The Immigration Tide

It is estimated that 45 million immigrants will reside in the United States by 2017. The number can appear daunting. As an emigrant to the U.S. from Romania 25 years ago, I can confirm it wasn't easy to leave family and friends and all that I knew behind. It wasn't an easy path. It took me 7 years to get my green card and 12 years to become a U.S. citizen (that's 105192 hours, or the equivalent of 1.24 million 5-minute Youtube clips). It's a lesson in patience and persistence that immigrants from every part of the earth endure for good reason - we want a better life.

There has been considerable debate about immigration in the United States and it will likely continue to be a lightening rod topic in the presidential election. A strong argument in favor of immigration is the economic necessity of this immigration tide. Whether in the U.S. or Europe, populations are aging and immigrants are needed to keep western countries running. According to the America's Society and Council of the Americas, immigrants will be critical to filling future labor gaps, with 76 million baby boomers retiring and only 46 million U.S.-born workers entering the workforce by 2030.

Specific statistics show undeniably the intellectual capital and contribution of immigrants to the American society: according to Eric Weiner, in his WSJ essay "The Secret of Immigrant Genius," "Today, foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the U.S. population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans."

However, other statistics show a concerning trend: according the Brookings Institution, "29 percent of adult immigrants in the United States do not hold a high school diploma, a stark contrast to 7 percent in the U.S.-born population."

Then, the question, is the influx of immigrants sustainable? What path ensures immigrant success within American culture? What is the proper mix and engagement we can encourage and should expect from immigrants? I can describe two opposing paths based on the titles of two books about the USA, which impacted my teenage years behind the Iron Curtain: Greyhound America and America Live. For me, these two books, based on the separate journeys of two different Romanian teams of reporters who came to the U.S. in the 1970s to explore American culture, epitomize the two pathways available to immigrants. One reporter team traversed the United States on Greyhound buses, their travels often limited to the neighborhoods surrounding the Greyhound bus stations, encountering poverty and decrepit streets. Without the proper interaction with the American industry, science centers and culture, they could not experience America's energy, its progress, the engines of creation in culture and technology. Rather, their perspective and experience of the U.S. were isolated, and somewhat marginalized. This, I reference as "Greyhound America." The other reporter, focused on live transmissions of the NASA space missions, toured the main US centers involved in aerospace research in a trip sponsored by NASA and several news agencies. This reporter team had great access to important intellectuals, thought leaders, universities, and laboratories and could witness first-hand the spirited dialogue and the country's innovation centers. His book, titled America Live, showed an entirely different experience of the United States. Not surprisingly, these authors had opposite perspectives of what was happening and possible trajectories within the United States.

In my experience, education and access to "America Live" was critical to my own success as a rocket scientist. I wouldn't have succeeded in working for companies like SpaceX or Rocketdyne without exposure to ideas and scholars from all over the world who were in the United States. I have had the good fortune to learn from, and work with, exceptional individuals - my Ph.D advisor, (German), an expert in numerical methods in fluids (Polish), a genius in mathematics (Indian), and a young Colombian man who would coach me at SpaceX and help provide production support for an unprecedented large number of rocket engines when I had just finalized the development of the turbines for the Merlin 1D engines. These special people, all foreign-born, had the chance to enter the "America Live" universe. They are the people who are taking the United States to Mars, who are involved in the Juno mission, advancing space innovation and pushing the limits of exploration.

There is a common denominator among my immigrant peers responsible for their successes and contribution to society: investment in education, participation and immersion in the nation's intellectual institutions. This is what I call "integration." The concept has many connotations, not all of them positive. For now, I define it here simply as the process where we, immigrants, adapt to the U.S. or western system and the opportunities it provides, the environment to which we wanted to emigrate. Nobody questions our reason for leaving our native land, country, family and friends, to come to the US, Europe, Canada or Australia. We are of the mindset that life is better in these countries - just get there, live there, and things will have improved. However, this transition involves an effort and a minimum level of integration: within the host system of our new world, we begin to be productive, and creativity is amplified. Again, one only has to consider the percentage of patents and Nobel prizes held by immigrants and visiting scholars who reside in the United States. Of course, this integration must be benevolent and limited to only the necessary level. It should not wipe out our cultural identities.

In my view, personal success and increased contribution to the society by the immigrants living in host western countries is explained by the concept of intangible capital of a nation. In plain language, this indicator reflects how well a country is run, and the ability of the average citizen to obey laws and rules, as well as one's access to education, training, to infrastructure, tools and machinery. The concept is outlined in a 2004 study of the World Bank where it is explained in more technical detail. In a country with high intangible capital, education is available and plentiful. Individuals can get training and there is access to infrastructure, machine, tools, communications gear, and literature.

One of the more interesting findings of the World Bank study is that the happiness of the average citizen of a specific country is directly correlated to the level of intangible capital of that country. A high level of intangible capital enables entrepreneurship, creativity and personal success for all citizens, whether native or immigrant.

No wonder that U.S., Europe, Canada, and Australia - areas with high level of intangible capital, are a magnet for the massive numbers of immigrants leaving countries with low (often negative) levels of intangible capital. The U.S., Europe, Canada, and Australia were the destination for 48.6 million legal immigrants in 2015 according to the Migration Policy Institute. This is a significant increase from 15 million in 1980, and 30 million in 2000, with a steady trend. The numbers are massive - the equivalent of a large European country migrating every year. In addition, the influx of refugees has cascaded significantly in the last two to three years and continues to escalate. There is no denying that the immigration tide is on.

It's not a surprise that the public debate is about how to react to this influx: legislation and amnesty versus deportations, walls versus the humanitarian approach. Is there an optimum policy?

One needs to recognize the fact that not every immigrant will enter what I call "America Live" from the outset. A significant fraction will be forced into the Greyhound America. It's not by choice, but forced by personal and economic fortuity. The solution is to create the option for a great escape from the "Greyhound America" into the "America Live" for all - for all who have dreams, for all who want to pursue education and training, for all who want to work hard, and better themselves. We must create this movement and provide people with momentum to build their futures--not build walls. In order to succeed and have the best, life-long opportunities, access to American intellectual institutions and learning is essential. It is the vehicle that will propel people forward and provide opportunity. With the right approaches, and judicious management, immigration will become a formidable force towards the future. I take the view that people generally want to be happy. They want to be productive. They want to be better. They have come this far. Their journeys weren't easy. Perhaps they will go further, we just have to provide the tools for them to do so.
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Bodgan Marcu is rocket scientist at Rocketdyne and is on the faculty at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. He emigrated to the US from Romania and a podcast of his story of escape to the United States and USC can be found in an episode of Escape Velocity.