Immigrants! Immigrants! Seems like they are all over the news these days, legal ones and illegal ones and how we can keep America pure. But you don’t have to study much to realize that many of America’s greatest strengths – our desire for a better future, our confidence that we can achieve it, and the creativity and innovation that we use to get the job done – come in large part from the almost-continuous stream of immigration into this country.
Had not Hitler run his brainy Jewish scientists out of Germany and then Europe – and into our open arms – he might have dropped the atom bomb on us instead of us getting it first. The great physicist Enrico Fermi was not even Jewish, but his wife was, so when he won the Nobel prize in 1938, they flew directly from the award ceremony in Stockholm to the US rather than return to Mussolini’s Italy. Six years later he directed the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, in intense secrecy under the football stadium stands at the University of Chicago.
Some cry that, “Well, these immigrants are not like the old ones, they don’t want to learn our language, etc. etc. etc.” Again, that idea is pretty well dispelled with a look at the history books. The people who were “already here” have always felt that the world was going to hell in a hand basket with the next boatload, no matter where they came from. I would not be surprised if the Native Americans who were here before the Europeans felt the same way.
But despite the outcries, millions of people keep coming to America. Our country remains the beacon of hope for huge numbers of people around the world. Our free economic and political system is a powerful magnet. As our population growth due to natural births and deaths declines, we (like Western Europe) need more workers at all talent levels. I heard the great management thinker Peter Drucker talk a few years before his death, and his prediction was that the most important political question of the western world in the early 21st century would be immigration. Boy was he right. He said that the US was the only major economy that had proven its ability to absorb and integrate immigrants of all types. That it would be much rougher for his native Europe to adjust to the need for integration and diversity. (Among the smaller economies, Singapore, Australia, and particularly Canada seem to have done amazing jobs of accepting and integrating multiple cultures.)
Over the last several years I studied the museum industry, leading me to visit over 300 museums worldwide. Among the most moving experiences you can have in a museum or historic site is the tour of Ellis Island, just off Manhattan, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants landed. If you have not done this tour, make sure and get there the next time you are in New York City.
In these tough economic times, the impulse of some is to turn inward, away from the world. A handful of members of Congress (for example Sanders of Vermont and Grassley of Iowa) have set it up so that any company receiving federal TARP funds cannot hire talented foreigners (via the H-1B visa program). One key measure is named the Employ American Workers Act (EAWA). It is harder and harder for all those Asian scientists getting PhD’s in this country to stay here. Such measures could cause a significant decline in new technology enterprise creation and patent originations in this country. That would be an awful thing.
According to Harvard and Duke’s Vivek Wadhwa, writing in the Washington Post on March 8, 2009, immigrants founded a quarter of all US engineering and technology companies between 1995 and 2005. They founded half of such companies that were based in Silicon Valley. In the 2000 census, immigrants made up only 12% of the US population but they were 47% of all engineers and scientists with PhD’s. About 25% of all international patents filed from the US in 2006 named foreign nationals as inventors. Businesses operated by immigrants employed 450,000 Americans in 2005. Many of these people, or the future waves of such people, will go home to or stay home in India, China, and Korea if we force them to, but many would rather not.
On the other hand, the UK will automatically give a minimum one-year work permit to anyone earning an MBA from one of the world’s top 50 business schools. And it is not impossible that other nations would backlash against our turning inwards. Many of the best US-based companies earn a large share of their profits overseas. What happens if foreign countries will not let Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Johnson & Johnson place American executives overseas? How will our best and brightest learn to manage and prosper in the global marketplace?
I moved from the Midwest to Texas 27 years ago. One of the things that drew me to Texas, and keeps me here, is its open arms for “foreigners,” including Hoosiers like me. Of course there are times and places where this has not been the case. When the first Vietnamese fishermen arrived here they had a huge conflict with the other fishing industry folks along the Texas coast. But, at least compared with other places where I have lived, on an overall basis Texas seems to love and accept immigrants. Today the Vietnamese are an important and vibrant part of Houston culture, and the Vietnamese language is the third most important after English and Spanish.
Texas has kept our taxes low so newcomers can afford to live here and has kept business opportunities fluid and available to all. When I hear people talk about the evil of illegal Mexican immigrants, I wonder how the Texas economy can be so strong when we have millions of those “illegals?” Personally, I don’t mind being surrounded by people who would go to great personal risk to mow yards and pour concrete in order to send a few bucks home to the wife and kids. These are hard-working, generous, family-first people like the people I grew up among in Indiana, and today live among in Texas.
In all the screaming and crying and building of fences, I hear almost no rational thought about immigration. On both sides, loud voices drown out serious study and discussion. But they shouldn’t drown out your own thinking. I suggest you start with, of all things, a textbook: Strangers to These Shores, by Vincent N. Parrillo (Ninth Edition, 2009, Pearson/Allyn & Bacon). This is the only book I have found which not only talks about long term trends and implications of immigration in America, it also discusses each of the major immigrant groups and their nature. So you can ditch the stereotypes and find out the facts. So you can understand that 1 out of 8 Korean immigrants runs their own business – perhaps the most entrepreneurial group to ever come to these shores. And that they do it with a unique system of sharing the financial risk with friends and family.
Learn about everyone from Poles to Palestinians, about how they fit (or don’t fit) into America. Where do they live in the United States? Did you know that 77% of Arab-Americans are Christians?
Get this book, flip through it, lose yourself in the charts and tables and wonderful maps. You will see an America that you may hardly be aware of. Over time, the United States will become more and more Latin and more and more Asian. It is too late to turn back that clock. It will not just be California, Hawaii, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico – it will be the whole nation. Anyone who hopes to understand this emerging nation needs to read (or, using my method, “digest”) this book.
For those of you who want to take a harder look at the political and historical realities of immigration, you can get a less chart-filled and more academic but still excellent treatment in A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America, by Aristide Zolberg, which recently came out in paperback (Harvard University Press, 2008). If you read this book, you will quickly realize that we have always used immigration policy as a football, going from one end of the field to the other, so today’s intense controversies are nothing new.
As a thinking citizen, whether you agree with me or not about immigration, you cannot understand the issues clearly without delving into books like these. Watching cable news, left or right, will get us no closer to real answers to our very real national and international challenges.