Since the birth of this country, immigration has played a vital, if controversial, role in the prosperity and cultural richness of its citizens. Despite arguments citing costs to the economy and the social hurdles of assimilating new immigrants, it is imperative that the United States at least sustain its present admissions for primarily three reasons: the economic benefits derived from a larger labor force; the intellectual contributions immigrants make through innovation; and the cultural diversity and concomitant urban revitalization new people and ideas inevitably foster.
By expanding the labor force and contributing vital purchasing power to a consumer-based society, immigrants have both stimulated the growth of the national economy and bulwarked local initiatives that have diversified and thereby fortified the United States’ financial clout. From the transcontinental railroad to the Erie Canal, the mining and iron industries of the 19th century to the agribusinesses of today, immigrants have contributed to national enterprise an essential labor force to perform many of the jobs that native Americans simply repel. Despite the concerns of many Americans that the influx of illegal immigrants may be detrimental to the economy, by taking the least desirable jobs, illegal immigrants keep some industries competitive that would otherwise be outsourced. Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, asserted, “Many industries rely on [undocumented] labor.”
Immigrants, however, contribute manpower not only in the field of unskilled labor, but also in the most advanced high-tech industries, in which they are more likely to start businesses than natives are. Immigrant engineers are so desirable for this purpose that in the 1990s many high-tech employers began lobbying Congress for expanded immigration to satisfy the need for computer programmers and software engineers. By bringing new workers into the economy, immigration allows existing U.S. capital, land, technology to be used most efficiently and bolsters economic growth.
Some anti-immigration advocates insist that immigration in fact depletes U.S. finances because it exerts a strain on benefits like insurance or health care. However, studies compiled by The Reference Shelf: Immigration have shown that all immigrants arriving after 1970 together generate $25 to 30 billion more than they use in public services. Even for those immigrants who require an exceptional amount of benefits, there are others who compensate the government indirectly by creating jobs though purchases of consumer goods and housing, their savings and investments, and the businesses they create. According to the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, the buying power of immigrants reached hundreds of billions of dollars in 2004, indicating that immigrants contribute monetarily much more than they ever receive from the United States government. Immigrants have become increasingly vital to the growth and sustenance of the nation’s economy.
Immigrants’ high performance can be partly traced to a family value for education that consistently goads them to achieve scholarly success. Two recent studies performed separately by professors Julian Simon and Georges Vernez found that immigrant families hold much more positive attitudes toward schooling and have higher expectations of their children for a college education than do native families—a trend that complements the higher college-going rates of immigrants.
Stuart Anderson, author of the report The Multiplier Effect, writes, “If those who most oppose immigration had succeeded over the past two decades, two-thirds of the most outstanding future scientists and mathematicians in the United States would not be in the country.” Immigrants’ innovation and industrial fecundity compose the last and the only obstacle between the United States’ present prosperity and inevitable intellectual drain. A tangible manifestation of immigrants’ scholarly contributions is Anderson’s finding that more than 50 percent of Ph.D. engineers in the United States are foreign-born. Thus, we see that skilled immigrants are increasingly providing the intellectual capital that fuels innovation, giving the United States a competitive edge in the global economy.
Some native-born workers who are concerned about their own job competitiveness cite such a statistic as baleful bodings that immigration may be exacerbating native unemployment. However, the jobs that immigrants create by the businesses they found more than compensate for the positions that they fill. In fact, CEO of Cypress Semiconductors, T.J. Rodgers, observed that for every foreign-born engineer he is permitted to hire, he can employ five other native-born workers in marketing, manufacturing, or sales. In other words, by allowing companies to hire promising immigrant workers, Americans are unconsciously reducing their own unemployment and precipitating greater technological innovation—they are helping to foster the intellectual ferment so vital to present U.S. technological ascendancy.
Perhaps the most palpable and immediate benefit of immigration to the United States is neither economic nor intellectual efflorescence, but the veritable burgeoning of American culture that has transpired with each new influx of people and ideas. By imbibing motley yet still musical cultural strains, America has melded and congealed into a richly diverse and robustly tolerant people. From customs of dress and cuisine, to the Americanization of St. Patrick’s Day, even to the marketing of pizza, bagels, tacos, and sushi as signature American fast food, foreign influences have entwined to meld a uniquely American culture. But not only material influences derive from immigrants: values, beliefs, ethics too can be traced to an immigrant heritage. Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University, George Reisman, eloquently attested, “[Immigrants] contribute to [our culture] not only all their business, scientific, and artistic achievements, and what is valuable in their own heritage, but … most important of all, a constantly renewed sense of personal ambition and personal achievement.” Immigrants infuse our communities with a salutary system of values, goals, and scholarly and artistic potential that create a continuously evolving and vibrant Zeitgeist.
Some immigration opponents insist that despite these benefits, lofty current immigration rates thwart effective acculturation and hence adulterate American tradition. Many reference language difficulties as a blatant symbol of this culture crevasse. However, upon closer inspection it becomes quite obvious that immigrants come to America willing to learn the nation’s language and culture because doing so is vital for practical success: A study by the National Academy Press found that among recent immigrants from non-English-speaking countries, 47 percent report that they speak the language well or very well within two years after arrival. This finding demonstrates that immigrants can learn to converse fluently in the English language—and thus in the American way of life—often early and easily.
Opponents’ claim of cultural adulteration is even further belied by the enormous contributions immigrants as a whole make to the United States militarily. Even though almost half are not yet citizens and thus possess no exigent reason to risk their lives for this country, as of December 2004, the American Immigration Law Foundation reported that nearly 70,000 foreign-born individuals were serving in the armed forces. The very diversity of language, culture, and ethnicity that anti-immigration advocates execrate and fear has conferred strength and greater versatility to the military in times of trial. In fact, the February 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review called for “increased recruitment in all branches of the military of immigrants who are proficient in languages other than English—particularly Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese.” Without immigrants, the military could not meet its recruiting goals nor garner the necessary number of foreign-language translators, interpreters, and cultural experts. This report proves that in addition to supplying vital cultural diversity to our communities, immigrants are able to assimilate themselves and express the most selfless loyalty to the quintessential American creed.
Immigration is a gift, but as with any gift there come two types of recipients: those who embrace its assets wholeheartedly and the others who imagine hidden a Trojan horse. In the case of immigration, both enthusiast and cynic have endured relentlessly for over two centuries, primarily because the arguments are perpetually relevant and evolving. However, in the present, it is exquisitely clear that immigration is indispensable to the economic, intellectual, and cultural vibrancy of America and to its continued growth as a world power.
As Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush epitomized: “Immigration is affirmation, proof that we are still what we used to be, a haven for the … dispossessed,” an oasis for the ambitious, a sanctuary for the oppressed yet most optimistic dreamer. Despite apparent financial and social impediments that immigration may bring, its detriments are more than countervailed by the economic benefits a larger labor force accrues, the scholarly and artistic achievements that immigrants bestow on the American intellectual legacy, and the cultural richness and rejuvenation that a diverse society inevitably fosters. In other words, the benefits of immigrants outweigh the costs: Immigration is a boon, not a burden.
Sejal Hathi is a sophomore at Notre Dame High School, San Jose, Calif.