Guest Column

Embrace immigrants for the right reasons

January 23, 2015
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Let’s be honest. Many of us wouldn’t mind immigrants bursting in from Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands — you know, the people who look like us.

Instead, they come from Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador. They don’t speak English; they listen to strange music. They exploit our health care system and taxpayer-funded education. Let’s protest this rabble — let’s call into C-Span.

Many of these “rabble” risked a 1,000-mile journey of robbery, rape and death for the privilege of performing the worst of the worst jobs that most of us would never consider. They toil for hours in freezing rain and stifling heat to provide us the Michigan blueberries and asparagus and other fruits and vegetables we eat every day. They also do those things we care not to think of when dining on our juicy sirloin.

They want to live a dream we enjoy merely by being the fortunate child of a mother already living within the borders. Immigration opponents can cite examples of immigrant crime, but, statistically, incarceration rates for foreign-born people is about a quarter of the rates of U.S. born.

So what’s the problem? Social psychologist Henri Tajfel tells us in his Social Identity Theory that humans have an innate “us versus them” mentality. As the saying goes, “We fear what we don’t understand.”

Understand this: The United States is not in competition with itself. It’s in competition with countries with increasingly better-educated citizens who are compensated with lower wages in China, India, and countries in Africa and South America. Further, immigrants don’t typically compete with Americans for many of their jobs but rather create more jobs through economic activity and increased tax revenues. They also complement our workforce while filling labor shortages across the skill spectrum, while growing the tax base and raising the worker-to-retiree ratio. This is essential to supporting the safety net for the elderly while replenishing the workforce depleted by baby boomer retirements.

According to Alex Nowrasteh of the conservative CATO Institute, “Far from ruining the welfare state by driving it to bankruptcy, immigrants are currently helping to financially sustain it long enough to pass real entitlement reform. The welfare state turns voters against immigration in a way few other institutions can. Overcoming the welfare hurdle is essential to producing positive immigration reform.”

And, anecdotally, many foremen will tell you that, dollar-for-dollar, immigrants are extremely productive and hard-working; “they’re motivated,” they say. In short, immigration is good for industry.

Businesses can’t hire the workers they need without more visas. If West Michigan continues to grow in the biotech and other technology arenas, Grand Rapids-area businesses will be hard-pressed to find enough qualified and interested Americans despite recruitment efforts.

In Washington, a must-pass issue has become a political football as stakeholders become more ideologically rigid. There was some hope for a compromise immigration reform plan addressing border security and the millions of undocumented immigrants, but that prospect died last June when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary after calling for action, sending a strong message to all candidates during election 2014.

Hardliners have good points. We must have entry accountability and strong border enforcement. And at a time when we seem to be torn apart at the seams due to our diversity, more assimilation — conforming and acceptance — is critical. A national mandatory electronic employment verification system, ensuring back taxes and fines are paid, among other issues can only addressed by comprehensive immigration reform. If immigrants begin to receive more welfare than they contribute to the economy, limits should be prescribed and imposed.

The President chastises his opponents while dragging his feet on negotiations. Then he made his decision in November to issue an immigration executive order granting temporary relief to about 4 million immigrants facing deportation. Republicans were outraged.

House conservatives, angry about an omnibus spending bill that lacked a tough response to Obama, now back a plan that not only blocks Obama’s November Amnesty Order but reverses the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals plan that prevented deportation for those brought here as children. It’s unlikely the Senate will ever get the six Democratic votes needed to overcome a filibuster and get a veto-proof majority to the President’s desk. The continued lack of coherent policy does not bode well for our economy and those we count on to keep our food and labor costs low.

Teddy Roosevelt stated, “We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin.”

Immigrants are not just a voting bloc, nor should they be feared. They should be embraced. They are human beings, productive, deserving our respect that only thoughtful, non-emotional policy reform can deliver.

Grand Rapids native Steve Carey is president of Potomac Strategic Development Co. in Washington, D.C.

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