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  / 

Sat, Dec 29, 2012 - Page 9

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.

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