As the debate over immigration reform reaches a climax, a troubling idea seems to be gaining traction. It is that annual limits on new visas should be severely restricted, and that America must choose between two groups of newcomers: high-tech workers with advanced degrees or family members of existing residents.
This is a false and foolish choice that Congress should reject. Immigrants are good for this country and always have been. We should want more of them, not fewer. As President Obama said recently at a White House naturalization ceremony: “Immigration makes us stronger. It keeps us vibrant. It keeps us hungry. It keeps us prosperous.”
There’s widespread agreement that current policy is incredibly stupid because it prevents many foreign-born graduate students from staying and creating here. But if you increase the number of visas for these job creators, goes the argument, you have to cut back somewhere else. The main target: the parents and siblings of legal residents who qualify for visas under family reunification provisions.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush advocated this course in his recent book, “Immigration Wars,” and it’s been echoed by a number of conservative Republicans. “If we want to increase the number of work-based immigrants without substantially increasing the overall number of immigrants, we must reduce family-based immigration,” he wrote.
From a policy perspective, Bush’s argument makes no sense. Both groups promote core Republican values. “Work-based immigrants” energize entrepreneurship and economic growth. Siblings and parents nurture “family values.” Why choose between them?
The answer is politics. Republicans worry that expanding immigration will benefit the Democrats, and they’re probably right. But if it keeps expressing hostility to these newcomers, the GOP will only inflict more damage on its prospects. If Republicans want a bigger share of the immigrant vote, they have to make immigrants feel more welcome. Keeping them out is a short-term and shortsighted solution.
But politics is not the main point here. Expanding immigration and encouraging family reunification are in our deepest national interest. Preventing high-tech scientists from bringing their families here is self-defeating and counterproductive. A recent letter from six Democratic senators made this point: “Weakening the family immigration system will make it harder for employers to attract talented workers from abroad. Those foreign-born scientists and engineers have families, too.”
Immigrants contribute to economic growth in many ways, not just by founding high-flying companies like Google and Intel. Many ethnic communities have kinship-based savings networks that provide credit for small business startups. Cripple those networks by restricting family reunification, and the credit dries up.
Families contribute sweat equity as well. That Chinese laundry or Greek diner cannot survive, at least at first, without relatives who work for low pay and sleep in the back. When Steve’s grandfather Abe Rogow arrived from Russia almost 100 years ago, he got his start from a distant cousin who ran a small stand selling cheap clothes in a New Jersey amusement park. That story repeats itself today.
As ethnic communities grow, they provide customers and clients for a range of services — lawyers and undertakers, real estate brokers and insurance agents. In our home county in suburban Maryland, one-third of the residents are foreign-born. A huge Chinese grocery store, the Great Wall, now provides familiar food for immigrant families and employment for local youths, including Hispanics.
“You run into people you know, it’s nice to speak Chinese and you don’t have to explain anything in English,” says Lily Qi, a native of Shanghai. “I was very impressed with a young Latino guy over at the meat counter — he spoke perfect Chinese to me. I was shocked!”
Immigrant families are so useful that older cities such as Cleveland and Philadelphia are recruiting them to fill neighborhoods once home to Irish, Italian and Polish communities. More than 70,000 Bosnians have moved to St. Louis, for example. The mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, says candidly, “I don’t really think of people as legal or illegal. Are you productive or not productive? That’s really my focus.”
Then there’s the “care economy,” immigrant women who contribute unpaid services, such as baby-sitting, that enable other family members to spend long hours in new businesses or demanding jobs. Many of these women also work in the service sector, especially health care. If you took every foreign-born woman out of every hospital in America, most would collapse overnight.
Excellent scientists and extended families contribute to the vitality of this country. We need them all — and more.