Tue, Jul 16, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The US’ immigration crisis goes beyond the border

The Trump administration needs to attract talent, clear backlogs, resolve the status of the undocumented and help the world’s most desperate find refuge

By James Gibney  /  Bloomberg Opinion

Illustration: Yusha

Call it progress: When US President Donald Trump unveiled a plan in May to reform the US immigration system, he said that the number of immigrants granted green cards each year would remain unchanged. That is a U-turn from his 2017 endorsement of a bill that could have halved annual admissions, currently running at about 1.1 million. The new plan promotes a merit-based system that privileges skills and education over extended family ties, but it is short on detail, lacks political support even from US Republicans and is at odds with the administration’s record of imposing new restrictions on skilled immigrants.

This ambivalence and disarray, although more pronounced in Trump’s administration, exemplifies the approach that the US has taken to the issue for decades. Even as the country grows more dependent on new arrivals, its policies toward immigrants — skilled and unskilled, legal and illegal, refugees and asylum seekers — remain confused and ill-considered. Change has rarely been so urgently needed.

It is true that the US has undergone a significant demographic shift in the past few decades. In 1970, only 4.7 percent of its inhabitants were foreign-born. By 2017, the number had risen to 13.6 percent, close to its historical peak of 14.8 percent in 1890.

However, the country needs more immigrants of every kind. It needs innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and other skilled workers for its economy to thrive. It needs crop-pickers and healthcare workers to do jobs that native-born Americans generally do not want. It also needs to resolve the status of more than 10 million undocumented residents. As the world’s most powerful democracy, whose strength and legitimacy depend on living up to its values, it has compelling reasons to fix its broken systems for aiding asylum seekers and refugees.

The starting point for thinking about these challenges is to recognize how important immigrants are to the US economy. According to the New American Economy Research Fund, immigrants and their children established nearly half of today’s Fortune 500 companies. In 2017, they made up about 17 percent of high-skilled working males. In Silicon Valley, more than half of the workers in fields combining science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and an even higher proportion of software engineers — were born overseas.

The importance of immigrants is likely to grow in the digital age. There is good evidence that high-skilled immigration promotes innovation. Immigrants are almost twice as likely as the native-born to start new businesses, and in 2014, they made up about 20 percent of all entrepreneurs. Figures compiled by Bloomberg show that “states with the greatest concentration of immigrants create the most jobs and biggest increase in personal income.”

Meanwhile, demographics are making the US’ needs more acute. A country with fewer babies and more old people has greater need of immigrants. Last year, the US population grew at its slowest pace since 1937. Nearly one-fifth of states have lost residents during the past two years. Alaska, Maine and Vermont — along with numerous cities and towns across the country — are even offering bounties to newcomers.

Other things equal, this means slower economic growth, and an aging workforce pushes the same way. Fewer workers supporting more retirees would put US Social Security and other public pension plans under further strain.

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