for immigration reform will be on the agenda at the beginning of Obama’s second term. Successful reform will be an important step in preventing the decline of US power.

Fears about the impact of immigration on national values and on a coherent sense of US identity are not new. The nineteenth century “Know Nothing” movement was built on opposition to immigrants, particularly the Irish. Chinese were singled out for exclusion from 1882 onward, and, with the more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, immigration in general slowed for the next four decades.

During the 20th century, the US recorded its highest percentage of foreign-born residents — 14.7 percent in 1910. A century later, according to the 2010 census, 13 percent of the US population is foreign born. However, despite being a nation of immigrants, more in the US are skeptical about immigration than are sympathetic to it. Various opinion polls show either a plurality or a majority favoring less immigration. The recession exacerbated such views: in 2009, one-half of the US public favored allowing fewer immigrants, up from 39 percent in 2008.

Both the number of immigrants and their origin have caused concerns about immigration’s effects on the US’ culture. Demographers portray a country in 2050 in which non-Hispanic whites will be only a slim majority. Hispanics will comprise 25 percent of the population, with African-Americans and Asian-Americans making up 14 percent and 8 percent respectively.

However, mass communications and market forces produce powerful incentives to master the English language and accept a degree of assimilation. Modern media help new immigrants to learn more about their new country beforehand than immigrants did a century ago. Indeed, most of the evidence suggests that the latest immigrants are assimilating at least as quickly as their predecessors.

While too rapid a rate of immigration can cause social problems, over the long term, immigration strengthens US power. It is estimated that at least 83 countries and territories currently have fertility rates that are below the level needed to keep their populations constant. Whereas most developed countries will experience a shortage of people as the century progresses, the US is one of the few that may avoid demographic decline and maintain its share of world population.

For example, to maintain its current population size, Japan would have to accept 350,000 newcomers annually for the next 50 years, which is difficult for a culture that has historically been hostile to immigration. In contrast, the US Census Bureau projects that the US population will grow by 49 percent over the next four decades.

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