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April 15, 2021

My Turn, Chris White: Focus on advantages of successful immigration policies

By Chris White

In these early months of the Biden administration, we have seen another surge of migrants seeking to cross the southern border into the United States, with a large percentage of them being unaccompanied minors.

Most of these migrants are not from Mexico. They are people fleeing political and economic instability and gang violence in Central America, particularly El Salvador and Honduras, countries with some of the highest murder rates in the world. The new administration has gone to great lengths to avoid labeling the situation a “crisis” and has attempted to control the narrative surrounding the US response. Instead of focusing on the specifics of the current situation at the US-Mexico border, this column discusses immigration in a broader context and argues against the “problematization” of immigration in US policymaking. 

President George H.W. Bush maintained one of the simplest measures of a country’s success was immigration, following Ronald Reagan’s view of the U.S. as a “shining city upon a hill” that attracted people from all over the world. Large numbers of people wanting to come to your country, like deciding how to spend your money after winning the Mega Millions lottery, is a problem you want to have and should be seen as an incredible strategic advantage. 

Migration occurs as a result of push and pull factors at both the macro and micro levels. Strong, stable, economically prosperous countries serve as the pull for migrants, while weaker countries with poor governance, dreadful economies, repression and violence are the push. People aren’t risking life and limb trying to sneak into North Korea or Somalia in search of a better life. There are currently about 272 million international migrants in the world today — people who live somewhere different than the country in which they were born. While this may seem like a substantial figure, it represents only about 3.5% of the global population and demonstrates that migration is the exception, not the rule. Millions have moved, but billions have stayed at home.

The U.S. is by far and away the top migration destination, home to nearly 20% of all international migrants, with almost 51 million foreign-born people in the country today, which is about 15% of the total population of 330 million. It’s time to worry if this top destination status changes because it would be a clear reflection of U.S.. decline and the ascendance of others – rival countries that migrants find more attractive. It is also important to think about the relative numbers. For example, in 2015 Germany, a country of 84 million people and slightly smaller than Montana in land area, took in over a million migrants, most of them escaping the brutal civil war in Syria. In a political sense, it was extremely challenging for Germany to accept such a huge number of migrants, especially people largely of a different religious and cultural background.

However, in the economic perspective these migrants were a boon to the German economy. While this might seem counterintuitive, there is a selectivity element to migration, which means that migrants are not a random sample of the population from which they come. Positive factors for migration include youth, independence (single without children) and previous migration experience. Negative factors include greater age and adult trappings such as home ownership. As a result, these young and motivated migrants who have moved to Germany and other European countries with declining birth rates and aging populations are of prime working age and will be net contributors to the economy. 

A longstanding myth about immigrants is they take jobs from the native population, but the reality is immigrants are complimentary to the labor force and fill gaps at the low- and high-ends of the spectrum. The labor market is dynamic, not static, and the “taking jobs” myth incorrectly assumes there are a fixed number of jobs. The market is constantly evolving and technology has accelerated the pace of change. However, there are a few industries that are static and where immigrants do displace native workers. Major League Baseball is a great example. On opening day, there were more than 250 foreign born players on league rosters, which are slots US-born players would have otherwise.

Although there are clear benefits to being a top immigration destination, this is not to suggest that the U.S. should adopt some kind of “open borders” policy. Every country should have the right to determine who is allowed to enter its territory, and migrants should keep to legal immigration channels. There were nearly 100,000 apprehensions at the border in February alone, which is a serious, complicated issue. However, policymakers should focus on the advantages of a successful immigration policy that promotes the “shining city” and strengthens the American economy, while balancing domestic political concerns and upholding US obligations under international law with respect to asylum seekers.

Chris White is an associate professor of political science at Livingstone College.

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