Come Back To America: Alienation And Immigration Advocacy
Hindsight being 20-20, what have we learned from the recent mid- term elections besides the obvious? Bush is up and the Democrats are down. Is that it? Looking a bit deeper, we can see more clearly than ever before that politics is about culture- the ideas and beliefs that determine how most Americans think and act. In the end, the Democrats lost for the same reason that advocates of a more pro-immigrant posture are losing, namely that they have fundamentally lost touch with a majority culture they neither like nor understand.
In a stunningly insightful essay in this past Friday's Wall Street Journal entitled "Democrats Need To Rejoin America," Daniel Henninger went straight to the heart of the matter:
The first cultural contradiction of the Democrats is their alienation from the real economy. Democrats participate in the economy as lawyers, investment bankers, doctors, teachers and the like. Somehow, it's supposed to be more than mere workaday money-grubbing. But there is one career that would never enter the mind of most Democrats: Spend it working for Procter & Gamble. They'd go homeless before toiling as a middle manager at Procter & Gamble, which is "out there" somewhere. But this is what most Americans do, at thousands upon thousands of such companies spread from Pennsylvania to the border of California. No matter; in the Democratic Zeigest, it's all simply "corporate America," an alien blob of marketing types who have something to do with creating Wal-Mart and other strange stuff... These Americans don't live in the average Democratic mind as anything real; they're pod people who cause "sprawl." In the election they just lost, Democrats demonized for months, then ran against "the Enrons and the WorldComs"--as if resentment of corporate logos would get voters to the polls. At least in the old days, the progressives railed against the Robber Barons, men with names. But with the decline of industrial unions, cultural Democrats have lost any affinity whatsoever for this swath of American society, which they've reduced to an economic abstraction. It's the most natural thing in the world for a candidate like Al Gore, or hundreds like him, to rant about "big energy companies, big drug companies and corporate polluters." But showing themselves so viscerally hostile to the real economy has had an effect. Younger people coming out of college who mght once have considered themselves natural Democrats now often claim to be "libertarians." Essentially, this means they don't see the private sector as their mortal political enemy.But, the sad truth is that many pro-immigrant advocates do see the private sector, and the culture of capitalism, in precisely this sinister light. They reject the profit motive and distrust the American economy. They see immigration policy, in its purest form, as international social work divorced from the grubby pursuit of national objectives. If, in the course of uplifting the dispossessed and the downtrodden from other lands, most of whose misfortune can ultimately be traced back to transnational corporate elites, America benefits, then all the better. Yet, it is the individual immigrant who always remains center stage as the reason for it all. They see no interest in using immigration to grow the economy, no sense in which national enrichment emerges as a unifying theme. Indeed, the very idea of trusting the market and embracing the profit motive seems inherently immoral, unworthy of true commitment or sincere belief. Pro-immigrant advocates believe that to be successful, to retain its soul, US immigration policy must be immune to the corrupt tendencies of national chauvinism. Making the United States more powerful, enabling employers to make more money, extending the reaches of our influence even further, should never be the goal of any immigration initiative.
This rejection of the application of immigration policy as a core strategy to expand wealth and enlarge economic opportunity has its consequences. It means that you must sacrifice planning for the future, forget about making tomorrow better than today, and focus solely on shoring up the present against the winds of change. In essence, it is a profoundly conservative mind set with disastrous consequences for US immigration. Once we write-off tomorrow and practice the zero-sum gain politics of rearranging the pie that now exists to the exclusion of all else, we play on the anti-immigrant's turf. It is his game played by his rules. It is game that those who want a more expansive and enlightened immigration policy can never win.
The nativists want the American public to perceive cheap foreign labor as public enemy number one. Yet, even if true, such a phenomenon is no longer a center stage issue in the new world of global competitveness. In order to strengthen he US economy on which we all depend, the focus of US immigration policy should be to attract and retain essential workers for a wide variety of jobs in both the old and new economies. While opponents of employment-based immigration continue to worry about low wages for foreign workers who manage to get and stay here, the real prize, as Peter Drucker reminded us in his book on Management Challenges for the 21st Century, is productivity. Any labor control mechanism must be grounded on that. Greater spending on new technology that results in a sustained level of worker productivity is the single most important factor that will spur economic growth without reigniting the fires of inflation. Rather than imposing more severe roadblocks to employment-based immigration, pro-immigrant advocates should lobby Congress to support more immigration. Protection of US workers is most fully achieved not when current jobs are protected, an impossible task in any case, but when new ones are created. Properly understood, such protection should not prevent employment-based immigration but make it more possible and rewarding for all segments of American society. The expansion of economic opportunity will render unnecessary artificial labor controls that are out of sync with the real economy and condtradict the way it works.
