Today, the US is the world’s third most populous country; 50 years from now it is still likely to be third (after only China and India). This is highly relevant to economic power: Whereas nearly all other developed countries will face a growing burden of providing for the older generation, immigration could help to attenuate the policy problem for the US.
In addition, though studies suggest that the short-term economic benefits of immigration are relatively small, and that unskilled workers may suffer from competition, skilled immigrants can be important to particular sectors — and to long-term growth. There is a strong correlation between the number of visas for skilled applicants and patents filed in the US. At the beginning of this century, Chinese and Indian-born engineers were running one-quarter of Silicon Valley’s technology businesses, which accounted for US$17.8 billion in sales; and, in 2005, immigrants helped to set-up one-quarter of all US technology start-ups during the previous decade. Immigrants or children of immigrants founded roughly 40 percent of the 2010 Fortune 500 companies.
Equally important are immigration’s benefits for US soft power. The fact that people want to come to the US enhances its appeal, and immigrants’ upward mobility is attractive to people in other countries. The US is a magnet, and many people can envisage themselves as US citizens, in part because so many successful US citizens look like them. Moreover, connections between immigrants and their families and friends back home help to convey accurate and positive information about the US.
Likewise, because the presence of many cultures creates avenues of connection with other countries, it helps to broaden attitudes of US citizens and their views of the world in an era of globalization. Rather than diluting hard and soft power, immigration enhances both.
Former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), an astute observer of both the US and China, argues that China will not surpass the US as the leading power of the 21st century, precisely because the US attracts the best and brightest from the rest of the world and melds them into a diverse culture of creativity. China has a larger population to recruit from domestically, but, in Lee’s view, its Sino-centric culture will make it less creative than the US.
That is a view that those in the US should take to heart. If Obama succeeds in enacting immigration reform in his second term, he will have gone a long way toward fulfilling his promise to maintain the strength of the US.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate