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My Turn: Trump’s immigration path to nowhere

  • Two recently arrived immigrant children from Holland are shown at Ellis Island in New York, 1906. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 1/26/2017 12:19:57 AM

We have always been the “startup nation,” the place where the far-sighted came to build the future. And it has worked for us for more than 200 years, driving our economy to become first in the world.

Donald Trump won the election by advocating that we throw away more than two centuries of success, replacing it with a North Korean-style border policy. In 1910, Trump supporters would have been putting up “No Irish Need Apply” signs. More recently, Trump’s Islamophobia would have kept out the founder of Apple (Steve Jobs’s father was Syrian, a trouble-making Arab nationalist who fled his country).

We depend on immigrant innovation. Forty-two percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. Even more important for the future, 60 percent of our 25 largest tech companies were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. Without them we wouldn’t have Apple, IBM, Google, Oracle, Amazon, Intel, Ebay, EMC, Texas Instruments, VMware, ADP, Yahoo!, or any of the jobs they created. And if you tried to look for a job in that alternate immigrant-free America, you couldn’t use LinkedIn because, yes, it was founded by an immigrant, too.

Blaming immigrants for our economic problems is convenient for politicians. Otherwise we might blame politicians, their expensive permanent wars, and their bailout-dependent corporate backers.

The hard fact is that immigrants have lower crime, unemployment and welfare rates than “native born.” If Trump wants to cut crime’s carnage, he needs to end the Drug War, not do away with Indian computer programmers and Mexican construction workers.

U.S. laws are far more restrictive now than when we were a tiger economy in the early 1900s. While our universities still train hundreds of thousands of foreign technical experts, only 65,000 highly skilled people per year are allowed to get H-1B visas and stay here. We force the rest at gunpoint to take their expensively acquired skills (and future businesses) back overseas.

High-tech entrepreneurs are great. But tomato pickers fill a niche, too, and help the economy. They could help much more if they could freely travel between jobs, have secure property rights, return to their families, etc. A work visa program would fix 99 percent of our “border problem,” allowing security without a hundred-billion-dollar Great Wall boondoggle.

Nineteenth and early 20th-century Americans would find our fear of immigrants puzzling, since we have so few. There were more than twice as many Irish immigrants per native-born during the years after the potato famine as Mexican immigrants today. There were more Germans during the late 1800s. By 1910, 14.7 percent of Americans were foreign-born. Yet it was then, when an unending stream of every ethnic group passed under the Statue of Liberty, that the U.S. economy (and real wages) grew.

The proportion of foreign-born in the U.S. today is less than 10 percent. Many Americans are actually fleeing for nations with freer economies. The young and ambitious today move to Singapore or Dubai, not to Detroit. Phobia of “foreigners” is fear of an abstraction that no longer exists. In a world less than a tenth of a light-second across, there are no foreigners. Hollywood programs stream into eyes in Brazil, India and China via fiber optics faster than the news in 1776 made it across a large meeting hall. Online, the whole world is already America. No one comes here who doesn’t know Bart Simpson and Eric Cartman. Unlike the peasant Germans, Italians, Poles, Russians, Japanese, etc., of previous generations, most immigrants today speak and read English.

If our fears were rational, we would fear the alternate worldlines where our immigrants had stayed in European dictatorships and built nuclear bombs.

The Founding Fathers were solidly pro-immigration. As the Declaration states, they revolted against King George in part because he restricted immigration: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

The Minutemen in 1776 fought for free immigration and free trade, not for crony capitalism or Berlin Walls around our borders. Their dream of freedom will take us to the stars; walling out immigrant startups would take us nowhere.

(Bill Walker of Plainfield works for M2S in West Lebanon. He and his wife “immigrated” to New Hampshire – from Minnesota – in 2008.)

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