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We should continue to be a nation of immigrants

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I was talking with a friend the other day about immigration. It’s one of the most divisive issues of our time, and we, too, found ourselves divided. “Our country is full,” he quoted President Trump, who said this back in April. Let’s improve the country with the people we already have, my friend added.

 I had a quote, too, and it’s one I still believe in. You’ll find it on the Statue of Liberty. “From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome,” it reads. And then, of course, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I welcome new immigrants and want this country to set aside the nationalistic appeals and racial prejudice that often accompany calls for restrictions. And I believe firmly that immigration makes us stronger as a nation and represents the best of what we stand for. This country is a defender of individual rights, a beacon of tolerance and equality, and a champion of the notion that offering opportunity to all who live here — regardless of national origin — yields the innovation and hard work that drive our economy and culture.

 I could take up the rest of this commentary just listing the immigrants who have enriched the United States, from Levi Strauss, Irving Berlin, and Albert Einstein to Liz Claiborne, Gloria Estefan, Yo Yo Ma, and Patrick Ewing. But it’s not just names you’d recognize. I have a clear memory from my time in Washington, D.C., of watching people who’d immigrated literally build the city: its stormwater system, its metro lines, the refurbished Union Station. The same is true in any big city you care to visit in this country — and in our fields and orchards, our hotels and hospitals, our factories, our schools, our startups, our military forces, our movie studios… You get the idea. 

Now, I agree that we can’t let everyone into the U.S. who wants to come. We simply don’t have the resources. But that’s a far cry from saying that we’re full, or that we’re facing an immigrant “invasion,” or that large numbers of immigrants are “stealing” jobs from Americans. There’s very little evidence to support any of those claims.

Instead, I’d argue that immigration is an opportunity for the country. One of the first votes I cast in Congress was for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which prohibited discrimination against immigrants on the basis of their nationality. Instead, it gave preference to professionals, people with skills the country needed, and relatives of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

That same principle is valid today. We have to use immigration to meet our needs, especially in the labor market. Every month for the last year and a half, the U.S. economy has had more job openings than people looking for work. And in a twist from what you’d expect, it’s not the higher-end jobs that face the most acute shortages. It’s healthcare, hotel, and restaurant workers who are in the highest demand. In an array of categories, from retail to food processing to landscaping, we don’t have the low-skilled laborers we need. The need for scientists, researchers, computer programmers and other knowledge workers hasn’t abated, either. Nor has the need for workers with skills that won’t soon be replaced by automation.

There was a time when both political parties in this country largely supported immigration. Not unanimously, of course, but they favored immigration in the national interest. I don’t know if those days are over for good; I hope not. Because there is simply no question that this country has been made stronger by its immigrants, and there is no reason to think that will change.

So while I’m not arguing that we should throw open our doors to all comers, we should lean toward openness, recognizing that we have limits and constraints that demand building immigration policy around a principle. And what should that be? That immigration is a powerful tool for meeting our needs, strengthening our labor markets, bolstering our pool of talent, and remaining a beacon to those everywhere who believe that their own hard work, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit can build their own lives and contribute to the communities around them.

 Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Comments

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Scott Atwater

The entire controversy today is over illegal immigration, not immigration, as Hamilton tries to paint it.

Why would he do that?

Wednesday, October 16
jtormoen

Perhaps cuz he is not as ignorant as ...

Wednesday, October 16
Deplorable

I do not think many people are opposed to legal immigration. I think it’s great. As long as it’s merit based, and the migrants are self-sufficient. Chain migration? Not a supporter.

Friday, October 18
Scott Atwater

It occurs to me that some are very uncomfortable with the term "illegal immigrant". I propose that "illegal Democrat voter" is more appropriate.

Wednesday, October 23
jtormoen

It occurs to me that the term, "illegal immigrant" ... has no basis in fact ...

although the concept brings memories of Nazi Germany

Wednesday, October 23
bonfire

I wonder how many of us know the history of our immigrant ancestors when many of them did not talk about or pass down stories to their American born progeny the hardships they left behind.

I recently watched Finding Your Roots episode featuring actor Eric Stonestreet roots.

In 1892 his ancestor left what is now Germany at age 23 to America. A few years later he was in Kansas and received federal land via the Preemption Act which required improvement of the land given which he did, dug well, built small sod house, plowed 12 acres, etc. He then was able to purchase 106 acres and he and his German wife had produced seven children. By the way, when he applied for land from the Preemption Act, he declared he was a naturalized citizen which he was not.

In 1917, WW1, US war against Germany and Austria, 6,000 German immigrants in US were sent to internment camps and their property seized. Many German immigrants couldn't even shop in certain places without permission and were required to register with the federal government as alien enemies. Stonestreet's ancestor and wife registered as alien enemies at Kansas police station and were fingerprinted. No history how the family coped with the suspicion of Germans in their community. After the war was over, he applied, finally, to become a citizen in 1921.

Wednesday, October 23