State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Wall and Trump’s Anti-Immigration Policy Folly

Someday our economy may become more steady-state and we will no longer see growth as a necessity for a sound society, but that time has not yet come. America’s economic dynamism is built on growth of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and population. The world economy is increasingly dominated by services, and in America over 80 percent of our GDP is in the service sector. That sector depends on creativity, knowledge, innovation and strategy, and is the core of the brain-based economy we are in. Since no nation has a monopoly on brain power, the nation that is most attractive to the world’s smartest people will be the one that builds the strongest economy.

When America seemed hospitable to immigrants we did well in attracting the world’s best and brightest. Ever since Donald Trump rode the escalator down to Trump Tower’s lobby and defamed Mexican immigrants, however, we have appeared more and more hostile to people from other parts of the world. If America becomes so hostile to immigration that we come to resemble Japan, we will regret its impact on our economy. America is already experiencing declining population growth. As Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg recently observed in the Wall Street Journal, our population growth is the slowest it’s been in 80 years. They note that our birthrates are slowing and our death rates are growing. According to Adamy and Overberg:

As birthrates have dropped and death rates risen, immigration’s role in the  nation’s continuing population growth has expanded. Last year, it accounted for 48% of the country’s growth, up from 35% in 2011. Accounting for arrivals and departures, the Census Bureau estimated that the country gained 979,000 people from abroad last year, close to the annual average of 1 million in recent years. The figure accounts for both legal and unauthorized immigration, as well as the movement of Americans moving abroad and back.”

We are seeing President Trump’s impact on the declining number of foreign students studying in the United States and soon we will see the impact of his xenophobia on overall population growth. My guess is that much of the population decline will hit middle America and miss the coasts. Technology companies such as Amazon and Google are growing in New York City. They have come here for brainpower, and they are assuming that New York will continue to welcome immigrants. About 40 percent of the city’s population now includes people that were born in other nations. When you add the children and grandchildren of immigrants to that percentage, it probably doubles. New York and California are not only the homes of sanctuary cities, they are sanctuary states.

Of course, like everyone else, I prefer a functional immigration system that provides an orderly and legal process for immigrants to settle here. But I’d also like to see a Congress that is capable of legislating and a president who represented our country with dignity and decorum. Instead, we have meaningless symbolic politics focused on a wall that is as impractical as it is hostile to foreigners. Every time Trump talks about his wall, I hear Ronald Reagan admonishing the Russians to “tear down this wall” and I think of John F. Kennedy at that same Berlin Wall, making the compelling point that “freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”

Now I realize that Trump’s Wall and the Berlin Wall have radically different purposes―one was to keep people in and the other is to try to keep people out―but in both cases, they were symbolic gestures. In the end, the Berlin Wall came to symbolize the failure of communism. I worry that Trump’s wall, were it to be built, would come to symbolize the failure of the American dream. It would symbolize the end of the vision of America that Reagan called a shining city on a hill, that George H.W. Bush called a thousand points of light, and that Barack Obama simply called “hope”―the America that allowed my grandparents to travel from Russia and Poland and raise a family who very quickly became Americans.

Today we see swastikas painted on the office door of my Columbia colleague, we hear racist taunts becoming more commonplace and we have become victims of an empowered lunatic fringe brandishing automatic weapons in churches and synagogues. In this holiday season of joy and light we all face the darkness of a hate-filled, angry minority of a minority that suddenly feels empowered to express its racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic venom.

That may be Donald Trump’s America, but it is not mine. Mine starts with the inscription on the Statue of Liberty in the harbor of my home city: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  It has never been easy here for immigrants from around the world, but we are, as John F. Kennedy once wrote, A Nation of Immigrants. Recently in the publication The Hill, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt wrote about the origin and importance of JFK’S book:

“In the mid-1950s, when rising xenophobia and anti-immigrant fervor in the U.S. prompted the Anti-Defamation League to prevail upon a then-junior Senator from Massachusetts to write a compelling argument for immigration policy reform. The senator was a future president, John F. Kennedy, and the inspiring essay he penned was A Nation of Immigrants. The book is now a classic. It powerfully demonstrates why the United States is at its best when it remains a safe haven for refugees. Written in 1958, its inspirational observations about the diversity of America’s origins and the influence of immigrants and refugees on the American experience make a compelling case for a sensible and humane immigration policy today…”

President Trump has a base of support that is attracted to his ideas and personality, and his anti-immigrant stance has long been central to his message. While America’s immigration policy needs revision and improvement, it is clear that Trump and his supporters are more interested in suppressing immigration than improving its governance. But immigration and an openness to the influence of the world has long been America’s strength. It has been a rocky history: slavery, the destruction of Native Americans, and the oppression of successive waves of immigrants. But the broad sweep of American history is on the side of openness and has resulted in an ever-changing and dynamic society, economy, culture, and even cuisine. Who else could have developed Tex-Mex pizza bagels? Jazz, hip-hop, rock and roll, bluegrass, and country music are American fusions of sounds from around the world.

The wall, growing limits on visas, children separated from their parents and the Muslim ban are all examples of Trump’s immigration policy folly. America will bounce back from this time of closed doors and hatred. It will take a while to recover our bearings and our reputation. For immigrant children taken from their parents the recovery will take longer and the impact will be lasting. This anti-immigrant storm will remain a blemish on our history and forever a source of shame for our children. Trump’s wall is a terrible idea and it should never be built.

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Linda M. Chenault
Linda M. Chenault
5 years ago

You point out the benefits of immigration while using well educated people as the example. Why did you leave out any mention that Mr. Trump wanted to change immigration policy to favor the well educated as Canada and Europe already do?

Anonymous, undocumented people walking across a border do not necessarily contribute positively to an economy. They are usually a burden on social services and worse, don’t feel any loyalty to the country they enter. This is easier when they can get services from the government in their own language. There is no incentive to assimilate.

Grace Rousseau
Grace Rousseau
5 years ago

In 2016, according to Homeland Security, only 1300 from Latin America and the Caribbean countries were admitted to the USA. There was a cap of 3000 total. Where is the crisis in that number? The cost of a border wall far outweighs the costs of supporting families immigrating to the promise that my grandparents claimed. They did not really contribute to the bottom line either. On the face of it, they were the working poor. The real statistic, that should cause us to reflect, is that the UNHCR reports that 1 person is forced to flee their homeland every 2 seconds.

John Blue
John Blue
5 years ago

California is now the worst state in the nation in education. Ignorance is never a good thing in my book. Never mention a threat like a dirty bomb or Ebola when all it takes is a box cutter to bring down airliners. The planet has always been a dangerous place. I am thankful for those who try to mitigate that danger.

Athar Alatas
1 year ago

you point out the benefits of immigration while using well educated people as the example. Why did you leave out any mention that Mr. Trump wanted to change immigration policy to favor the well educated as Canada and Europe already do?