Heterodox Views on Politics and Public Policy from Michael Blaine

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

America's Great Immigration Boon

A couple of years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney remarked publicly: "There are 11 million illegal immigrants in this country; nobody knows who they are, where they are, or what they're doing." Shortly afterwards I drove by the addition being constructed on the U.S. Supreme Court. The dozens of laborers working on the project appeared to be from Latin America, and were likely undocumented. Either Mr. Cheney was being very disingenuous, or he really needs to get out more.

In reality, the U.S. finds itself in a relatively fortunate immigration situation. The vast majority of our nation's newcomers are Roman Catholic, capitalistic, zealously eager to work -- that is why they come, after all -- and family-oriented. These millions of Latin Americans speak a European language and are eager to become part of their new society, even if they also retain a foothold in their old one. Indeed, these people already are American in the sense that they have grown up in the Americas, the New World we natives are taught in school to cherish. Without them, our nation's population would actually decline, a phenomenon that would produce difficult economic consequences.

Contrast this with Europe, where most new arrivals are not Christian, do not know Western-style capitalism or democracy, and do not join the social mainstream. These North Africans and Middle Easterners communicate using inscrutable languages, and frequently remain alienated from their host societies (by choice or not), while retaining loyalties that do not include their new countries. Europe thus confronts an enormous and ongoing immigration challenge, one that by most accounts it is not handling well.

The US, on the other hand, should be thankful its advantageous position vis-a-vis immigration. All we need to do is open wide the many avenues, both formal and informal, to assimilation. These primarily involve education and healthcare, but sometimes also the financial system. When Bank of America actively attempts to open bank accounts for and give credit cards to immigrants, this potentially brings millions of workers and billions of dollars into the formal economy to the benefit of everyone. For xenophobic politicians such as Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado to argue the exact opposite is patently ludicrous. Do they want to drive this enormous realm of human activity underground?

While beneficial in most ways, mass immigration still puts pressure on our country's social and institutional capacity. But here the policy remedies are mostly out of US hands. It is Mexico and many of its neighbors further south that need to improve public safety; foment investment; reform education systems; modernize and open up labor markets; and create more jobs. Chile has shown that all of this is achievable; unfortunately, the polticians and economic elites in many of the region's countries have not taken the decision to follow suit. So while we in the US welcome our new neighbors and the dynamism they create, our government should also constructively push foreign capitals to pursue reforms that benefit their native populations. If they began to do so, every nation in the Western Hemisphere would become a better place to live. But in the meantime, the U.S. should look at Europe and count its blessings.

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