Some Sanity About Immigration In Place Of What We Have
One at a naturalization ceremony recently in Chicago’s Daley Plaza. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty … [+] Images)
America’s response to immigration these days can charitably be described as “mixed.” It is better described as “incoherent” and “contradictory.” Washington held the northern border tightly closed for an extended time and promptly repatriated any Cuban refugees found by the coast guard at sea. Meanwhile, the southern border seems to be both open and closed. It is also surely dangerous. What the administration hopes to accomplish with this mélange is clearly murky. (The clash between those last two words is intentional.) In the face of this practical mess, some recent academic work offers sane guidance on the way the country might deal with newcomers to improve their economic prospects and those of the nation as a whole.
Two studies stand out. One is by C. Arkolkis, S. Y. Lee, and M. Peters and is entitled, “European Immigrants and the United States’ Rise to the Technological Frontier.” The other is by S. Bernstein, R. Diamond, T. McQuade, and B. Pousada and is entitled, “The Contribution of High-Skill Immigrants to Innovation in the United States.” Because these studies use data from very different time periods – the first from 1880-1920 and the second from 1976-2012 – they clearly deal with people from very different points of origin. The earlier wave was almost entirely European, while the latter one was oriented more toward Asia and Latin America. These differences make the similar and encouraging conclusions of both studies especially compelling. They say more about the immigrant experience in this country than anything about where they come from and offer clear policy guidance.
Arkolkis, et., al. Use income and patent figures to measure the contribution of immigrants to the overall growth of the economy and national wealth. They determine that were it not for the flows of immigrants during the 40-year period they study the economy in 1920, would have been 30-35% smaller than it was. Two major influences account for this effect. One is the raw increase in the nation’s workforce. More interesting is the contribution to innovation the study identifies. By correlating numbers of patents with each holder’s birthplace, they find that immigrants offered the economy considerably more innovation than the native born. Indeed, immigrants were three times more likely to have a patent to their name.
This may reflect the contribution of diversity, but another finding adds a useful nuance. New immigrants, they find, are not especially innovative. They are slightly less likely to hold a patent than the native born. The higher immigrant contribution comes when these individuals become more integrated into American life and practice. The authors use the word “assimilate,” which today is a loaded term to say the least, but the findings suggest that the innovative gain comes less from the immigrant than from his or her interaction with the overall society. The suggestion is that the economy benefits most when immigrants strike out from their narrow communities and engage the larger society.
The study of more recent experience, though it focuses on a very different sort of immigrant, nonetheless supports a similar conclusion. It, too, discovers that even among the high-skilled the greatest economic contribution occurs only after the immigrant is here long enough to engage the larger society. Once this happens, immigrants contribute, according to the study’s calculations, some 23% of national output, far above their 10% weight in the population. More telling is that they constitute some 25% of all patents granted and a slightly higher proportion of what the authors describe as “top patents,” by which they mean ground-breaking work as opposed to modifications of existing work. To be sure, the immigrant group they study is described as “high skilled” and so should gather more patents than the average, but the important point for policy is the same as comes out of the earlier study, that the immigrants’ engagement with the larger society is as much a catalyst for innovation as anything they bring with them.
For economic purposes, then, encouraging that engagement should be a goal of immigration policy. Such an effort would seem to involve these elements: The terms of legal immigration should be clear so that newcomers have a sense of security that makes them unafraid to venture beyond their familiar community into the larger society. That society obviously should be welcoming but also it should encourage newcomers to engage.
What The ‘Majority Minority’ Shift Really Means For America
It is possible that we are now in the process of similarly altering our conception of whiteness again. Many Hispanics identify as white, and marriages between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites make up more than 40 percent of recent interracial marriages. That may be enough to artificially postpone America’s majority minority milestone again and reassure the millions of “white” Americans who feel threatened by the increasing status and power of today’s ethnic minorities.
Stoking fears of white decline reinforces the myth that this whiteness always included all who now identify with it — as if the Irish had never been demonized, as if Italians had never endured discrimination, as if Jews had never been excluded. Through a historical lens, being white in America today is like belonging to a once-exclusive social club that had to loosen its membership criteria to stay afloat.
Because of the status white people retain in American society, a degree of privilege and belonging still awaits those who can claim it. People who identify as white hold disproportionate power and resources today, and this pernicious reality seems unlikely to change even if white people do become a 49 percent plurality in about two decades. And there is precious little evidence of real solidarity among America’s diverse minority ethnic groups. So a 51 percent pan-minority share is unlikely to yield any new majority status without a new pan-ethnic sense of community.
Despite his susceptibility to eugenics and racial theories of supremacy, Roosevelt also offers us a way forward. His American nationalism was defiantly civic — rather than only ethnic or racial — in nature.
In his narrative histories published from 1885 to 1894, Roosevelt argued that as European immigrants were assimilated, their heritages were being absorbed into the American body, fusing Americans into a single people forged in the “crucible” of the frontier. The acts of claiming and developing land and defending it against the forces of nature all constituted rites of passage that transformed foreigners into Americans.
In Roosevelt’s understanding, Americans were born through no document; they were made by their encounters with the wilderness and their cultivation of strength, individualism and democratic community — their commitment to a set of principles. For him, the new ethnicities admitted into the United States were not entitled to their American identity; it was to be earned.
There is no frontier anymore, but the grind of modern capitalism is just as stern a forge for fashioning American identity. In counting the American people, the Census Bureau may distinguish between Black, white, Asian and Hispanic, but it indiscriminately recognizes them all as fellow Americans — as people who count and therefore must be counted.