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The American Immigrant: Boon or Burden?

by Sejal Hathi

The epitome of American innovation, video-sharing website You Tube has enamored millions of people worldwide by its incredible media variety and versatility as a communications tool. Notwithstanding its technological savvy, You Tube is unique yet uncannily familiar also in the nature of its origins: it was founded by American immigrants. Yes, that quintessential American product that has corralled millions of dollars, fame, and acclamation from users around the world was incubated by naturalized foreigners. But You Tube is not an isolated case: many businesses, inventions, technologies, medicine have been created by industrious immigrants. Since the birth of this country, immigration has played a vital, if controversial, role in the prosperity and cultural richness of its citizens. Despite arguments citing costs to the economy and the social hurdles of assimilating new immigrants, it is imperative that the United States at least sustain its present admissions for primarily three reasons: the economic benefits derived from a larger labor force, the intellectual contributions immigrants make through innovation, and the cultural diversity and concomitant urban revitalization new people and ideas inevitably foster.

By expanding the labor force and contributing vital purchasing power to a consumer-based society, immigrants have both stimulated the growth of the national economy and bulwarked local initiatives that have diversified and thereby fortified the United States' financial clout. Ever since the first waves of immigrants began inundating the United States in the 18th century, they have provided much of the manpower needed to increase industrialization and retain the US's competitive edge. In fact, author Henry Bischoff asserts in his book Immigration Issues, "Much of the hard labor required to convert our country from a vast area of industrial resources into a top-ranking industrial nation has been borne by immigrants and their descendants" (37). From the transcontinental railroad to the Erie Canal, from the mining and iron industries of the 19th century to the agribusinesses of today, immigrants have contributed an essential labor force to perform many of the jobs that native Americans simply repel. Many citizens and government officials challenge this idea with the concern that the influx of illegal immigrants may be detrimental to the economy; however, if they examine these workers' economic involvement, they will notice that by taking the least desirable jobs, illegal immigrants keep some industries competitive that would have otherwise been outsourced to Mexico and China (Bischoff 52). Cecilia Munoz, Vice President for policy at the National Council of La Raza, similarly asserts, "Many industries rely on [undocumented] labor;" immigrants are ubiquitous on farms and construction sites where low-skilled laborers are willing to do grimy work (Masci 4).

Immigrants, however, contribute manpower not only in the field of unskilled labor, but also in the most advanced high-tech industries, in which they are more likely to start businesses than natives are. Immigrant engineers are so desirable for this purpose that in the 1990s, many high-tech employers began lobbying Congress for expanded immigration to satisfy the need for computer programmers and software engineers. In a speech to the Senate Banking Committee in February 2000, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan declared, "Demand is putting very significant pressures on an ever-decreasing supply of unemployed labor. The one obvious means that one can use to offset that is expanding the number of people we allow in" (AILF 5). In other words, the importation of highly skilled workers is indispensable to retaining the United States' competitive edge: if it weren't for immigrants, the paucity of capable American citizens would force American companies to hire more suitable workers abroad- thus abetting the export of U.S. jobs and intellectual capital and eroding the economy. President of the Information Technology Association of America, Harris Miller, expostulates, "Our colleges and universities are gearing up to turn out more people qualified to do this kind of work…but right now, we simply don't have enough people to fill all of the jobs available" (Masci 4). By bringing new workers into the economy, immigration allows existing U.S. capital, land, technology to be used most efficiently and bolsters economic and financial growth.

Despite voluminous evidence to the contrary, some anti-immigration advocates insist that immigration in fact depletes U.S. finances because of the strain that it exerts on benefits like insurance or health care. However, studies have shown that all immigrants arriving after 1970 pay a total of 70 billion dollars in taxes to all levels of government, generating 25 to 30 billion more dollars than they use in public services (Long 166-167). Even illegal immigrants pay sales and property taxes, thus contributing to the costs of their children's schooling (Jacoby 2). The American Immigration Lawyers Association expatiates on this subject in their "Fact Sheet" on immigration and health care, which states that the majority of immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in government services. And for those immigrants who require an exceptional amount of benefits, there are others who compensate the government indirectly by creating jobs though purchases of consumer goods and housing, their savings and investments, and the businesses they create. The buying power of immigrants reached hundreds of billions of dollars in 2004 ("AILA's Talking Points…"), indicating inexorably that immigrants contribute monetarily much more than they ever receive from the United States government. They are a boon rather than a burden, vital to the growth and sustenance of the nation's economy.

