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Hasson: Immigration and American competitiveness

Isaac Hasson, Columnist

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When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear. And that’s exactly what John Boehner did on Friday when he mocked certain House Republicans who are dragging their feet on immigration reform. Boehner imitated his colleagues: “Here’s the attitude,” he said, “‘Ohhhh, don’t make me do this. Ohhhh, this is too hard,’” he whined.  

Some Republicans believe addressing immigration reform in an election year will divert attention from President Obama’s numerous policy fiascos, as if campaigning was their primary responsibility. They’d prefer to sit on their hands. Others favor an enforcement-only policy that gratuitously separates families, destroys millions of lives and subtracts billions of dollars from our economy. This approach is myopic, shortsighted and totally un-American. I believe we deserve better.

Thankfully, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) just announced he would introduce an immigration bill that would provide the children of unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship and improve border security and enforcement. This is a tremendous step in the right direction.

With all of the partisan bickering and political posturing, it’s easy to lose perspective on how important this issue is for our future. Robust immigration creates long-term opportunities for everyone: Immigrants own one in five small businesses and have started 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies. The Congressional Budget Office calculated the Senate’s immigration reform proposal would increase GDP growth by 1 percent a year and reduce the deficit by $900 billion over the next 20.

A prosperous country depends on a favorable ratio of workers to retirees. Senior citizens now account for over 25 percent of Japan’s population and will reach 40 percent by 2060 if current trends continue. Immigrants help the United States avoid a similar fate in a few ways. First, most immigrants come to the U.S. at the beginning of their working years. Native-born citizens pay into entitlements while their parents collect; immigrants pay in while nobody collects. Second, immigrants tend to leave their parents in their country of origin, and the 2.5 percent of immigrants who arrive as senior citizens are not eligible for benefits. Finally, immigrants have a higher fertility rate than native-born Americans. Consequently, the Social Security Administration’s chief actuary estimates that the higher levels of legal immigration permitted by the Senate’s proposal would put an additional 600 billion dollars into the trust fund over 75 years, a net positive contribution.

Our legal immigration system is a disaster. There is no cap on the number of agricultural visas, but only 65,000 were issued in 2012 as a result of the program’s enormous bureaucracy. Thus, between 50 and 80 percent of America’s two million farmworkers are undocumented. Visas for highly skilled workers are just as bad. We allow foreign students to come to our universities and then send them away. The number of visas available to highly skilled workers is capped at 85,000, which is typically reached in a matter of days. This year there were 172,000 applicants, which means the 87,000 who did not receive visas will likely go to work for one of America’s foreign competitors.

For me, it’s very personal. In 1941, a young man born into poverty in Colombia boarded a boat to New York. He signed up for the Army and went to fight the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy. When he returned, he met an Ecuadorian woman. They started a family. He worked as a barber and a cab driver; she worked in an electronics factory. That man was my grandfather and the woman my grandmother. My dad’s family came here as religious and economic refugees from Turkey. Stories like ours are common in America, but they are unique in the world.

Even during a time of hardship, a broad majority wants Congress to fix this problem and provide the 11 million undocumented a path out of the shadows. That speaks volumes about the American people and separates us from the rest of the world. In Greece, a group of thugs called the Golden Dawn won seats in parliament by inciting violence against immigrants. In the UK, the leaders of both Labour and the Tories are competing to limit immigration. Denmark has adopted immigration laws so stringent that asylum seekers are forced to live in camps, which they are forbidden to leave. Ultimately, a country’s immigration policy is a statement of its values. We will chart a different course because there are two things that have made our country great: ideas and the people who have them.

Isaac Hasson is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at isaachasson2013@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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