The nonsensical immigration debate
Dan Sehlhorst | Thursday, September 25, 2014
When Rick Santorum, a 2012 presidential candidate and potential 2016 presidential candidate, visited campus last week, I found his answers to questions about immigration policy very troubling. For Santorum, the push for increased legal immigration is “a horrible confluence” of the Democratic Party and big business. From his perspective, leaders of these groups are “looking at [immigration] as political power on the one side and profits on the other side, and the guys in the middle, the average working Americans, get stiffed.” His analysis, however, misses some key considerations.
Santorum’s expectation of depressed wages for working-class Americans might not be as definite as he believes. First, immigrants often complement American workers in the labor market, taking jobs that might not be filled otherwise. Contrary to popular belief, most undocumented immigrants are employed, so clearly there is demand for labor that these workers are meeting.
Second, the increased demand for goods and services that immigration produces in the economy enables increased production, mediating some of the downward pressure that some expect on wages. Moreover, this increased demand opens opportunities for working Americans to ascend to higher-paying leadership positions in business in order to manage the surge in production. In addition, immigrants start new businesses twice as often as native-born Americans, and this creates enormous economic potential.
Furthermore, immigration is an unparalleled opportunity for the United States to compete for human capital on the global market. Currently, thousands of foreign students arrive at American universities each year and receive a world-class education. When these students graduate, however, there are few H-1B work visas (capped at 65,000 annually) for skilled workers in the aftermath of 9/11. It often costs sponsoring companies upwards of $50,000 in legal fees to navigate the bureaucracy and secure a visa for a foreign employee. These constraints allow other countries, like Australia, New Zealand and Canada to outcompete the U.S. in skilled immigrants per capita.
Judging by Santorum’s rhetoric, however, it is likely he has not considered these points seriously. Debates over immigration reform are indicative of the acrimonious atmosphere in Washington and the inability to listen demonstrated in recent years in our nation’s capital.
Liberals, ostensibly moved by commitment to social justice and compassion for the plight of undocumented immigrants, frequently advocate “comprehensive” policy shifts, often termed “amnesty.” Conservatives, on the other hand, emphasize platitudes about rule of law and declare an ironclad commitment to “securing the border.” With these boundaries in place, self-aggrandizing and feckless political leaders are able to hold their offices and be remarkably unproductive.
The irony is that both sides are right, and both are wrong. Each ideology contains a grain of truth at the expense of the other.
To conservatives, I ask: What happened to the idea of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” Engraved on the Statue of Liberty, this notion embodies the spirit of this nation from its founding. Please do not neglect this salient detail in favor of indifference to the origin of your citizenship because your ancestors happened to arrive a few decades earlier.
Also, securing the border is a vague objective that leads to postponing essential reform of a broken system. Our border will not be “secure” without a viable and demand-driven pipeline for legal immigration, as demand will continue to incentivize illegal immigration. Moreover, violence stemming from drug cartels must be differentiated from immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
Continuing to trap illegal immigrants in a socially disenfranchised position drains tax revenue from social programs that are headed for bankruptcy, discourages reporting criminal activity for fear of exposing immigration status and prevents cultural exchange that promotes understanding and peace.
To liberals, I ask: How can you neglect the possible consequences if increased legal immigration does not correspond with a reduction of illegal immigration? The destabilizing costs include opportunities for criminal activities such as terrorism, businesses continuing to cheat undocumented immigrants out of minimum wage, increased unemployment, depressed wages, overburden on social services and rising health care costs to cover emergency medical services used by undocumented immigrants for routine medical care.
The only solution to the demagoguery preventing meaningful debate is to present policy proposals that respect the concerns of those who disagree with us. We need a clear vision for an immigration system built firmly upon both pragmatic structure for security and a magnanimity that befits our tradition as the Land of the Free.
Our identity as a nation is not rooted in a shared ethnicity or culture, but on a common set of values and ideals that will not be degraded, but bolstered, by newcomers. As the son of an immigrant, Santorum should realize that by putting politics aside and pursuing the common good, immigration can help the U.S. become a bastion of opportunity and social justice for all.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.