A New York Times article published on May 3, 2004 warned, "The United States has started to lose its worldwide dominance in critical areas of science and innovation. Foreign advances in basic science often rival or even exceed America's, often with little public awareness of the trend or its implications for…the vigor of the nation's intellectual and cultural life" (Anderson 16). This blunt assessment of the nation's intellectual dependence on immigrants is a fateful augury of what is to come if current immigration levels are not sustained or expanded. Immigrants' innovation and industrial fecundity compose the last and the only obstacle between the U.S.'s present prosperity and inevitable intellectual drain. One potent example of immigrants' scholarly contributions is the statistic that more than 50 percent of Ph.D. engineers in the U.S. are foreign-born (Anderson 16). What is even more impressive is that more than 30 percent of U.S. noble laureates until 1995 were immigrants (Edmonston 384), 60 percent of the top science students and 65 percent of the top math students are the children of immigrants (Anderson 15), and in 2004, just under one-fourth of U.S.-originated international patent applications were authored by foreign nationals, up from 7.8 percent in 1988 (Wadhwa 1). All these statistics ardently aver that skilled immigrants are increasingly providing the intellectual capital that fuels innovation and accords the U.S. a competitive edge in the global economy.

There is a reason for immigrants' high performance: namely, their family value for education that consistently goads them to achieve scholarly success. According to two studies performed separately by professors Julian Simon and Georges Vernez, the proportion of immigrants with bachelor's or post-graduate degrees is higher than that of the native labor force (Simon, "Economic Characteristics of Immigration"). Furthermore, two-thirds of immigrant youths reported in Vernez's study that "they liked working hard in school," compared to only one-half of native-born students (43-46). Overall, the two studies found that immigrant families hold much more positive attitudes toward schooling and have higher expectations of their children for a college education than do native families- a trend that complements the higher college-going rates of immigrants. Stuart Anderson, author of the report The Multiplier Effect, writes, "If those who most oppose immigration had succeeded over the past two decades, two-thirds of the most outstanding future scientists and mathematicians in the United States would not be in the country" (19). This statement is humbling in its significance: of the most brilliant and prolific scholars in the country, two-thirds have been immigrants- an unfathomable ingress of talent and genius only in the past twenty years. That is why, when seeking the most promising employees in today's high-tech industries, businesses overwhelmingly select immigrants: over 10 percent of the electrical and computer engineering masters and Ph.D. students at universities are foreign-born (Koch).

Some native-born workers who are concerned about their own competitiveness in the U.S. job economy cite such statistics as baleful evidence that immigration may be exacerbating native unemployment. However, Simon writes that "there is no empirical evidence documenting that the displacement effect [of native workers] is numerically important" (Simon, "The Effects of Immigration in the Labor Market"). The jobs that immigrants create by the businesses they found more than compensate for the positions that they fill. The threat of displacement can further be debunked by CEO of Cypress Semiconductors T. J. Rodgers's observation: for every foreign-born engineer that he is permitted to hire, he can employ five other native-born workers in marketing, manufacturing, or sales (Masters 3). In other words, by allowing companies to hire promising immigrant workers, Americans are unconsciously reducing their own unemployment and precipitating greater technological innovation. Thus, it can be seen that immigration does not hurt American citizens, but in fact fosters intellectual ferment and contributes indelibly to the present U.S. ascendancy in global technological and scientific productivity.

Perhaps the most palpable and immediate product of immigration to the United States is neither economic nor intellectual efflorescence, but the veritable burgeoning of American culture that has transpired with each new influx of people and ideas. By imbibing motley yet still musical cultural strains, America has melded and congealed into a richly diverse and robustly tolerant people. Since the birth of this country, foreign influences have been entwined into a unique American culture- from customs of dress and cuisine, to the Americanization of St. Patrick's Day, even to the marketing of pizza, bagels, tacos, and sushi as signature American fast food (Edmonston 373). But not only material influences derive from immigrants: values, beliefs, ethics too can be traced to an immigrant heritage. Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University, George Reisman, eloquently attested, "[Immigrants] contribute to [our culture] not only all their business, scientific, and artistic achievements, and what is valuable in their own heritage, but, perhaps most important of all, a constantly renewed sense of personal ambition and personal achievement" (Reisman 6). Thus, immigrants infuse our communities with a salutary system of values, goals, scholarly and artistic potential that create a continuously evolving and vibrant Zeitgeist. Yet immigrants enrich our cultural complex not only through their diversity, but also by the urban revitalization that fresh minds and belief systems ineluctably foster. For example, according to the American Immigration Law Foundation's report, the March 2000 Current Population Survey indicated strongly that immigration has played a vital role in preventing major cities from shrinking or downsizing (AILF 7). In Massachusetts, one state out of many to exhibit this condition, immigrants were responsible for 82 percent of the growth in the civilian labor force from the mid-1980's to 1997 (Lance 2); and in the San Francisco Bay Area, although the net domestic migration rate was -7.1 percent, the area's ability to attract immigrants offset this loss. The corresponding dramatic increase in property value in such regions further patently asseverates immigration's critical role in revitalizing American communities.

Some immigration opponents insist that despite all these benefits, lofty current immigration rates thwart effective acculturation and thus adulterate American tradition. Many reference language difficulties as a blatant symbol of this culture crevasse. However, upon closer inspection it becomes evident and quite obvious that immigrants come to America willing to learn the nation's language and culture because doing so is vital for practical success: English is the common- and often the only- conduit of business, entertainment, even private life. Furthermore, a relevant study published by the National Academy Press found that among recent immigrants from non-English-speaking countries, 47 percent report that they speak the language well or very well within two years after arrival (Edmonston 377). This statistic demonstrates that immigrants learn to converse fluently in the English language- and thus in the American way of life- often quite early and easily.

