Wednesday, October 22, 2014
6

Immigration and American Power

CAMBRIDGE – The United States is a nation of immigrants. Except for a small number of Native Americans, everyone is originally from somewhere else, and even recent immigrants can rise to top economic and political roles. President Franklin Roosevelt once famously addressed the Daughters of the American Revolution – a group that prided itself on the early arrival of its ancestors – as “fellow immigrants.”

In recent years, however, US politics has had a strong anti-immigration slant, and the issue played an important role in the Republican Party’s presidential nomination battle in 2012. But Barack Obama’s re-election demonstrated the electoral power of Latino voters, who rejected Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney by a 3-1 majority, as did Asian-Americans.

As a result, several prominent Republican politicians are now urging their party to reconsider its anti-immigration policies, and plans for immigration reform will be on the agenda at the beginning of Obama’s second term. Successful reform will be an important step in preventing the decline of American power.

Fears about the impact of immigration on national values and on a coherent sense of American identity are not new. The nineteenth-century “Know Nothing” movement was built on opposition to immigrants, particularly the Irish. Chinese were singled out for exclusion from 1882 onward, and, with the more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, immigration in general slowed for the next four decades.

During the twentieth century, the US recorded its highest percentage of foreign-born residents, 14.7%, in 1910. A century later, according to the 2010 census, 13% of the American population is foreign born. But, despite being a nation of immigrants, more Americans are skeptical about immigration than are sympathetic to it. Various opinion polls show either a plurality or a majority favoring less immigration. The recession exacerbated such views: in 2009, one-half of the US public favored allowing fewer immigrants, up from 39% in 2008.

Both the number of immigrants and their origin have caused concerns about immigration’s effects on American culture. Demographers portray a country in 2050 in which non-Hispanic whites will be only a slim majority. Hispanics will comprise 25% of the population, with African- and Asian-Americans making up 14% and 8%, respectively.

But mass communications and market forces produce powerful incentives to master the English language and accept a degree of assimilation. Modern media help new immigrants to learn more about their new country beforehand than immigrants did a century ago. Indeed, most of the evidence suggests that the latest immigrants are assimilating at least as quickly as their predecessors.

While too rapid a rate of immigration can cause social problems, over the long term, immigration strengthens US power. It is estimated that at least 83 countries and territories currently have fertility rates that are below the level needed to keep their population constant. Whereas most developed countries will experience a shortage of people as the century progresses, America is one of the few that may avoid demographic decline and maintain its share of world population.

For example, to maintain its current population size, Japan would have to accept 350,000 newcomers annually for the next 50 years, which is difficult for a culture that has historically been hostile to immigration. In contrast, the Census Bureau projects that the US population will grow by 49% over the next four decades.

Today, the US is the world’s third most populous country; 50 years from now it is still likely to be third (after only China and India). This is highly relevant to economic power: whereas nearly all other developed countries will face a growing burden of providing for the older generation, immigration could help to attenuate the policy problem for the US.

In addition, though studies suggest that the short-term economic benefits of immigration are relatively small, and that unskilled workers may suffer from competition, skilled immigrants can be important to particular sectors – and to long-term growth. There is a strong correlation between the number of visas for skilled applicants and patents filed in the US. At the beginning of this century, Chinese- and Indian-born engineers were running one-quarter of Silicon Valley’s technology businesses, which accounted for $17.8 billion in sales; and, in 2005, immigrants had helped to start one-quarter of all US technology start-ups during the previous decade. Immigrants or children of immigrants founded roughly 40% of the 2010 Fortune 500 companies.

Equally important are immigration’s benefits for America’s soft power. The fact that people want to come to the US enhances its appeal, and immigrants’ upward mobility is attractive to people in other countries. The US is a magnet, and many people can envisage themselves as Americans, in part because so many successful Americans look like them. Moreover, connections between immigrants and their families and friends back home help to convey accurate and positive information about the US.

