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The Dartmouth
May 28, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Adelberg: New Colossus

Let’s use immigration to Make America Great Again.

Politicians like to cast immigration as a partisan issue with stark alternatives and difficult trade-offs: open vs. closed, natives vs. outsiders, safety vs. liberty, efficiency vs. equality. But what if it was possible to give America the best of both worlds? The United States has a powerful set of core values that can lead this country to greatness if we have the courage and the ingenuity to apply them to the challenges of our day. With bipartisan immigration reform on the horizon, America has the rare opportunity to strengthen its economy and its democracy while answering the plea of the American worker.

Legal immigration boosts the American economy and improves its competitive edge. Legal immigrants work more for less pay, allowing employers to add jobs and invest in productivity-enhancers for their employees. Currently, legal and illegal immigration combined add a staggering $1.6 trillion per year to America’s GDP, increasing the size of the tax base by 11 percent each year. Lower labor costs can also decrease the competitive advantage of countries like China, where labor is cheaper, by reducing outsourcing, protecting American jobs and reducing America’s trade deficit. To top it off, companies pass lower production costs onto their consumers through lower prices. When immigrants come to the land of the free, America prospers.

By endowing America with a faster economy, immigration gives the country the strength she needs to address one of her most pressing problems: the plight of the American worker. Long the backbone of industrial society, America’s workers have suffered in recent decades from stagnating wages, automation, globalization and the collapsing value of a high-school diploma. It’s clear that America’s sinking working class cannot get ahead by clinging to yesterday’s jobs; its members need a hand to pull them up into the digital age of globalization. The American worker demands an ambitious program of job retraining; taxes on even 20 percent of immigration’s $1.6 trillion economic surplus could easily cover the expense and double our present efforts. As immigrants receive 97.8 percent of the economic benefits of immigration under the current system, it is only fair that they help shoulder the economic costs through income taxes that leave their post-tax incomes much higher than they would be in their home countries. Immigrants and workers do not need to be economic or political rivals: They can be partners in an America that lets everyone rise together.

Advantages from immigration spill beyond the economy. The democratic process benefits tremendously from the participation of those who are Americans by choice. In today’s era of fake news and polarization, well-informed citizens with an appreciation for American civics are in dangerously short supply — in a 2012 study by Xavier University, only 65 percent of American citizens answered more than five out of 10 questions correctly on an immigrant naturalization form. With an impressive 97 percent pass rate on the citizenship test, immigrants understand American democracy and appreciate the hard-won privileges of citizenship enough to opt into supporting the American political system. The benefits of this dedication to America’s political system manifest itself in many different ways, from the immigrants serving in Congress to the two children of immigrants on the Supreme Court. Immigration is not just good economics: It is good civics.

This vision is not utopian. It is within the reach of upcoming comprehensive immigration reform. President Donald Trump’s pledge to “sign whatever” Congress sends him and “take all the heat” for it has opened a rare window for bipartisan reform. The present system is based on a draconian system of arbitrary quotas, convoluted bureaucracies that can take years to navigate and a porous border that is open only to illegal immigrants and criminals. The government can do much better.

Enough is enough. Congress needs to streamline the bureaucracy and end the quotas. We must open America’s golden gates to every man, woman and child without demonstrable risk of criminal or terrorist activity. The executive branch must uphold its oath of office and keep the border watertight, funneling aspiring immigrants through the legal immigration system instead of the high-crime, low-assimilation, low-opportunity illegal immigration trap. The United States does not have to push immigrants into illegal status from day one, then act surprised when they turn to illegal activities for survival. We can extend the blessings of civil society to our arriving neighbors rather than condemn an ill-conceived underclass to desperate subversion against it.

To succeed, these reforms require cooperation from both sides of the aisle. America needs Democratic enthusiasm for openness, diversity and New Deal-style programs for the American worker as much as she needs Republican zeal for crushing bureaucracy, restoring rule of law and, yes, building border walls. Immigration is not a partisan issue. It is an American issue, and both parties can deliver for their constituencies by working together. Comprehensive immigration reform promises both liberty and rule of law, both prosperity and equality, both openness and protection, both compromise and integrity, both American values and universal values.

In Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” which is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, Lady Liberty proclaims, “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! / 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!” This defiant demand was no act of charity. This living symbol of American greatness was built by immigrants. As we build a new American colossus in the age of globalization, we must welcome everyone offering to make it greater. America is a universal vision without borders — let the other nation-states keep their ways of life, but let Lady Liberty amass the collective greatness of every individual soul yearning to breathe free.