Another argument that would immediately emasculate this idea of cultural adulteration is the enormous contributions immigrants as a whole make to the United States militarily: Even though almost half are not yet citizens and thus possess no exigent reason to risk their lives for this country, as of December 2004, nearly 70,000 foreign-born individuals were serving in the armed forces (Stock 2). The very diversity of language, culture, and ethnicity that anti-immigration advocates execrate and fear has conferred strength and greater versatility to the military in times of trial. In fact, the February 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review called for "increased recruitment in all branches of the military of immigrants who are proficient in languages other than English-particularly Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese" (Stock 5). Without immigrants, the military could not meet its recruiting goals nor garner the necessary number of foreign-language translators, interpreters, and cultural experts. This report proves that in addition to supplying vital cultural diversity to our communities, immigrants are able to assimilate themselves and express the most selfless loyalty to the quintessential American creed.

Immigration is a gift- but as with any gift there come two types of recipients: those who embrace its assets wholeheartedly and the others who imagine hidden a Trojan horse. In the case of immigration, both enthusiast and cynic have endured relentlessly for over two centuries, primarily because the arguments are perpetually relevant and evolving. However, in the present, it is exquisitely clear that immigration is indispensable to the economic, intellectual, and cultural vibrancy of America and to its continued growth as a world power. As Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush so eloquently epitomized: "Immigration is affirmation, proof that we are still what we used to be, a haven for the…dispossessed" (Bischoff 128), an oasis for the ambitious, a sanctuary for the oppressed yet most optimistic dreamer. Despite the apparent financial and social impediments that immigration may bring, its detriments are more than countervailed by the economic benefits a larger labor force accrues, the scholarly and artistic achievements that immigrants bestow on the American intellectual legacy, and the cultural richness and rejuvenation that a diverse society inevitably fosters. In other words, the benefits of immigrants outweigh the costs: Immigration is a boon, not a burden.

Works Cited

"AILA's Talking Points About Immigrants and the Economy." Doc. No.06031019 (10 Mar. 2006): 1. American Immigration Lawyers Association. 11 Feb. 2007. .

American Immigration Law Foundation, "Making a Difference in America." Immigration Policy Focus 1, 1(2002) 1-16. 3 Mar. 2007 . Bischoff, Henry. Immigration Issues. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Edmonston, Barry and James P. Smith, eds. The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997.

"Fact Sheet: Immigrants and the U.S. Health Care System." Doc. No. 06080910 (9 Aug. 2006): 1. American Immigration Lawyers Association. 11 Feb. 2007. .

Jacoby, Tamar. "Immigration Nation." Foreign Affairs November/December(2006): 1-5.

Koch, Kathy. "High-Tech Labor Shortage." CQ Researcher 8.16 (1998): 361-384. CQ Researcher Online. CQ Press. Notre Dame High School, San Jose, CA. 4 Mar. 2007 .

Lance, Bronwyn. "The Economic Impact of Immigrants." World and I May 2000 1-3. 03 Mar 2007 .

Long, Robert Emmet, ed. The Reference Shelf: Immigration 68, 1. The H.W. Wilson Company, 1996.

Masci, David. "Debate Over Immigration." CQ Researcher 10.25 (2000): 569-592. CQ Researcher Online. CQ Press. Notre Dame High School Library, San Jose, CA. 11 Feb. 2007 .

Masters, Suzette Brooks, and Ted Ruthizer. "Increasing the Number of Foreign Professionals Will Not Hurt U.S. Workers." Work. Ed. James Haley. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2002. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Thomson Gale. SAN JOSE PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM. 6 Mar. 2007 .

The Multiplier Effect. Ed. Stuart Anderson. July 2004. National Foundation for American Policy. 4 Mar. 2007 .

Reisman, George. "Immigration Restrictions Are Harmful." Immigration. Ed. Tamara L. Roleff. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Thomson Gale. SAN JOSE PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM. 6 Mar. 2007 .

Simon, Julian L. Immigration: The Demographic and Economic Facts. The Cato Institute and the National Immigration Forum, 1995. 3 Mar. 2007.

Stock, Margaret D., American Immigration Law Foundation, "Essential to the Fight: Immigrants in the Military, Five Years after 9/11." Immigration Policy Focus 5, 9(2006) 1-8. 3 Mar. 2007 .

Vernez, George. How Immigrants Fare in U.S. Education. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1996.

Wadhwa, Vivek. "Open Doors Wider for Skilled Immigrants." BusinessWeek Online 03 Jan 2007. 04 Mar 2007 .

About The Author

Sejal Hathi is a high school sophomore in San Jose, CA. Since childhood, she has been involved in a variety of community service projects and advocacy work that strive to bring public awareness and resources to combat the major issues in national policy. Most recently, she has dedicated herself to researching and voicing the benefits of immigration to the American people.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.