Do immigrants help the economy?
By Spencer S. Hsu
As the national debate over immigration splinters into state-by-state skirmishes over Arizona-style crackdowns on illegal immigrants, a new book from the Brookings Institution makes the case that enforcement efforts overlook a fundamental fact: immigration fuels the U.S. economy.
At a time of 9.5 percent unemployment, the argument may be surprising. But “Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy” hammers home an argument that gifted immigrants have powered American advances in energy, information technology, sports, arts and culture.
“The U.S. has benefited greatly over the years from the ’brain gain’ of immigration,” said author Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “To stay competitive, we must make way for the next Sergey Brin, Andrew Grove, and Albert Einstein,” West argues, citing the co-founder of Google, chief of computer chip-maker Intel Corp. and history’s most famous physicist.
West joins a growing chorus of elite opinion makers and policy analysts who are grounding calls for immigration reform on U.S. global competitiveness — and not just more secure borders and workplaces or legalization for long-settled, contributing illegal immigrants.
In the last 18 months, another Brookings panel teamed up with the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University to make similar points in a study “Breaking the Immigration Stalemate”. So did the Migration Policy Institute, led by Demetrios G. Papademetriou and Doris Meissner, in “Harnessing the Advantages of Immigration for a 21st-Century Economy.”
Because the politics of immigration are so complex, MPI and others suggest that Congress should create a standing commission to set inflow levels at a fine-grained city, state and national level based on labor market and other business-cycle needs.
“Immigration policy is critical to America’s economic, diplomatic and security standing in the world,” said Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who directed a bipartisan 2009 task force report co-chaired by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and and former White House chief of staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty. “The U.S. has long benefited from its ability to attract bright and hard-working immigrants, and there would be huge costs to this country if we lose that edge.”
West’s main point is that countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore are more strategic in linking immigration to long-term economic development. Canada reserves 55 percent of visas for employment-related purposes, while the United States sets aside only 15 percent — and just 6.5 percent for high skilled workers, as opposed to seasonal agricultural workers.
More controversially, West argues that U.S. immigration policy went “seriously off course” after Congress in 1965 made family unification a primary goal — accounting for 64 percent of visas today.
“I am a big proponent of family reunification,” West said. However, he argued, visas should be limited to immediate relatives instead of aunts, uncles and cousins of immigrants. Limiting so-called “chain migration” would free up hundreds of thousands of visas with particular skills, he said.
Both recent Brookings’ products have pushed similar themes. However, a Senate Democratic “blueprint” for immigration legislation this year called family reunification “a cornerstone value of our immigration system.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said reducing reducing illegal immigration would create more room for both family and work-based flows.
Such differences could drive a wedge among advocates of comprehensive legislation (which include West), who already are debating whether to pursue piecemeal efforts that would provide relief for well-established children of illegal immigrants and agricultural workers, leaving the harder question of legalization for later.
On the other hand, critics of immigration dispute the idea that not enough native-born Americans want to study science and engineering, arguing that government policy has flooded the market with newcomers who have held back wages.
Nevertheless, West marshals an impressive array of now-familiar facts. Immigrants raised U.S. gross domestic product by $37 billion in 2007, and were twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a new business between 1996 and 2008, employing 450,000 workers in 2005. Nearly one-fourth of patents filed from the United States in 2006 were based on work of U.S. immigrants, and 53 percent of patent-holders got their top degree from a U.S. university.
“People believe a lot of things about immigration that simply aren’t true, and those beliefs make it difficult for politicians to actually make change,” West said. “I think if people understood those facts, they would be more reasonable in working toward a response to the problem.”
West presents findings from his book from noon to 2 p.m. today with a panel discussion involving former Miami mayor Manny Diaz and Juan Osuna, deputy assistant attorney general, head of immigration litigation at the Department of Justice.
Spencer S. Hsu
July 8, 2010; 12:07 PM ET
| Tags: immigration debate; immigrants and the economy; immigrants and jobs
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