Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He writes a monthly column for The Post.
The debate over immigration will tell us a lot about the state of the national psyche. How do Americans feel about themselves and their nation? Are they confident or insecure? Do they want to go out and compete in new ways in a more competitive world, or do they want to try to shield themselves from the world’s new challenges? Are they in a declinist mode or a revivalist mode? Is the predominant sentiment one of fear or national assertiveness?
Historically, there has often been a correlation between national anxiety and insecurity and the desire to limit immigration. The “know-nothings” of the 1850s genuinely feared that U.S. democracy was in danger of being subverted by the wave of Irish and German Catholics who, they alleged, took their orders directly from that great “ally of tyranny,” Pope Pius IX. Proponents of Asian exclusion in the early 1900s feared that Japanese immigrants were, among other things, an advance guard for the coming invasion by the “yellow peril.” And it wasn’t a complete coincidence that the most severe crackdown on immigration came in the 1920s, when Americans, disillusioned by their involvement in World War I and suspicious of a chaotic world, turned determinedly inward. Part of shutting ourselves off from the world included shutting our borders to the world’s refugees.
It’s probably not a coincidence that, in today’s debate, the opponents of reform express a mood of pessimism, warning about both the loss of jobs to immigrant workers and the threat of terrorism, as if the present system were ideally suited to protecting jobs or guarding against attacks like that at the Boston Marathon.
Proponents of reform, on the other hand, take an optimistic view of the U.S. capacity to absorb and benefit from immigration. On the Republican side, they also happen to be the leading proponents of active U.S. involvement in the world, such as longtime internationalists John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Like them, another of the immigration reform bill’s sponsors in the Senate, Marco Rubio, has been a strong advocate for U.S. global leadership. His support for immigration reform clearly stems from his basic confidence in the United States and his desire to ensure that it can continue to compete and lead effectively.
One of the most important parts of the Senate bill is that it begins to shift our immigration policy in a direction that most strengthens U.S. competitiveness. Right now, the country’s immigration policies are heavily weighted in favor of family unification. That’s not merely unification of the immediate, nuclear family — a worthy and necessary objective — but also extended family, which has led to “chain migration.” The Senate legislation would eliminate certain categories of family preference in favor of a more “merit-based” system. In particular, the expansion of the H1-B visa program for highly skilled immigrants is the kind of measure that high-tech U.S. corporations are clamoring for. As Rubio and others point out, thousands of foreign students receive excellent educations at U.S. universities, learn invaluable high-level skills and are then sent back to their home countries, such as China and India, which then get the full benefit of this American training. Why not keep those graduates here, where we all would benefit?
And we do benefit. Economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, has convincingly argued that the right kind of immigration reform can “raise the pace of economic growth by nearly a percentage point over the near term, raise GDP per capita by over $1,500 and reduce the cumulative federal debt by over $2.5 trillion.” One of the reasons, he noted, is that “immigrants have traditionally displayed an entrepreneurial bent, with rates of small business ownership above that of the native born population.” Those with strong educational backgrounds, in particular, are more likely to make new discoveries and start businesses, which in turn create jobs. For those worried about immigrants taking away jobs, the bill has a provision preventing visas from being issued for work in areas of high unemployment.
After much misguided hand-wringing about “American decline,” Congress has a chance to do something to strengthen the United States at home and abroad. Majorities of Americans in both parties favor immigration reform, a healthy sign of a return to optimism about the nation’s future. It would be a healthy sign, too, if a bipartisan majority could come together and, along with the president, meet this serious national challenge. Many people around the world, and many Americans, have doubts that we can address any of the big problems facing our nation. Immigration reform is a good place to start proving them wrong.
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