Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote a pitch for a GOP-backed measure to admit more foreign-born scientists and engineers. The piece, meant to telegraph a post-election Republican shift on immigration, shows how fervently some conservatives hope greater openness on the issue could save the GOP's neck. Maybe it will, and maybe not. But it could save everyone else's.
Compared with native-born Americans, immigrants are more likely to start a business, more likely to launch a hugely successful one, more likely to work, and less likely to commit crime. They're also willing to take jobs many Americans refuse to do.
Immigrants make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 18 percent of all small-business owners, notes Jillian Kay Melchior in National Review, and they employ 4.7 million Americans. According to The Economist, immigrants or their children make up 40 percent of the founders of Fortune 500 companies.
A higher percentage of immigrants—legal or otherwise—work than do native-born Americans. Many of them, present through a temporary visa program known as H-2A, do a lot of hard farm labor, such as picking crops and working in poultry plants. Yet because the program does not allow enough guest workers in, "Plant managers in the Carolinas . . . have been forced to turn to prisons to man assembly lines," reports McClatchy Newspapers. Unfortunately, the H-2A program is a bureaucratic, burdensome, inefficient mess. It permits only seasonal workers, not year-round ones. And it "doesn't deliver workers quickly enough when farmers need them most," as another recent news story put it.
But wait—with so many Americans unemployed, why not hire locals instead of shipping in labor from abroad? That's exactly what Colorado farmer John Harold tried to do last year. "It didn't take me six hours to realize I'd made a heck of a mistake," he later told The New York Times. "Six hours was enough," the paper reported, "for the first wave of local workers to quit. Some simply never came back [after lunch] and gave no reason. Twenty-five of them said specifically, according to farm records, that the work was too hard."
The story gets even worse. In a little over a decade the number of visas the U.S. hands out to skilled workers has dropped by a third, says The Economist. The result: Talent that could be creating jobs here in the U.S. is setting up shop elsewhere. The magazine recounts the story of Indian engineers Anand and Shikha Chhatpar, who started a company that creates applications for Facebook. Despite enough business success to pay more than a quarter-million-dollars in taxes, they were denied visas and went back to India. According to The Economist, "the proportion of Silicon Valley start-ups with an immigrant founder has fallen from 52 percent to 44 percent since 2005."
Americans who resent having to compete with immigrants for jobs suffer from a double delusion. First, they assume the supply of jobs is fixed and that we would all be better off with a smaller population. That's flatly wrong. Immigrants are not just employees; they are also employers and consumers. Second, talk of immigrants taking "our" jobs implies some people have prior claims to jobs they have not yet been hired for. The term for that is "entitlement mentality."
But aren't immigrants driving up crime rates? Nope. Take Arizona, the Ground Zero of anti-immigration sentiment. As a 2010 piece in The Washington Times noted, "In the past decade, as illegal immigrants were drawn in record numbers by the housing boom, the rate of violent crimes in Phoenix and the entire state fell by more than 20 percent, a steeper drop than in the overall U.S. crime rate." As Arizona goes, so goes the nation: A 2007 study found that "for every ethnic group, without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants." The Immigration Policy Center, which produced that report, elsewhere has said that "a century's worth of research has demonstrated that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes . . . than the native-born."
Not every immigrant-related tale is quite so glowing. In her National Review piece, Melchior notes that the number of non-citizens on food stamps has quadrupled since 2001. Much of the blame for that, however, rests at the feet of Washington. From USDA-produced Spanish-language radio novelas encouraging food-stamp enrollment to get-your-free-stuff-now pitches on the WelcometoUSA.gov website, the "deliberate expansion of welfare has been particularly targeted at immigrants." Given the natural immigrant preference to strive for upward mobility, that's a rotten shame.
Anyway, welfare dependency has soared among native-born residents, too. There are now only 2.5 workers for every Medicaid recipient, down from an 18:1 ratio four decades ago. For every person on public assistance in the U.S., there are only 1.65—that's one-point-six-five—persons employed in the private sector. As Baby Boomers age out of the workforce, the weight of social-welfare spending is going to grow even heavier on those who remain. Without deep and therefore politically unlikely cuts, we're going to need a lot more shoulders to help carry it.