State of the Planet

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The Importance of Immigration to American Independence

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

With the Trump travel ban partially, if only temporarily, approved by the Supreme Court, it’s time to return attention to the fundamental rather than the legal issues of immigration. The president may or may not have the power to impose a travel ban; the Supreme Court will decide that this fall. We have been here before: Trump is not the only president to put out the unwelcome mat. During World War II, the federal government forced Americans of Japanese origin to live in internment camps that were essentially low-security prisons. FDR famously refused to allow Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis from entering the United States. As the grandson of immigrants, I have a deep understanding of the importance of immigration to America and of America to immigrants. John F. Kennedy wrote a book about America’s tradition of immigration entitled, A Nation of Immigrants. He knew and I know that what makes America unique is that in a generation or so an immigrant and an immigrant’s children can become Americans. Try doing that in China or Japan. As we celebrate this great nation’s Declaration of Independence, it makes sense to remember that freedom in the 21st century is not achieved through isolation but through engagement with the global community.

I like our diversity and I am attracted to a nation built on the brains and brawn of people from every part of this planet. It is true that Native Americans were brutalized and African Americans were involuntary immigrants. Part of America’s legacy is the shame of slavery and the oppression of new Americans, but despite these deep imperfections, America has long remained a beacon of hope for people from many places. I think our diversity is precisely what made America great, and President Trump’s effort to discourage immigration weakens America. It makes us less, not more, safe. It will also make us poorer, not richer. The true impact of his Executive Order is to scare people away from our shores. The evil people he wants to keep out will figure out some way to get in. His executive order doesn’t make it more difficult to attack us. It does nothing to prevent terror from people who are born here and have easy access to all types of high powered weaponry. I assume that he or the people who advise him know all of this. The goal of their immigration ban is to throw a symbolic bone to his political base that worries that America is becoming less white than it once was.

But the problem is that discouraging immigration damages our global image, our principles and our economy. The early news is that many of the jobs that immigrants take, from working on farms in California to kitchens in Kansas, are going unfilled. But that is not the most significant impact. America’s freedoms and creative spirit attract brilliant innovators from all over the world. People come here because, unlike China, there is no firewall preventing you from accessing the NY Times or Google. Unlike Russia, you don’t worry about the police arresting you for attacking the head of state on your website. Unlike many places in the world, you can raise your children in relative peace and security. That is why our laboratories, corporations, and institutions are filled with skilled and brilliant professionals who are attracted to America for our quality of life. We are far from perfect, but before Trump became president, immigrants felt tolerated, if not welcomed. Now they are scared and dreaming of Toronto instead of Chicago.

The technology of communication, computation and transportation has made our economy global. It is possible and more cost effective to produce goods and services with a global supply chain. Production processes are now improved constantly and people in the developed world enjoy access to information, entertainment and material goods at prices that are at historic lows due to intense global innovation and competition. We are in a highly competitive, global, brain-based economy. However, the growth of global corporations has created huge problems of governance and exacerbated income inequality. Governments must deal with economic forces that are truly beyond their control. Despite these issues, the global economy is here to stay. Anti-immigration policies and efforts to restrict trade only tend to impoverish the nations that impose those restrictions. It’s like using an umbrella to stay safe during a tidal wave.

Sovereign national governments must develop new ways of influencing the behavior of global corporations. And these efforts must be more precise than the blunt instruments of tariffs, immigration restrictions and trade barriers. My general view is that positive incentives are more effective than command and control rules. Global companies should be encouraged, and even paid, to locate to the U.S. When global monopolies develop, they must be regulated by multinational agreements or institutions. American immigration rules should make it clear that we want people to come here who can contribute their brains and work ethic to enhance our well-being. We can use the tax system to encourage such immigrants. We should pursue policies that enable the United State to play a key role at the center of the global economy.

I am not arguing that the forces of the global economy are entirely positive. There are many negative impacts as well. For example, while China seems to be cutting back on coal consumption at home, Hiroko Tabuchi reported in the New York Times recently that “Chinese corporations are building or planning to build more than 700 new coal plants at home and around the world, some in countries that today burn little or no coal.”

In this case it is the governments of China and Egypt and China and Pakistan working with private corporations in an effort to bring electricity to the developing world while keeping the Chinese economy growing. In short, the global economy brings the bad with the good. It is, however, a permanent fact of economic life, and we must develop methods of regulating these companies to ensure they do not harm to the public.

The symbols of the wall with Mexico and the Muslim ban have done great damage to America’s image as a place that welcomes people from other parts of the world. We need to engage with the global economy. The irony is that while it has always been an imperfect process, we are quite good at integrating foreign people, ideas, culture and food into the mainstream of American culture. If you go to an American ballpark these days, hot dogs and burgers are now sold alongside tacos, sushi, bagels and foods from many nations. Drive on Northern Boulevard or Main Street in Queens, New York, and you will see the signs on storefronts in English, Chinese and Korean. If you manage a company and want to do business in a distant part of the world, the odds are great that you can hire an American who knows the language and culture of that distant land.

This is a great strength of America. Xenophobia and the America First philosophy is a sign of weakness. This country always does better when it strives for inclusiveness. Isolationism, fear of the foreign and racism represent the elements of American culture that rarely lead to desirable outcomes. As technology shrinks the planet and multinational organizational networks create highly specialized and efficient production processes, the ability to move seamlessly from culture to culture is an important competitive advantage. An important counterforce to the global is the desire to maintain something that is distinctly local and not homogeneous. Immigration puts us in a position to create global partnerships based on understanding, empathy and mutual gain. Many immigrants understand both America and the country they came from.

As economic development continues around the world, population growth will decline and population itself may begin to shrink. The nations that have a culture and tradition of welcoming immigrants will be able to maintain a sense of dynamism while those that shut off immigration will decline. Despite the America First rhetoric, and despite a consistent minority of anti-immigrant fervor, America has always ended up welcoming immigrants. The importance of maintaining that tradition has never been greater. We need to develop a sophisticated, non-ideological way of interacting with the global economy. A positive, welcoming approach to immigration is a key part of that relationship. America didn’t declare independence in 1776 to hide from the world, but to establish a free society. In the 21st century, freedom requires the ability to travel, communicate, and engage with the rest of the world. Happy 4th

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