Where do we begin
It was time when strangers were welcome here
Music would play they tell me the days were sweet and clear
It was a sweeter tune and there was so much room
That people could come from everywhere
— The Immigrant by Neil Sedaka
Sedaka’s love-poem about a better time when “strangers were welcome here…” may be a bit overstated. Those of us whose past included a stop at Ellis Island know the hardships faced by our own immigrant ancestors. By definition, I am a second-generation immigrant. My father was born in Italy and arrived in America at age 7. My mother’s father was born in Italy as well, making her second generation as well. Given the sheer number of immigrants that arrived in America during the early 20th century, I doubt that our story is all that unique. The attraction, then as now, continues to be America’s offer of a better life with plentiful opportunities to find work, get an education, and raise a family. These are reasons enough for many immigrants to brave the desperate journey that leads them to our borders. It is the same journey taken many years ago by my father and his mother who braved a voyage that changed my destiny as well as theirs. Their sacrifice over time would provide the next generation with opportunities they could only have dreamed of. Social mobility was and remains the engine driving the dream.
Immigration is a hot-button political issue today for many reasons — some valid. For those who would restrict immigrants at our borders, their concern is driven by fear that newcomers are overtaking our population and changing the characteristics of our neighborhoods, towns, schools, and eventually the nation itself. This is separate and distinct from the reality that immigrants and a fair and safe immigration policy would actually benefit our nation. The acrimony and fears being generated by a dishonest and forgetful GOP in league with their sycophants in the right-wing media are easily denied by facts. Their worries of “being replaced” by immigrants perhaps a shade darker than their own ancestors are fueled by racism, greed, and selfishness. What they fail to understand is that the new immigrants, like those in the past, are willing to bear the hardships and withstand the bigotry for a chance at a better life. Let us not kid ourselves and forget that those who braved the journey before were greeted by many with similar disregard.
The Mayflower Myth
As each new group of immigrants assimilated and settled in place, many among them thought of themselves as “real Americans,” not to be displaced by mobs of foreigners, not unlike their own predecessors. Immigrant families have been with us since the Mayflower and their contributions, historically, have provided the U.S. with a distinct advantage over other nations:
Worldwide, the United States is home to more international migrants than any other country, and more than the next four countries — Germany, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United Kingdom — combined, according to the UN Population Division’s mid-2020 data. While the U.S. population represents about 5 percent of the total world population, close to 20 percent of all global migrants reside in the United States.
….immigrants and their U.S.-born children number approximately 87.7 million people, or close to 27 percent of the U.S. population in the 2022 CPS, an increase of approximately 14.7 million (or 20 percent) from 2010
The good news is that immigration is one of the few hedges to an aging population which is generally considered to be detrimental to nations with low birth rates of immigration. The list of nations whose economies are in danger due to negative population growth includes many European countries, China, Japan, and Russia. The U.S. despite the fact that our birth rates are below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per female, exceeds a healthy replacement rate mostly due to our immigration rates. Immigration fuels the economy while it provides additional revenue to support the aging populations due to the influx of younger and more eager to contribute with their muscle and talents.
What this analysis does not take into consideration are the contributions made by successive generations born of the immigrant population. This is perhaps the most illuminating aspect which immigration critics fail to realize in their shortsighted evaluation of the impacts of a positive immigration policy.
The current rates of immigration while high are not historic. Immigrants comprised almost 14% of the U.S. population. This figure is neither exceptional nor unexpected. In 2019 the percentage of immigrants in the population was 13.6%. The percentage has fluctuated over time, but has increased slightly of late:
As our population increased, the percentage of immigrants represented in the population has remained rather stable. The influxes of northern and southern Europeans in the late 19th-early 20th centuries are at or near the percentages today. The difference is that today the source of immigrants to the U.S. come from Mexico and South America. In addition, the dips in the flow of immigrants did not come about by regulation, but by world events and policies enacted by other nations.
