In the aftermath of the Cold War, as Soviet missiles lay rusting in their cages, a number of suddenly underemployed strategists turned their fretful gaze toward international migration as a substitute “security threat.”
Despite its dubious credibility, the idea gained adherents during the economic downturn of the early 1990s, and a number of politicians became addicted to the politics of division and intolerance. Very few leaders - Rudolph Giuliani being a notable exception - were willing to defend immigration on the grounds that receiving nations were “doing well by doing good.”
The dispiriting result of this Chicken Little obsession with immigration has been the elevation of a body of myths and half-truths to the status of conventional wisdom. It’s time to take an ax to these. Alarmism can be as dangerous as passivity, and immigration is too important an issue to be left to the ideologues.
Myth No. 1
Immigration to the United States is out of control.
The main thing “out of control” about immigration is the level of angst the subject seems to trigger. But consider the facts: The overwhelming majority of immigrants arrive in the United States through highly regulated channels designed to serve America’s interests and needs.
Myth No. 2
Legal immigrants impose net costs on the United States.
Fully satisfactory cost-benefit assessments of immigration are notoriously hard to conduct. But there is widespread agreement among scholars that, at the aggregate level, immigration benefits a country’s employers, consumers and its international economic position, while not diminishing the overall employment prospects or wages of domestic workers.
This summer, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences ratified this finding, concluding that “immigration produces net economic benefits for domestic residents.” No reputable study anywhere has disagreed with this conclusion.
Myth No. 3
Illegal immigration is a major social and economic problem.
Actually, this one is half true. There are approximately 5 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States today, and about 275,000 may be added every year. About 40 percent of these come to the United States legally and overstay their visas. (The next time you hear that we have “lost control of our borders” remember that even the most highly militarized border operation won’t touch the overstayers.)
Despite the rhetoric, unauthorized immigrants aren’t bad people. In fact, they are generally similar to authorized immigrants. They have roughly the same skills and demographic composition as legal immigrants of the same national group, arrive via the same pathways, and settle in the same areas.
Often, they are members of the same household. And whether it’s picking fruit, doing “back-of-the-house” restaurant work, or providing a variety of personal services, most of them do jobs that few of us would want.
Still, the presence of a large number of illegal immigrants does pose one major problem: It undermines the principle that we are a nation governed by the rule of law, and thus provokes considerable popular anxiety. The lesson: A healthy and balanced immigration policy must be able to demonstrate that someone is indeed “minding the store” on illegal immigration.
Myth No. 4
Only drastic measures can stop illegal immigration.
Declaring war on illegal immigration is a good applause line, but wars, lest we forget, impose terrible sacrifices. Such bellicose rhetoric fans an alarmism that results in border incidents, vigilantism, racially motivated violence and discrimination.
It also prompts crude and excessive policy proposals, such as militarizing the border, conducting intrusive workplace raids and requiring national ID cards.
A more effective approach is to deploy a range of actions in a comprehensive manner. We could negotiate cooperative border management policies with Mexico; work with employers and ethnic communities to reduce access to U.S. jobs by illegal immigrants; and begin seriously enforcing labor laws, such as minimum wage and overtime rules, child labor rules and occupational health and safety standards.
Myth No. 5
Open borders, free markets and laissez-faire politics are the best approach to immigration.
Opening the borders is an appealing intellectual exercise - after all, if capital is allowed to flow freely across national frontiers, why not people? But immigration is not an unmitigated good. In addition to fueling severe social and political reactions, large flows can seriously destabilize labor markets. Immigration requires close, effective management if a country is to maximize its benefits and minimize its costs.
A constructive, sustainable immigration policy rests on a few core principles:
It should enrich America’s economic, scientific and cultural life; respond to our humanitarian values; and fulfill our international obligations.
It should balance the needs of the country’s employers with the interests of its workers.
It should create a perfectly level playing field so that immigrants have a fair opportunity to succeed. Immigration succeeds when immigrants do.
It should invest as heavily as needed in cooperative bilateral and regional relationships.
It should develop a capability to respond to changing conditions, avoid swinging between extremes, and eschew the legislative hubris and flip-flopping that has characterized it lately.
Finally, as the recent spate of hate crimes in Denver reminds us, one of the fundamental challenges the United States faces is to embrace diversity as a core American value and turn it into the source of strength that it can be.
Diversity without social cohesion can result in anarchy; cohesion that leaves no room for diversity, in a repressive uniformity. The long-term success of today’s immigration is inextricably tied to meeting this challenge.
Doing so, however, will require much greater investments in public education and leadership than anyone has been willing to make to date.
MEMO: Demetrios Papademetriou is the director of the international migration policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This op-ed is drawn from his article, “Think Again: Migration,” published in the Winter 1997-98 issue of Foreign Policy.