Elections have consequences and 2016 meant a harsher line toward immigrants. But do they hurt or help the economy? The answers are complicated.
As you probably know, Steve Jobs’ biological father was from Syria.
If President Donald Trump’s travel and immigration bans had been in place, Steve Jobs might never had been born. No Apple, no Mac, no iPhone that put a powerful computer in your pocket.
This is a prime example of why immigration is a net plus for the United States and the American economy. Immigrants are a bit more likely to be in the workforce than the native born, and significantly more likely to start and own a business.
The benefits of immigrants are especially true in tech.
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John Collison, the Irish-born co-founder of San Francisco payments startup Stripe, told New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, “The U.S. is sucking up all the talent from all across the world.”
He continued: “Look at all the leading technology companies globally, and look at how overrepresented the United States is. That’s not a normal state of affairs. That’s because we have managed to create this engine where the best and the brightest from around the world are coming to Silicon Valley.”
And to Seattle.
On a more prosaic, but urgent, level, America needs a stream of immigrants and new citizens working here to keep funding Social Security and Medicare. With an aging population, fewer workers are supporting these intergenerational programs. The U.S. fertility rate fell to a record low in 2016 — in other words, we are not making enough future workers right here.
All this is at risk as the Trump administration moves ahead to slow immigration. Separation of families at the southern border provoked the most horror and outrage, causing a retreat.
But this withdrawal is tactical. Candidate Trump consistently attacked “open” immigration policy and his supporters voted for a change. Here, we can take him at his word — he will keep pressing.
The economics of immigration are not always clear cut.
Consider a relatively limited event, the effect on wages in Miami of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift from Cuba. Did pay fall, especially among the low-skilled natives most affected by these immigrants? Some of the nation’s leading economists couldn’t agree.
The H-1B visa program for foreign tech talent is a battlefield, too. About 180,000 of these specialized visas were issued in fiscal year 2016.
A 2017 study argued that the rise in visa-holders had kept down wages for American computer scientists. Supporters of the program say not enough skilled Americans are available and curtailing H-1B would hurt the nation’s competitiveness.
The economics of the Mexican border are more settled.
Although President Trump has referred to undocumented immigrants as “animals” and used other dehumanizing language, the reality is quite different.
Since at least the 1980s, America has been increasingly addicted to the cheap, fearful labor from Mexico, and more recently from Central America. This isn’t only true in border states but nationwide, especially in sectors such as slaughterhouses, poultry and construction.
Nobody put a gun to our heads and made us accept these workers. Instead, American companies opened their doors, looked the other way, sometimes hired firms to smuggle workers without documents en masse, and increased their own profits.
The cognitive dissonance is striking.
For example, illegal immigration animates much hatred (and Trump support) among many Anglos in deep-red Arizona. But in Phoenix, even Anglos (and Mexican Americans) of modest means can afford a lawn service and housekeeper. Studies indicated the new migrants were more likely to disrupt the wages of earlier undocumented workers than of citizens. Their economic value outpaces their cost to areas such as health care.
Meanwhile, for decades Americans have eaten the produce gathered by immigrants. They do the rough labor that most citizens would refuse at any wage. The estimated 1.2 million undocumented immigrant workers are essential to the agriculture industry, including Washington’s.
Politics, not economics, has consistently prevented constructive changes to immigration law that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and a guest-worker program. An immigration bill was just defeated in the Republican-controlled House.
Republicans generally oppose “reform” that they see rewarding illegal border crossing. They want the border secured. They’re worried about losing the nation in which they grew up. No wonder they strongly back Trump.
One conservative political response would be a reprise of the Immigration Act of 1924. After years of record immigration, Congress severely tightened entry to the country. One goal was protecting jobs of Americans. Another was to ensure a white, American-born majority.
Quotas were set based on national origin. Almost all Asians were banned. Interestingly, people from Latin America were not.
This law was not repealed until 1965.
Now with Hispanics as a rising minority, Republicans appear fearful of enacting something so straightforward as the 1924 bill, shorn of its Latino protections. So Trump and the GOP make flanking attacks with “no tolerance” enforcement, immigrant bans on Muslim countries and demands for a wall.
It doesn’t matter how often progressives call them racists, Republicans hold firm. A majority of Republicans even supports the family separation policy. And social-media shaming can’t compete with GOP control of the White House and Congress — and a conservative-majority Supreme Court for decades ahead.
The ignorance and cruelty of the right prevent a sober discussion.
In fiscal 2016, about 753,000 people became naturalized U.S. citizens. That compares with 157,000 in 1980.
Lawful residents are on the rise, too. Nearly 1.2 million immigrants gained lawful permanent residence in fiscal 2016, more than double the number in 1980.
The numbers raise serious questions. How much is too much, even for a “nation of immigrants”? How many can America take and (dare I say it) assimilate while still remaining a viable nation state?
As much as a minority majority polyglot is the fantasy of many on the left, history offers mixed results at best (e.g. the Austro-Hungarian Empire). No wonder Russia insists on a large Great Russian majority, China on Han dominance. America is different — a nation based on creed, not ethnicity. Still, limits apply.
The planet is holding about 7.6 billion people. This compares with 1.6 billion in 1900.
Many are on the move, fleeing war and the increasing disruptions of human-caused climate change. The future could see this turn into a flood of millions because of global warming.
Unfortunately, most Republicans don’t believe in climate change and are satisfied with the wars we helped start in fragile parts of the world. Thus no constructive conversation can be had about, say, limiting damage and increasing stability in nations so people can stay there rather than emigrate.
Economics won’t settle this argument. Increasingly, it looks as if politics won’t, either.