Likewise, because the presence of many cultures creates avenues of connection with other countries, it helps to broaden Americans’ attitudes and views of the world in an era of globalization. Rather than diluting hard and soft power, immigration enhances both.

Singapore’s former leader, Lee Kwan Yew, an astute observer of both the US and China, argues that China will not surpass the US as the leading power of the twenty-first century, precisely because the US attracts the best and brightest from the rest of the world and melds them into a diverse culture of creativity. China has a larger population to recruit from domestically, but, in Lee’s view, its Sino-centric culture will make it less creative than the US.

That is a view that Americans should take to heart. If Obama succeeds in enacting immigration reform in his second term, he will have gone a long way toward fulfilling his promise to maintain the strength of the US.

Read more from our "Nye on Power" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedJ St. Clair

    you all better get used to fewer humans on this planet .... there is no amount of immigration that will change that....everyone is broke.....no need to bring another human onto this planet that will be struggling for 70 years hussling for money...

  2. CommentedLeo Arouet

    Woow... Un artículo que destaca las bondades de la inmigración. Joseph Nye rescata lo positivo de la corriente de inmigración y hace una comparación a la largo plazo de Estados Unidos y Europa... Las tasas de natalidad están disminuyendo en Europa y Japón; así que estos países tendrán que realizar políticas favorables si desean que sus sociedades mantengan su densidad actual... La inmigración contribuye al poder económico y al poder blando de un país.

  3. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    Real simple:
    1. Give visas to young people with education who want to come and work, not to older people under family reunification.
    2. Give visas to foreign students who get a degree in the US.
    3. Everyone starts with a conditional work permit; it takes say 20 quarters of Social Security earnings to get a Green Card. Now, rather than working in the underground economy, everyone will clamor to work in the legal economy and earn those Social Security quarters.
    4. The US does not have a Social Security entitlement problem; it has a lack of imagination problem in its political leadership.
    5. Increase Asian immigration and let the Chinese leaders wonder where all the talent went!

  4. CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

    Hmmmm, is the GOP really anti-immigration? Or is this just a liberal meme? Pls show me legislation passed by the fed GOP house or GOP state govt that seeks to roll-back America's status as the number one LEGAL immigration destination in the world. I know it's not fashionable in Washington to enforce existing statute; but ignoring American law is not "pro immigrant" in any healthy sense.

    The author may be an unserious presentor by perpetuating this nonsense.

  5. CommentedShane Beck

    Not necessarily. It depends upon how the immigrants identify themselves. People immigrate for various reasons- economic, family ties, fleeing persecution etc. If the immigrants still identify themselves in terms of the home country, you may get ghettos or at worst balkanization in unstable countries. It also varies over time- first generation immigrants may not integrate but the third generation may integrate. It also depends upon the acendency of the home countries- now that Asian countries are economically strong there is less reason for the asian immigrants to integrate into America and more reason to emphasise their cultural heritage / ties. There are advantages for nations to be culturally heterogenuous but there are also advantages for nations to be culturally homogenuous or at least have one totally dominant culture.

  6. CommentedLuis A. Guerra

    While reading your article I can not help but remember a comment left to an article in the Miami Herald which I later published in my Blog "Stars, Stripes and Stains". Here a quote of that comment:

    "Our concept of freedom is so powerful that it even negates the need of a given culture and/or language to exist. In fact, it is the power of our concept of freedom that allows us to assimilate as much or as little as we want from any culture in the world and still remain uniquely American. In the process, our freedom compels us to use our imagination and reshape, transform, refine, etc. everything we assimilate and end up with a uniquely American version of the original; talk about hot dogs, Taco Bell and Brooklyn style pizza.

    You should have more faith on the power of our concept of freedom. Immigrants certainly do and eventually are compelled to make it their own regardless of what believes they might have brought with them when they first arrived to the US.

    That is the true America; "E pluribus Unum" by the uniqueness and immensely creative as well as galvanizing power of our concept of freedom".

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