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Since long before this country became a nation, people were migrating here. In fact the oldest human fossil ever found in the United States, known as Del Mar Man, was dated at 50,000 years old (Soto). The people who made the trek across the Bering land bridge are thought to be the first inhabitants of North America. They belonged to hunting and gathering societies who surely came here in search of food and a better climate. Fifty thousand years ago if people wanted to pack their bags and move to another part of the world the only thing that could stop them was geography, or perhaps weather.
There were no political borders, no official checkpoints. There were no customs officials at cold counters waiting to inspect passports or visas.
Today, of course, things are a little different. Political borders are commonplace. Even borders that were once invisible are now more than just arbitrary lines on a map. More often now these borders are taking the shape of huge concrete or steel fences, lined with razor wire or guards.
The United States occupies just part of North America, a piece that the country has, through various means, carved out for itself. Back in the eighteenth century, following the fight for independence with Britain, it was a relatively small country. There were thirteen states and a relatively small population. By 1995, the United States had grown to fifty states and over 250 million people (U.S. Statistics 830). It is arguably the greatest nation in the world; the rest of the world often looks to the U.
S. for leadership. It has the worlds largest economy and the highest standard of living.
This economic growth was not achieved merely by the proliferation of the original colonists though. It was in part with immigration that this nation was able to rise to such a position in the world. Many of the nations greatest inventors were foreign-born immigrants to America. Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity forever changed our view of the physical world, emigrated from Germany (Pyenson). Wernher von Braun, whose Saturn V rocket put humans on the moon, also emigrated from Germany (Dooling). Nikola Tesla, whose discoveries led to the modern electrical power industry, emigrated from Croatia (Tesla). Even without considering the accomplishments of these more famous immigrants, one cannot overlook the contribution of the sheer number of immigrant laborers used for this countrys industrialization. The resources of this country could never have been tapped without the help of immigrants.
Ever since this country was founded, immigration has been a divisive topic. The ideologies are spread across a very wide spectrum. There are those who would like our government to remove barriers currently in place against immigration. They would like to see immigration rates increased to allow more newcomers into the country. In opposition to those views are those who prefer to say enough already and close the borders entirely to newcomers. They feel that further immigration is harmful to the United States. The issue is certainly a controversial one; too complex to be decided based on a few thirty second advertisements during a campaign. In order to reach a solution that will be acceptable to both sides, we first need to understand exactly how each side feels about the issue.
The people who want to open the borders and increase immigration with little or no restrictions believe there are sound economic reasons for doing so. Ben Wattenberg and Karl Zinsmeister, American Enterprise Institute scholars, point out that the population of the United States has been in decline and will continue to decline in the future. They attribute this decline to fertility rates have[ing] been below the replacement level for some time (114). They believe that if something is not done to offset this decline, the nation is going to suffer a serious labor shortage. Although the economy is at an all time high with a record stock market, the countrys economic growth is relatively low. In order for economic growth to increase, they believe the labor pool should be expanded. Immigration is one way to achieve this expansion. David Kennedy, professor of American History at Stanford University, believes that for the U.S. economy to maintain a healthy growth rate, it will need from four to fourteen million more immigrants each year just to meet labor demands (313).
Additionally, over the next thirty years, the nation is going to experience what one could call an old folks boom. This will happen as the baby boomer generation begins to retire. As they leave the work force, two problems are going to become very apparent. First is the deepening of the current labor shortage. The generations behind the boomers are much smaller by comparison, and they will not be able to fill all the gaps created when the boomers retire. The second and more serious problem is going to be the Social Security system failure. When the boomers retire, they are going to want their Social Security checks. The problem is that without a substantial work force in place and paying taxes, the Social Security system will go bankrupt. The alternative is to raise taxes on a diminished work force, squeezing even more income out of fewer taxpayers. Immigration, it is thought, can help keep Social Security afloat and thereby reduce the impact on individual taxpayers.
There are also various reasons used by opponents of immigration in support of their position. One of their reasons for reducing or eliminating immigration is their belief that the current immigration numbers are overburdening social services. Nicolaus Mills, in his essay Lifeboat Ethics and Immigration Fears, points out that programs such as AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and SSI, Supplemental Security Income, are being increasingly utilized by immigrants. Some children of legal as well as illegal immigrants are collecting AFDC payments, even before they have paid any taxes to help support that program. Impoverished immigrants also receive food stamps in addition to AFDC. While the children of immigrants are drawing AFDC and food stamps, Mills notes, many older generation immigrants are collecting SSI. Again, this seems unfair to Mills since these older immigrants may not have contributed to the tax man (343).
While Mills justifies his stance against immigration with reasons based in economics, there are others whose reasons center on culture. People like Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, believe that todays emphasis on multiculturalism is splitting our country apart. In her essay, What to Do about Immigration she writes, Multicultural education has spread to the point where all students are encouraged to think of themselves primarily as members of groups rather than Americans (331). She feels that reducing immigration may reduce the rift that she sees forming between the different peoples of this country. In agreement with Chavez are John OSullivan, the editor of National Review and Peter Brimelow, a senior editor at Forbes. OSullivan states that multiculturalism would be easier to dismantle if immigration were reduced (qtd. in Chavez 331). Their belief that multiculturalism might harm the United States is summed up by this statement by Brimelow. He points out that, None of the great premodern multinational empires have survived (320).
It is clear that each side in the debate over immigration feels they have the correct solution to the immigration issue. But rather than opening the flood gates of immigration fully or closing them entirely, we should examine another, more acceptable position on this issue. Allowing immigration to continue at its current, moderate flow, with perhaps some minor modifications to policy, will prove best for the country. At present, experts estimate annual immigration at just over one million people, that includes the estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants coming each year (Chavez 327). That is a population increase of 0.4 percent per year. Between 1970 and 1990 the total population, including foreign-born immigrants, grew at only around one percent per year (U.S. Statistics 830). This pace is neither too restrictive nor too excessive. There currently are not enough jobs available to warrant increasing the rate of immigration. If a labor shortage does materialize, like David Kennedy and others fear, then the available pool of unemployed workers can be trained to fill the gap. As for the problems with Social Security, the answer is not more immigrants, but better management and possible restructuring of the Social Security system.
In discussing AFDC and SSI, Nicolaus Mills makes some valid points. But rather than restricting immigration in general, perhaps we should eliminate some of the loopholes that are being misused. In fact, to prevent social programs such as SSI and AFDC from being misused in the future, Congress has changed the immigration law. Effective in 1996, sponsors of immigrants are required to sign a legally binding affidavit of support which would be enforceable until the immigrant either became a citizen or worked and paid taxes for 40 quarters (U.S. Immigration 841). This change virtually ensures that immigrants will not receive either SSI or AFDC without first earning the privilege.
Those who believe that multiculturalism is a problem that must be solved by reducing immigration need to remember that diversity is what made this country great. The diversity that immigration brings to the United States can help it be more competitive, especially in the new global economy. That there is such a variety of cultural experiences to draw upon will make the U.S. an even more powerful player in the global marketplace. With many U.S. corporations setting up shop in other countries, there is a need for people who have a loyalty to America along with a first hand understanding of the countries with which America does business. Rather than isolating itself from the world, the United States should be open to what diversity can bring.
The issue of immigration, just as the world, is ever evolving, and no plan should be set in concrete. For now, immigration should be allowed to continue at the current rate, but we must be watchful for signs that may signal the necessity for policy adjustments.
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