The Importance of Immigration

A Mexican member of migrants organizations holds a sign during a protest in front of the US embassy against the trafficking o
A Mexican member of migrants organizations holds a sign during a protest in front of the US embassy against the trafficking of weapons to Mexico and the failure of the US immigration reform, on January 21, 2013, in Mexico City. A FP HOTO/RONALDO SCHEMIDT (Photo credit should read Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

According to New York Times reporter Julia Preston:

"A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a set of principles for a sweeping overhaul of the immigration system, including a pathway to American citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants that would hinge on progress in securing the borders and ensuring that foreigners leave the country when their visas expire. The senators were able to reach a deal by incorporating the Democrats' insistence on a single comprehensive bill that would not deny eventual citizenship to illegal immigrants, with Republican demands that strong border and interior enforcement had to be clearly in place before Congress could consider legal status for illegal immigrants."

While it would be nice to think that all of this movement is simply an expression of our elected leaders finally deciding to do the right thing, it is of course a reaction to our growing Hispanic population and President Obama's overwhelming (about 70 percent) share of the Hispanic vote in his bid for reelection. However, if immigration reform finally happens it is long overdue and extraordinarily important.

Although some people like to pretend they came over on the Mayflower, very few of us are far removed from immigrant roots. A half century ago John F. Kennedy could call America "a nation of immigrants," and publish a book with that title: We remain a nation of immigrants today. Even if many of us did not have the courage or vision to uproot and move to America, many of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents made that difficult journey. Our diversity is what makes America unique and is a source of our fundamental strength and long term prospects.

Even before there was a global economy and the technology to support global communication, shipping and rapid travel, America was the world's gathering place. America did not collect the world's wealthy and elite, it attracted those rejected, oppressed, enslaved and even jailed. But those with the courage to come freely or the strength to survive the harsh treatment of slavery (and the equally harsh treatment of Native Americans) are the people who built this nation. The people trying to slam the door closed behind them are nearly all the descendants of relatively recent immigrants.

As the world gets smaller and economic competition is based more and more on creativity and technological innovation, the place that attracts the world's best minds will have a distinct advantage. We are that place. If you walk the streets of Tokyo or Beijing, it is not difficult to distinguish native from tourist. If you walk the streets of New York or the malls of Los Angeles, good luck in trying to figure out who is home and who is not. America may not be a melting pot, since each immigrant group tries to retain an element of their identity, but in its own often imperfect way, it is a place that is built to encourage, accept, tolerate and even absorb diversity. A place with roots everywhere has a tremendous edge in a global economy. We can do business anywhere, and host workers from anyplace. We are also a place that allows individual freedom and creativity. Even if economies are growing faster in other places, freedom and tolerance of diversity will remain a key part of America's appeal.

America has long been a place with a large foreign-born population. In 1900, when our population was about 76 million, about 10 million or 13.6 percent were born abroad. A decade later, our population was about 92 million and 13.5 million or 14.7 percent were foreign born. While in 1970 our foreign-born population slipped to less than 5 percent, that trend was soon reversed. In 1990 as our population approached 250 million, nearly 20 million or almost 8 percent were foreign-born. In our most recent census in 2010, there were 309,350,000 people living here, almost 40 million or 12.9 percent were born abroad. Over 17 million were naturalized citizens and over 22 million were non-citizens. These data do not include an estimated 11 million people living here illegally. The idea that immigration is un-American is a fundamental misread of our history and traditions.

The immigration debate is packed with ideology and misconceptions and the process of achieving citizenship has become cumbersome and bureaucratic. Brianna Lee of the Council on Foreign Relations has written an excellent summary of this debate, and she notes that:

"...after President Obama was reelected for a second presidential term in 2012, government officials and lawmakers have made several indications that they are ready to make a bipartisan push for broad, comprehensive immigration reform."

There is little question that a law violated every day by 11 million people undermines respect for all laws, but there is even less question that deporting 11 million people is an impractical and unjust response to an obviously dysfunctional immigration process. So we find ourselves at one of those political moments in time, when the door to a more reasonable policy has opened up a bit. Opening the door for these 11 million while slamming it shut for everyone else would be the height of folly. We need a reform that is reality-based. We need an immigration policy that recognizes that the very definition of America requires that we continue to welcome people from other places and other cultures. Our distinctive identity and character is built on constant and continuous immigration. If the nativist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant impulse is indulged by immigration reform it will be clear sign that America is in decline.

We need, as we have always needed, the kind of people willing to uproot their lives for a chance at the American dream. The surest sign that the dream has ended would be a policy that shut the door to legal immigrants, or a time when people are no longer attracted by the promise of America. President Obama was wise enough to include it in the compelling vision he presented during his second inaugural address when he observed that the American journey is far from over and said:

"Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country...."

The loaded language of the immigration debate includes words like "amnesty" and fear that the American way of life could be threatened by those not born to it. The American way of life was created by those not born to it. It is a history built by outsiders who pushed their way in: By my grandparents and probably by yours. Let's find a way to honor our history and traditions by continuing the practices that built that history and tradition. And let's do it before this brief political moment passes and the door once again slams shut.