“I’m not against immigration, just illegal immigration.”
That sentence and ones like it — “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” — used to dominate the restrictionist side of America’s immigration debate. Now, however, the pretense is gone.
On Wednesday, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia unveiled legislation that would cut legal immigration in half, and President Donald Trump was quick to endorse the proposal.
The proposal also would privilege skills over family relations when deciding who among the reduced pool of immigrants gets to come into the country legally, which sounds like a good idea on the surface but comes with a host of negative consequences, the most obvious of which is keeping family members apart. Some conservatives are all for family values — until they’re not. Less obvious are all the skills we risk losing from the overachieving sons and daughters of those unskilled first-generation immigrants.
Yet even unskilled immigrants bring something important to the U.S. economy: a willingness to take risks.
Picking up stakes and moving to a new country with strange customs and an unfamiliar language is one of the riskiest things a person can do. Simply by coming here, immigrants prove themselves to be anything but risk averse. That means immigrants are just the sort of people the American economy needs.
The United States was built in large part by risk-takers who left their homes to carve a new nation out of the wilderness. But many of us, the descendants of those Old World immigrants, have become complacent, according to George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, author of the recent book, “The Complacent Class.”
That doesn’t mean native-born Americans are lazy. Far from it.
As Cowen writes, “Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether, and that is true whether we’re talking about corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, or building things.”
Cowen was one of the first to recognize the economic malaise that drives much of Trump’s appeal. Cowen dubbed it “The Great Stagnation.”
Ironically, the solution to The Great Stagnation is the very thing Trump dislikes and that many people blame for their economic woes: immigration.
One indicator of the complacency and stagnation Cowen sees is the decline in entrepreneurship. There are many reasons for this decline, but certainly Americans’ growing aversion to risk is one of them. According to a study published in the Summer 2014 volume of The Journal of Economic Perspectives, “The share of U.S. employment accounted for by young firms has declined by almost 30 percent over the last 30 years.”
Young firms are the source of most of the innovation that drives the economy, and immigrants make up a disproportionately high number of the nation’s entrepreneurs.
“Immigrants constitute 15% of the general U.S. workforce, but they account for around a quarter of U.S. entrepreneurs …. This is comparable to what we see in innovation and patent filings, where immigrants also account for about a quarter of U.S. inventors,” according to an Oct. 3 article by Sari Pekkala Kerr and William R. Kerr published by The Harvard Business Review.
Restricting legal immigration won’t fix America’s economic stagnation. It will only make it worse.
Immigration is good for America not because of a poem inscribed on a statue given to us by the French but because it is who we are. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and the American character reflects the intermingling of peoples from all over the world. Immigration makes us a stronger nation, a more dynamic nation and a more prosperous one.