Refusing to see the clear and present connection between immigration and the aggressive advancement of American interests is to ignore fundamental realities about the world in which we live. Just as great nations competed for raw materials in the era of industrial growth, so international relations in the digital age will increasingly be marked by a global competition for high technology and the talent to make it work. This struggle will be most obvious in the world's advanced economies with the lowest fertility rates and, consequently, the greatest need for immigation. The line between geopolitics and immigration will slowly fade. Once viewed as purely a domestic issue, employment-based immigration will, over time, emerge as a core component of US foreign policy. As nations become richer, women do not have as many children. Fewer workers are forced to support more old people. This support ratio becomes increasingly untenable over the long term. In the absence of hihger birth rates, just to keep this ratio where it is right now, the retirement age in every post-industrial economy would have to be raised to politically unacceptable levels. What about reducing government benefits to seniors? Older citizens are more organized than ever before and they vote in large numbers. The political will to alter the social contract does not exist in America or anywhere else. Immigration is the only answer. Chronically low fertility requires developed nations to drain the best and the brightest from poorer nations. The United States, like Europe and Japan, must exert power to preserve vital interests. US immigration policy has already become an extension of a computer-based economy on which our future as a world leader depends. In a highly competitive global marketplace, most high-tech workers will choose the United States if we give them that choice. Pro-immigrant advocates who hold the American economy at arms length are the unwitting allies of the Fortress America Crowd that want to keep the gates tightly shut. Both would take away the ability of the American economy to benefit from our historic advantage as the place that inquiring minds want to come.
Because they do not care if the American economy becomes more robust, pro-immigrant advocates lack the vision to identify and implement basic change. They can only try to tinker with the system as it now is, smoothing out the rough edges, speeding up processing times, but nothing more than that. All of the money and energy that goes into this tinkering can be much more wisely spent in systemic reform that eliminates the disconnect between employment-based immigration and the economy it is supposed to serve. Why does the immigration system have to be tied to specific needs of individual employers? Would it not make more sense to link it up with the broader needs of the economy so that general prosperity and overall job creation will result? Does the imposition of spartan labor controls that frustrate employers and retard the career development of alien beneficiaries produce more benefits to America than the simple alternative of making the system alien-based so that foreign-born workers have the mobility to protect their interests, and those of similarly-situated Americans, by voting with their feet and exercising freedom of choice when it comes to where they will work and under what terms or conditions? Precisely because they do not see the need for a big picture , pro-immigrant advocates walk sightless among the many possibilities for a more rational and mutually rewarding system that daily present themselves.
Nothing characterizes the anti-capitalist immigration ethos of pro-immigrant advocates, and their nativist soul mates, as its deep pessimism. They shrink from global competition precisely because they think we cannot win. In opposing such doom sayers, we must give all immigrants who want one a stake in America's economic future. Immigration is not a political problem but an economic asset that can make the future shine more brightly than the past. Reaching out a helping hand to genuine refugees fleeing hard oppression and real bullets, offering safe haven to those victimized by cruel tyranny and brutal intolerance should, and hopefully will, always remain important themes of US immigration thinking. Yet, to give full expression to what Lincoln rightly called the "better angels of our nature", is not to discourage or disparage the equally compelling notion that the promise of plenty can be enjoyed in full measure by those who work for it. Immigration can make America more aware of its moral stewardship as the world's only superpower but, we would deprive ourselves of an honest chance to realize these high ideals, if we forget that it is also a nimble and creative economic strategy.When invested with true belief and deployed with patience and foresight, immigration can enhance productivity, create opportunity, and sustain prosperity for ourselves and our posterity. Hopefully, having learned the true lesson of this turbulent election season, Americans of all political persuasions will give it an honest chance to do just that.
Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.