July 19, 2019 | 87° F

O'BRIEN: US needs new immigration paradigm


Opinion Column: Taming Tribalism


It was not very long ago that American elites were largely united in viewing immigration as an unmitigated force for good in our society. Immigration, they argued, enriched our culture, spurred business investment and accelerated the overall rate of economic growth. This consensus was not just an American one, but a global one, as the European Union gradually opened its borders between member nations. 

This consensus manifested itself in a series of bipartisan immigration reforms that, while flawed themselves, generally made the country more open to newcomers. After immigration had been all but shut down for decades following World War I, the Immigration Act of 1965 repealed many restrictions, significantly increasing legal immigration with overwhelming support from both political parties. 

Years later, former President George H.W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, significantly boosting annual immigration. Even former President George W. Bush’s ill-fated 2007 effort at comprehensive immigration reform — supported by then Speaker Nancy Pelosi — contained an enormous guest worker program

But today, we find ourselves in a very different place as our collective fury is channeled toward the narrower issue of illegal immigration. Our national dialogue remains focused on whether we ought to erect a long row of steel beams with the hopes of encouraging migrants fleeing oppression, violence or poverty to just stay home instead. 

Yet, as Democrats work to hold the line against President Donald J. Trump in part to ensure the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country are not robbed of their futures (a noble, commendable stand), we lose out on the broader, more philosophical questions of what we want our immigration system to look like. What kind of immigration framework best embodies American values? How do we best serve the “national interest” and how do we weigh those interests against the rights of those whose only fault was being born somewhere else? More directly: Should we reduce or increase immigration?

Trump has certainly presented his vision for the future of immigration in America, and it is about as dark and backward-looking as you might expect. The RAISE Act — which he introduced in White House in 2017 — is a culmination of this vision. The bill contains the most dramatic and sudden cuts to immigration in a century, slashing legal immigration levels by 50 percent. Furthermore, it strongly shifts the balance of future immigrants to the well-off and highly-skilled. The long-celebrated trope of those with little means but the currency of ambition building a future here would largely be relegated to our history textbooks again.

The president’s push to reduce all types of immigration is no accident of the political process, but central to his broader economic thesis. While he has attracted attention mostly for his grim depiction of illegal immigration, he has long argued America should dramatically reduce legal immigration too, particularly low-wage immigrants from poorer nations. These immigrants, he argues, lower Americans’ wages, make us less safe and undermine what he views as American cultural values

It should come as no surprise that these claims are empirically and outrageously false. Study after study refutes the idea that immigration hurts natives’ economic prospects, reveals that immigration actually lowers crime rates and shows that immigrants assimilate incredibly well into American society. It used to be the case that the political party claiming to stand for free markets and individual liberty applied that thinking to one of humanity’s most fundamental political questions — the movement of people in search of opportunity — but sadly this tendency has been eroded by misguided populism and toxic nationalism. 

Now more than ever, the country needs not just a political force to stand up for those already here, but to unabashedly say that America should take in many more immigrants than current law allows. As our native birth rate declines and the Baby Boomer generation retires, an influx of immigrants would provide a boost to tax revenue, which makes the social safety net that we have come to enjoy more fiscally sustainable. 

While the rate of small business creation has been declining here since the 1970s, immigrants, who start businesses at a much higher rate than native-born Americans, could inject new life into American entrepreneurship. Finally, rather than accept a new era of sluggish economic growth economists have dubbed “secular stagnation” or borrow trillions of dollars to fight it, we could grow our economy in the long run faster simply by issuing more visas

A long-running Gallup survey late last year showed the proportion of Americans who want to increase immigration is at an all-time high, while the share of those wanting to reduce immigration levels is at an all-time low. No national voice has yet emerged to meet this ascendant constituency. For the sake of global freedom, and yes, our own national interest, it is about time someone does. 

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring  in economics. His column, "Taming Tribalism," runs on alternate Thursday's. 

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Connor O'Brien

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