Immigration is a Key Ingredient in the Recipe of America’s Success


A man decided to purchase some tilapia to breed and stock a pond on his Florida property, according to a true story by author Harry Palmer. He went to a supplier, who took him to a muddy brown pond out back. “I’ll get you some good ones.” The man wondered how that could be, since the water was too dark to see any fish. The supplier turned a valve, releasing a brisk flow of water into the pond. She took a net and swooped up fish that swam facing the water that gushed out, against the stream. “The best ones like the challenge,” she explained.

In my view, the U.S. has long been stocked by a stream of the very best from abroad: people who sell their possessions, leave behind loved ones, and face harsh challenges, including the possibility of death, for a chance to better the lives of themselves and their families. It’s true that according to a 2016 study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, first-generation immigrants cost U.S. taxpayers $57.4 billion a year, but the same study found that second-generation immigrants boosted the economy by $30.5 billion, and third-generation immigrants, by $223.8 billion a year. Immigrants make up one quarter of U.S. inventors and 27 percent of U.S. entrepreneurs, the Harvard Business Review reports. What a bonanza!

First-generation immigrants include Albert Einstein, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, fashion designer Liz Claiborne, and Gaetano Ognibene. Mr. Ognibene immigrated from Sicily and ran a fruit and vegetable stand in upstate NY. During this period, Italian immigrants were called Whops (WitHOut Papers) as well as anarchists, since anarchists who were Italian mailed bombs to U.S. politicians, and set off an explosion on Wall Street that killed 38 people. These days, Italian Americans are just called white people.

Ognibene’s first two children left school early to help support the family, but his fifth child, Josephine, graduated from high school and went to work in Rochester, NY where she met Waldo Nielsen, the son of immigrants from Denmark and Austria. Waldo fought for the U.S. army in World War II and became an engineer at Kodak. His son, my brother, a third-generation immigrant, has employed hundreds of people in the restaurants he’s founded, while I’ve been a member of the U.S. diplomatic community abroad. As you can see, the topic of immigration is personal for me. I’m for it.

The DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program children are illegal, but for many, the U.S. is the only home they can remember, and they’re thoroughly acclimated to U.S. values and customs. They’ve been carefully vetted by the U.S. government, and most important, given their youth when they arrived, they are essentially second-generation immigrants. That means they are well positioned to boost the U.S. economy. What a bonanza!

What do I think America’s immigration policy should be? I favor President George W. Bush’s Comprehensive Immigration plan, which would have provided legal status and a path to citizenship for approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. Paired with increased border enforcement, it represented a compromise that attracted both Republican and Democratic support. These days, however, we’ve careened from discussing a path to citizenship for undocumented workers to a proposal to slash legal immigration in half.

I believe this would be ill-advised. First of all, with the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide totaling 65.3 million in 2015 — higher than at the end of World War II, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — it is uncharitable to propose a drop in the number of immigrants the U.S. accepts. Second, with an unemployment rate of 4.4 percent (August 2017), we can absorb more immigrants. Although unemployment rates vary across the country, help-wanted signs abound where I live in northern Virginia. Yesterday I received a flyer from Wegmans in the mail, not asking me to come and shop, but rather to come and work there.

Lastly, immigration is a key ingredient to America’s success. Remember when Coca Cola changed its formula and introduced “new Coke”? It was a disaster. We shouldn’t mess with a recipe that works for us.

Donna Murphy is a national leader with Better Angels

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