Getting our $ worth
The value the immigrant population brings is another matter that bears analysis. The anti-immigrant sentiment is not new to America and the reasons are not difficult to figure out. There has always been a concern among generational Americans that their piece of the economic pie would be diminished by the newcomers and their progeny. A 2019 CBS Money Watch report underscores their fears. A 2019 CBS Money Watch report underscores their fears. The economic and educational opportunities that are available to all Americans in many cases impact second and third-generation immigrants to a greater degree than their peers:
The economists… paired the earnings of immigrants with their sons, who were first-generation Americans, to examine economic mobility within the three groups. Overall, children of immigrants tended to have more success getting ahead than children born to U.S. citizens, they found. Notably, later waves of immigrant children have been no less successful than those from Europe.
A century ago, children of Italian immigrants who were in only the 25th percentile of income earners grew up to earn at the 53rd percentile, the study found. By comparison, children of U.S. families at the 25th percentile only rose the 40th percentile. In other words, while both sets of children climbed the ladder, first-generation Italian-Americans saw greater economic gains.
Immigrants tend to settle in U.S. regions and cities that offer the best chance for economic progress, the researchers found. A century ago, that meant the Northeast, the upper Midwest and the West, when the mills and factories of bustling industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit offered plenty of work for new arrivals. Today, most foreign-born residents live in Western states or Northeastern cities.
The report concludes, “Our research suggests that politicians crafting immigration policy shouldn’t be so short-sighted…”
The current anti-immigrant sentiment is being fueled by politicians who are seriously misrepresenting data that they know exists in order to promote a spurious agenda. By scapegoating immigrants as a threat to our economy and security, they conveniently ignore the fact immigrants can in fact be part of the solutions to some of these problems. The broken immigration policies they refuse to fix are not caused by those gathered at the border looking for a better life for themselves and their families. Historically, the U.S. has benefitted from their perseverance and has been enriched by the diversity they offer our culture. Despite the xenophobic roadblocks that have been put in their way, immigrants manage to overcome and prosper. The current reaction created and nurtured mainly by Republicans is at once ungenerous and self-defeating. Immigrants bring more to the table than they take from it and the evidence is abundantly clear to anyone willing to admit the facts.
Education and ‘the dream’
One measurement of upward mobility among immigrants from first to later generations is their level of educational attainment. It is a factor that is also evident among blacks whose educational opportunities had been denied them as a material extension of their enslavement over the centuries. It is no wonder then that the GOP has long waged an attack on the public education systems that have become more vicious today using fiscal policy as an excuse for their hostile anti-intellectualism in support of rank bigotry:
Students from immigrant families accounted for 28 percent of all U.S. college students in 2018, up from 20 percent in 2000, according to a new analysis by the Migration Policy Institute commissioned by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. The number of students from immigrant families — those who were either born abroad or born in the U.S. to immigrant parents — grew at a much faster rate than the number of U.S.-born students with U.S.-born parents…
Today’s immigrants thrive in our nation and at greater rates than past waves and their status compares favorably with native-born Americans:
- Immigrants tend to have very similar incomes to the native born. Immigrant households in 2021 had a median income of $69,622, compared to $69,734 for native-born households.
- Fourteen percent of immigrants were poor (that is, with family incomes below the official poverty threshold of $27,500 for a family of four with two children in 2021), compared to 13 percent of the U.S. born. (MPI)
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt encapsulated the frustration of the knowingly ignorant who have since our earliest times selfishly benefitted while denouncing those on whose labors this nation was built:
“What has happened to us in this country? If we study our own history, we find that we have always been ready to receive the unfortunate from other countries, and though this may seem a generous gesture on our part, we have profited a thousand fold by what they have brought us.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt
Our nation of immigrants has a blithe amnesia about who we are and where we are from. We forget that the high price of a ticket on the Mayflower covered our investment in the future. It is an investment others huddled at our borders are willing to pay for themselves and their children. A humane immigration policy that offers them hope for a better future here is a small dividend to pay in return.