No country on earth is in the same league as the U.S. when it comes to the quantity of immigrants who have come here and the quality of their contributions. But lately, in our generally sour mood, Americans have been questioning the benefits of immigration. Many worry that today's immigrants differ from those of the past: less ambitious, less skilled, less willing and able to assimilate.
The negative stereotype is derived mainly from illegal immigrants. It is important to remember that the legal entrants into this country bring with them a desire to work and succeed within the nation; illegals desire to work around the system.
The conventional picture is of an unstoppable wave of unskilled, mostly Spanish-speaking workers — many illegal — coming across the Mexican border. People who see immigration this way fear that, instead of America assimilating the immigrants, the immigrants will assimilate us. But this picture is both out of date and factually wrong.
The problem is that we use the same word - 'immigrant' - to describe both the legal newcomers as well as those who have deliberately broken the law to enter the country. These two groups could hardly be more different, and yet are confused in popular culture. Legal immigrants actually help our economy, while illegal immigrants hurt it.
A report released this month by the Pew Research Center shows just how much the face of immigration has changed in the past few years. Since 2008, more newcomers to the U.S. have been Asian than Hispanic (in 2010, it was 36% of the total, versus 31%). Today's typical immigrant is not only more likely to speak English and have a college education, but also to have come to the U.S. legally, with a job already in place.
Immigrants have historically brought important skill sets to this nation. In areas like engineering and medicine, many of our economic successes have been initiated by legal immigrants.
A great deal of mythology has grown up around American immigration. Images of Irish and Italians forced by starvation to emigrate, Jews fleeing Russian persecution — this was all real, but just part of the story. Waves of educated and professional middle-class people also arrived — men like Albert Gallatin fleeing the radicalism of the French Revolution, disappointed liberals abandoning Europe after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, and of course the generations of educated exiles from the terrible totalitarianisms of the 20th century.In particular, immigrants from Asia enter this country with a good education, with a strong work ethic, and with a desire to assimilate and support American culture and the American way of life. Legal immigrants from Asia are models for how legal immigration can work well and benefit the nation.
Immigration from Asia wasn't always this smooth, and for many years the federal government, often prodded by politicians from the West Coast, tried to keep Asians out. By 1870, Chinese workers accounted for 20% of California's labor force; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 cut Chinese immigration from 39,500 that year to just 10 people in 1887.
With the Chinese excluded, thousands of Japanese, Koreans and Indians replaced them as cheap labor, but public opinion soon turned against these immigrants as well. In 1906 the San Francisco school board ordered the segregation of Japanese students in its public schools. The news sparked riots in Japan, and President Theodore Roosevelt scrambled to make what was called the "Gentleman's Agreement" by which the Japanese government agreed to stop immigration to the U.S. In 1917 India was added to the "Pacific-Barred Zone" from which no immigrants to the U.S. were allowed, and from 1924 until 1965 Asian immigration into the United States was essentially banned.
The ensuing 37 years of legal immigration are making an impact. In 1965, Asian-Americans accounted for less than 1% of the population; today they are almost at 6% and growing, with the biggest numbers from China, the Philippines and India, followed by Vietnam, Korea and Japan. (Almost one out of four Asian-Americans has roots in either mainland China or Taiwan.)
While illegal immigration represents a harm to the economy and to society, a healthy program of legal immigration is a benefit to the nation and to the economy.
The honor roll of American immigration is long. Names like Alexander Hamilton, Albert Einstein, Andrew Carnegie, Madeleine Albright and Sergey Brin speak for themselves.
To that list we can add names like Wernher von Braun, Henry Kissinger, and ESPN announcer Michael Ballack. It is clear that legal immigrants have done much to promote the United States. Illegal immigrants, however, ultimately represent an economic drain.