A Timid Silence on America’s Immigration Challenge

Immigration barely figured as an issue in the presidential campaign. To their credit, both George Bush and Al Gore praised the contributions of immigrants to American society. But they said little else on the subject.

That silence is unfortunate given that immigration is one of the most powerful forces shaping American life in the coming quarter-century. To see why, consider the following.

In the 1990s, almost a million immigrants entered the United States legally every year, nearly triple the rate in the 1960s. Some 275,000 more—no one knows the exact number—entered illegally as well each year.

As a result, today nearly one in 10 Americans is foreign born, a number not seen since the 1930s. And no one knows when, or if, this upsurge in immigration will end.

Perhaps even more significant is where the new arrivals are coming from. Historically, European immigrants have predominated. Today it is Latinos. Indeed, 20 percent of all legal immigrants and perhaps as much as 67 percent of illegal immigrants come from Mexico alone.

The extent and nature of the new immigration has spawned warnings about America’s demise. A particular fear is that Latinos will not assimilate. Rather, they will form separate communities in which Spanish, not English, is the language of choice.

Such fears are not limited to right-wing cranks.

Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington writes that Mexican immigration to the United States “looms as a unique and disturbing challenge to our cultural integrity, our national identity, and potentially to our future as a country.”

These fears prompt calls for substantial cuts in legal immigration and greater efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigration. But such proposals are unlikely to be adopted. Politicians understandably worry that supporting lower immigration will cost them the Latino vote.

Nor are new rules likely to stop illegal immigration. Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 to better control our borders. Since then the number of illegal immigrants has doubled.

It is also not clear that lower levels of immigration would actually benefit America.

With the native-born population aging, immigrants have become a key to sustaining American economic growth. Without them, the labor pool would shrink, inflation would rise, and economic growth would likely slow. That is why a state like Iowa has embarked on an aggressive strategy of trying to recruit foreign workers to replenish its dwindling population.

More important, though, calls for reduced immigration miss the broader point. It matters less how many immigrants come to America each year than what happens to them when they get here.

The lesson of America’s 300-year experiment with immigration is that a society that embraces immigrants and helps them develop the skills they need to succeed will be stronger for it.

For that reason, President-elect George W. Bush would be well advised to breach the silence of the campaign and begin a national dialogue on immigration. The purpose should be to hammer out a national consensus on what the federal, state and local governments can do to help new arrivals succeed.

Bush can breathe life into this national dialogue by taking three concrete steps.

First, he should propose dramatically increased spending on programs that teach English as a second language. Immigrants understand better than anyone else that English is crucial to economic success in the United States. That’s why the demand for these programs far exceeds the supply.

Second, he should make good on his campaign pledge to make the Immigration and Naturalization Service more “user friendly.” The sometimes Byzantine process for becoming a citizen is one reason that nearly two out of three immigrants choose not to.

Third, he could offer a limited amnesty for longtime illegal immigrants in the United States. These people work hard, pay taxes, and deserve the right to become equal members of American society.

If Bush fails to use the presidential bully pulpit to remind Americans that when immigrants win, the country wins, Professor Huntington’s dismal prediction may come true.

But it will be the result of choice, not destiny. America will have failed to harness the vitality of immigrants and incorporate them into the very society that inspired them to migrate here in the first place.