It’s not a state secret that the US is a land of immigrants. To what extent? With a 1.6% Native American population, you could say the nation is 98.4% immigrant — or of immigrant origin.
This glossed-over reality is often expressed in awkward gags and acknowledgments. Like in the poster of a Native American — erroneously called American-Indian — that asks white settler descendants: “So you are against immigration? Splendid! When do you leave?” David Letterman once joked, “They say there are about 12 million illegal immigrants in this country.
But if you ask a Native American, that number is more like 300 million.” And from Jay Leno, when Arizona passed a harsh law that allowed law enforcement to randomly ask for a person’s immigration status: “It’s an unbelievable law. And it’s already starting to backfire. Today, a group of Native Americans pulled over a bunch of white guys and said, ‘Let’s see your papers’.”
But even in a situation where white settlers have usurped the role of originals, keeping borders safe for security or economic reasons is a legitimate objective for any country. This often comes across as an anti-immigrant sentiment, and it is not special to the US. It surfaces world over, also in sub-national context in some countries, when some regions agitate over influx from other regions (as with Bangladeshis in India). In fact, the US is arguably the least anti-immigrant of all nations, built as it is on immigration. No country on earth takes in as many (nearly a million) immigrants legally every year.
It does so not only because it tried to live up to its founding ideals, but also because it found fresh blood is good for its economy that is based on enterprise and innovation. Immigrants tend to be risk takers. Studies have shown immigrants are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as native-born Americans. Immigrants in US are over-represented within the group of business founders and innovators, particularly in engineering and technology sectors. “Immigrant entrepreneurs have begun and lead some of the world’s most successful and innovative companies.
The risk-taking that defines an immigrant’s experience in starting anew in a new country often continues to benefit immigrant entrepreneurs as they channel a healthy appetite for risk in a way that leads to new business ideas,” a report from the Kauffman Foundation noted.
But who are the best immigrants, and is it possible to preserve or enhance one’s principles and fortunes by cherry-picking immigrants, as the US is now trying to? Shorn of all niceties and euphemisms, it is clear that the Trump dispensation prefers well-educated, well-heeled, English-speaking immigrants, preferably from white majority nations, who will add value to the US while arresting the demographic changes (the browning of America) currently underway because of the kind of immigration over the past half century.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” reads the inscription on the Statue of Liberty from Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus. But the old colossus now only wants wealthy, energetic elites.
Conventional reading is that poor, tired immigrants are a drain on American resources. But for every Elon Musk or Pierre Omidyar, the kind of immigrants Trump seems to prefer, there are scores of Hispanics and Asians who generated billions in economic activity. Almost every Indian immigrant who has created thousands of jobs and paid millions in taxes came to the US with only a few bucks in his pocket. In fact, many of them passed through “out-of-status” moments, a euphemism for being momentarily illegal while waiting to be legalised. They wouldn’t have stood a chance under the upcoming rule changes.
There is another issue here. The Trump constituency resents low-wage immigrants; at the same time it does not want to do grunt work such as construction, agricultural labour, etc (except perhaps for high wages). At the other end, it mostly lacks the education to do STEM-related work and is hostile to skilled foreign workers from non-white countries. This would seem to be a recipe for a high-cost, non-competitive economy. Globalisation may not have worked perfectly for all, but it was doing pretty good overall for the US.
There is also a larger point here. The immigration debate does not begin and end with America. It is now known that Native Australians, or “aboriginals” in Oz-speak, were actually Dravidians from South India who sailed across the seas some 4,500 years ago. Even Native Americans walked across the Bering Straits from Asia. In that sense, we are all immigrants, or of migratory origin, save perhaps for the originals of Rift Valley. From Rift to drift has been such a long journey, and there is no reason it should not continue with fair and reasonable limits. Migration is the lifeblood of the world, not just the US. Only self-doubting people and insecure countries oppose it.
No. of migrants up by 49% since 2000: UN report
The report expressed concern over xenophobic political narratives about migration, adding that irregular migration has become a more acute problem due to large movements of people in different parts of the world.
“The basic challenge before us is to maximize the benefits of migration rather than obsess about minimizing risks: we have a clear body of evidence revealing that, despite many real problems, migration is beneficial both for migrants and host communities in economic and social terms – our overarching task is to broaden the opportunities that migration offers to us all” the report adds.
The report offers the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres‘ vision for constructive international cooperation, examining how to better manage migration. There are an estimated 258 million international migrants according to the report, which states that it is probable that demographic trends, coupled with forces such as the impacts of climate change, will contribute to a further increase in migration in the future. The report refers to the latest estimates suggesting that 23% of the 24.9 million people in forced labour worldwide are international migrants while they constitute only an estimated 3.4% of the world’s population.
Migrants, including irregular migrants, contribute by paying taxes and injecting around 85% of their earnings into the economies of host societies, states the report, adding that the remaining 15% is sent back to communities of origin through remittances.
Migration is an expanding global reality and the majority of these migrants move between countries in a safe, orderly and regular manner. However, a series of large movements of people in different parts of the world, involving both refugees and migrants in vulnerable situations, have severely tested the collective response capacities of nations, the report said.
It suggested that alternative avenues to return are vastly preferable particularly when irregular migrants have been long established in a country, and follow the law other than with regard to their status.