Immigration: Bane or blessing?


Since this is an election year and immigration ranks high on people’s lists of concerns, it seems appropriate to explore some of the facts related to this issue, trying to keep partisan hype out of the examination. Full disclosure, my roots to America came from Estonia and England. My wife’s are from England and Ireland.

The first point is as simple as it is obvious, unless your ancestors are related to native Americans, all of us are linked to immigrant ancestors. We are a nation of immigrants, known worldwide as the “Great Melting Pot”.

Irish, German and Northern European immigrants surged during the 1820s to the 1850s, trying to escape poverty, famine, religious persecution and conflicts. One of the biggest waves broadly speaking was from 1850 to about 1920.

There are however, antecedent shadows cast on American immigration. The slave trade, which brought shame to America’s beginnings, extended for centuries beginning in the 17th century, extending through the mid-19th century. The Chinese exclusion Act of 1882 banned all Chinese laborers for 10 years from immigrating into the United States. That, of course, came conveniently after the Central and Union Pacific railroads had hired over 12,000 Chinese laborers to build their rail lines, representing over 90% of their labor force. This workforce was the largest industrial workforce in American history, according to a retrospective by the Colorado Historical Society. They had come to America to escape from poverty, famine and in search of good fortune, many starting in the California gold mines.

The great irony of Asian-American history is that the ancestors of our native Americans came from Asia, known as Paleo-Indians, arriving between 30,000 and 10,000 B.C., crossing the then land bridge over what is now the Bering Strait.

Attempts to restrict immigrants have occurred several times in our nation’s history including the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 following the tide of immigrants from Europe following World War I, and the 1924 Immigration Act which significantly cut back immigration from many countries worldwide excepting immigrants from northern and western Europe. According to the National Archives, “The most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the idea of U.S. homogeneity.”

Almost all new immigrants to the U.S. suffered discrimination as they made their way into their new homeland. Whether the discrimination was a product of poverty, race, cultural practices or religion, tensions between the new and the old were frequent and often disgraceful and degrading.

Which brings me to where we are today. The share of foreign born people living in the United States today represent about 14% of the U.S. population, less than it was during peak periods of the mid to late 19th century and the early 20th century.

Where do they work? Most of these immigrants work in agriculture, the petroleum industry, the meat-packing industries and construction. U.S. manufacturing industries rely heavily on immigrants to meet their employment needs.

Since 2014, there has been a significant global migrant shift and with regards to America, an uptick in immigrants from Cuba, Ecuador, Brazil, Haiti, India, China (50,000 since 2023), Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, El Salvador and Columbia. Mexicans aren’t now the largest group. That distinction belongs to Venezuelans.

It should come as no surprise that migrants across the globe are not trying to get into Russia, China, Iran, Iraq or North Korea. They are leaving those places in droves. The living conditions, the dictates of dictators, the lack of freedom, job opportunities, health care conditions, climate change and food insecurities are the primary “push factors.” The “pull factors” are what freedom and the American Dream are all about.

Once again immigration has polarized America. History will put today’s immigration sentiments into its proper place, as is the case with previous immigration attitudes and acts in American history. The fact remains that the rub between authoritarianism and democracy, climate change, wars and the transparencies of life elsewhere through the internet and social media have put people on the move around the world, and it isn’t humanly possible for the United States to absorb them all.

Be that as it may, economists say that migrants have helped America’s post-Covid economy to be one of the strongest in the world, better than most European nations, better than the troubled Chinese economy, far better than the shambles of the war-stressed Russian economy, and way better than the Turkish economy with a 70% inflation rate.

Many U.S. corporate CEOs have expressed concerns about policy balance with respect to immigration because their manufacturing depends on immigrant labor.

Highland County currently has about 100 migrants with immigration court cases pending. Of those 25% are from the Dominican Republic with others from India and Jamaica. I just had a new roof put on my house in Hillsboro and the laborers on that hot roof were all from south of the border. Out of curiosity, I checked out a couple of other companies doing roofing and the labor circumstances were the same.

Some of America’s most prominent immigrant entrepreneurs and innovators today follow in the footsteps of Albert Einstein (Germany). To name a few: Sergey Brin (born in Russia), co-founder of Google; Henry Kissinger (Germany); Elon Musk (South Africa); Arnold Schwarzenegger (Austria); Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval (parents from India); Arvind Krishna, CEO of IBM (India); Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft (India); Jensen Huang, CEO of NVIDIA (Taiwan); and Safra Catz CEO of Oracle (Israel).

So, “A bane or a blessing?”

Alex Nowrasteh of the conservative libertarian CATO Institute published an article for The Carnegie Corporation entitled “15 Myths About Immigration Debunked”. Of these myths:

1. Immigrants are a major source of crime. Fact: Immigrants, including illegal immigrants, are less likely to be incarcerated in prisons, convicted of crimes or arrested than native-born Americans.

2. The United States has the most open immigration policy in the world. Fact: “The annual inflow of immigrants to the United States, as a percentage of our population, is below that of most other rich countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

3. Immigrants increase the budget deficit and government debt. Fact: “Immigrants in the U.S. have about a net-zero effect on government budgets. They pay about as much in taxes as they consume in benefits.”

Can we possibly take in all “Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free… the homeless and tempest tossed”? Can we “lift the lamp beside the golden door” to all? No, we cannot, but we must find the right circumstantial balance, the most humane and compassionate policies to deal with what is becoming a massive global concern.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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