Earlier this year, Sen. Barack Obama stirred up controversy when he said that working-class voters were bitter because of a lack of economic opportunity. He argued that religious bigotry, nativism and anti-trade sentiment were an outgrowth of this frustration. Although he phrased his sentiments poorly, Obama touched upon a valid point. When people lose their jobs, the natural reaction for many is to blame someone else. Immigrants, legal and illegal, are an easy scapegoat, especially during economic downturns. Given the endless stream of bad news about the economy as of late, it is likely that embittered bigots will further demonize immigrants. This is unfortunate, because resurgent nativism would have disastrous consequences for Americas economic future.
Media demagoguery is nothing new; only now, jingoism and yellow journalism have evolved into cable news talking heads. Along with some xenophobic politicians, they have made a living out of bashing Hispanics and Middle Easterners. In April, a Colorado state legislator referred to Mexicans as illiterate peasants on the State House floor. Controversial talk-show host Bill OReilly has accused supporters of the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill of attempting to flood the country with foreign nationals.New York CongressmanPeter King told an interviewer that there are too many mosques in this country, alleging that most American Muslims support radical Islam.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of Americans are as unfriendly towards immigrants as OReilly and King. In a recent NBC News poll, 52 percent of those surveyed believed that immigration is detrimental to America, while only 39 percent found immigration to be beneficial. The same poll found that a slight majority of Americans saw immigrants as an economic threat.
Despite public imagination on the subject, immigration is far from an economic threat. In fact, immigrants are tremendously beneficial to the American economy in several ways. For one, the influx of immigrants allows Americas population to grow faster than that of other industrialized nations. This growth ensures a large supply of workers to keep Social Security solvent and the economy growing. Without immigrants, the United States would be in the same position as Japan, Italy and Russia, whose populations are shrinking. The aging workforces, sclerotic economies and massive public debts of these countries are strongly related to their loss of population.
Furthermore, highly educated immigrants bring technological prowess and entrepreneurship to the United States. Thousands of engineers and computer scientists arrive in America yearly to fuel high-tech businesses. Silicon Valley is filled with startups founded by immigrants, like Vinod Khoslas Sun Microsystems and Sergey Brins Google. Astonishingly, Congress has actually reduced the number of special H1-B visas given to foreign workers, which allow American companies to import guest workers with highly specialized knowledge. As a result, many of these workers move to countries with more liberal immigration policies, like Canada and Australia. In these cases, Americas loss is another countrys gain.
Low-skill immigrants are equally valuable to the American economy. Many work as farm laborers, hotel maids, construction workers and gardeners, doing work that native-born Americans are overqualified for or are unwilling to do. Though racists often deride these workers as lazy, in fact, they toil long hours for little pay. Without them, construction would grind to a halt (since 28 percent of construction workers are foreign-born), and lettuce would cost 15 dollars a head. It is ignorant to underestimate the impact these workers have on Americas economic health.
Doubtlessly, Americans have legitimate concerns about the harmfu economic effects of illegal immigration. Undocumented aliens do not pay taxes and put an extra burden on infrastructure and social services. But while illegal immigration is a serious problem, it is also a reflection of our dire need for comprehensive immigration reform. While the Pat Buchanans of this country would be content to erect walls along the Mexican border, create a Fortress America and declare the problem solved, in an increasingly global economy, fencing ourselves in is a sure path to ruin. A combination of heightened border security, an increase in the number of visas and green cards and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants would be a much wiser course of action. Similar legislation was defeated in 2006 by far-right Congressional Republicans; the next president should urge the 111th Congress to pass it.
Americans must reject bigotry and courageously welcome immigrants with open arms, especially in the face of a slowing economy. The newest Americans just might be the ones who rescue our country from the depths of recession.