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Immigrants Benefit U.S.

Economy Now as Ever

July 03, 2005|James Flanigan

The Fourth of July weekend seems like a good time to examine some of the heat and
rhetoric lately surrounding one of the basic building blocks of our society:
There is widespread concern that too many immigrants are coming in and, worse,
that waves of unskilled workers will form a permanent underclass and change the
historic dynamic of American society.
These are serious matters. Immigration is part of the DNA of America, and it's as
necessary today as ever. The belief in social mobility, that the children will have
better prospects than their mothers and fathers, is a benefit to any economy, and
has been a mainstay of ours.
But no question -- today's immigration statistics are arresting. Almost 36 million
foreign-born people live in the U.S., some 12% of the population. The last time the
foreign-born percentage was that high was 100 years ago, when immigrants from
Europe flooded into the cities of the East and Midwest. That era marked the rise of
American industrialization as Henry Ford and those hard-working newcomers found
ways to combine machines and factory labor to change the economy.
Today, however, some experts argue that we don't have jobs for unskilled
immigrants as we had back then and that immigrants are imposing a burden on the
economy. Professor George Borjas of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
University recommends that the U.S. should emphasize bringing in high-skilled
immigrants and otherwise restrict immigration to 500,000 entrants a year instead of
the 1 million or so legal newcomers each year at present.
The word "legal" raises the issue that causes most of the fears about immigration -the fact that roughly 700,000 illegal immigrants annually enter the country and
remain here. The Pew Hispanic Center concludes in a recent report that 10 million
residents are here illegally, 57% of them from Mexico. This has aroused political
passions and demagoguery from some -- notably California's onetime immigrant
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cried out, "Close the borders!" a while back.
But cooler heads are seeking real solutions to the problem. A group of U.S. senators
and representatives has proposed legislation, called the Secure America and Orderly
Immigration Act of 2005. The bill would reinforce border protections while also

authorizing work permits for up to six years, during which time former illegal
immigrants could undergo medical tests and criminal background checks to attain
resident status and move toward citizenship.
The aim of the bill, according to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the sponsors, is to
"address the labor needs of this country" while improving enforcement of the
borders and the laws. Both are necessary.
One cannot be in favor of illegal immigration, because it is unfair to the legal
immigrant who waited in line. It is also bad for the economy, because it induces
employers to break the law and distorts wage levels of other employees. And it is
unfair to the illegal immigrant who often risks life to get here but remains
vulnerable to exploitation.
But the problem should not be overstated. The nation has dealt with illegal
residents before on many occasions --most recently in 1994 by allowing employed
people who had entered illegally to adjust their status to legal resident.
And there is little doubt that there are labor needs in this country that need
addressing. There is a shortage of truck drivers in the U.S. and a shortage of all
sorts of workers in hospitals such as nurses and clean-up staff. In many industries,
including modern warehousing, education is needed to cope with computer-rich
work environments.
Unfortunately, that shift in the nature of work has led many to believe that lesseducated immigrants are no longer what America needs. It is from such thinking
that worries arise about an "underclass."
But such logic confuses education with intelligence. The poor and under-educated
have always constituted the bulk of immigrants. They have always come for jobs
and the promise that their children will get a better education and better work than
they had.
That is as true today as it ever was. And current studies that compare educational
attainment of grandparents, parents and children confirm that the promise of life
and education in America is being fulfilled today as it always has been.
For example, James P. Smith, senior economist at Rand Corp., last year completed a
study, "Immigrants and Their Schooling," that showed Mexican immigrants
progressing in education even faster than earlier generations. "The conventional
view regarding Hispanic immigrants' ability to secure a better life for their kids and
grandkids was pessimistic," Smith wrote. But second- and third-generation Latinos
have made great strides. The "fears are unwarranted," he wrote.
The truth is, immigration to America hasn't changed much since early in the last
century, when one of the greatest sources of poor, unlettered immigrants to the
U.S. was Ireland.