Iyer: Merit-based immigration is the answer we need

    The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.

    In the wake of President Donald Trump’s “shithole” comment, National Review editor Rich Lowry published an article claiming that Trump, rather than elucidating a racial animus that many of his detractors claim he possesses, “was almost surely trying to say that we should pick immigrants for skills.” While I question whether or not Trump seriously advocated for merit-based immigration with his demeaning rhetoric, Lowry’s article glossed over one of the United States’s current pressing issues, and perhaps the issue most salient for Trump voters during the 2016 election. As the Democratic Party has increasingly shifted ever more so toward the left while Trumpism has taken sway over large swaths of the Republican Party, Congress has reached an impasse on immigration. A mutual common ground, though, can be achieved under merit-based immigration by which the U.S. can accept talented, motivated individuals from all walks of life across the globe.

    American immigration is based upon a complex and multi-step process that currently focuses on family immigration, employment immigration, protecting refugees and the diversity visa program for countries that are historically underrepresented in American immigration. Lately, conservatives have pushed for more closed borders coupled with a focus on skills, rather than family status, and the elimination of the diversity visa program. The left, however, has viewed these attacks on the current immigration system as being nativist, xenophobic and un-American due to many of the White House’s anti-immigrant policies, including the infamous travel ban of six Muslim-majority nations as well as the “shithole” comments recently uttered by Trump.

    Although the left has slowly ramped up attacks against open borders, merit-based immigration would benefit the U.S. by incorporating a greater emphasis on newcomers’ skills rather than improving diversity. Until this past election, the left has been unable to reckon with a growing idea in American civic culture: Many Americans prefer unity to multiculturalism sans assimilation. When exposed to foreign elements or differences, many natives react with increased hostility toward what they perceive to be un-American institutions or ideas. Although this intolerant view prevents cultural progress, the left must learn how to deal with such mindsets in order to compose a coherent immigration policy that does not alienate the public. Focusing on assimilation would mitigate these effects, as adopting American norms promotes the idea of celebrating the sameness that many Americans value. This does not signify that immigrants must leave their culture in their homelands, but that they must accept and practice American values rather than disregard them.

    While economic analysis reveal that immigrant communities tend to help, rather than hurt, the economy, there are certain subsets of the U.S. that stand to lose opportunities with increased immigration. The native poor, who compete directly with most immigrants, are the hardest hit economic group in regards to the influence of immigrants on jobs and wages. Economically speaking, an influx of new workers causes a decline in wages for each worker; recent trends over the past 50 years estimate that for every 10 percent increase in number of workers, wages for these individuals drop by 3 percent. Immigrants that compete with the working class have the effect of depressing wages and taking away opportunities for U.S. born citizens.

    On the other hand, highly-skilled laborers can contribute mightily to an economy. These immigrants tend to be professionals in white-collar jobs who have college degrees and typically work in STEM fields. Northwestern has produced numerous international alumni, such as former Liberian President Amos Sawyer and former Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey Ali Babacan, who have gone on to achieve economic prosperity and make a difference in international society. Currently 35 percent of Kellogg students are from outside the United States, and almost one-third of Feinberg’s class of 2017 are international as well.These immigrants have the potential to make substantial gains in their fields and contribute to American society, and should not have their potential denied on basis of their national origin.

    When it comes to STEM-related jobs, immigrants represent 33 percent of engineers, 27 percent of mathematicians, statisticians and computer scientists, as well as 24 percent of physical scientists. Additionally, immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a small business. These businesses contribute $776 billion per year and create 5 million jobs. Immigrants with the tools to succeed in the country’s economy have proven that they can carve out careers and achieve prosperity – proposals to drastically cut down legal immigration would do a disservice to not just these hardworking individuals who contribute mightily to American prosperity, but the U.S. itself, as these people form the best of what the citizens can accomplish. When creating immigration policy, Trumpists must understand that immigration can cause net benefits for the American economy, or risk losing the economic gains immigrants have worked hard to make.

    Congress’ impasse has been marked by the typical partisan bickering and ideological polarization that has dominated Washington for years; the ineffectual battle for immigration reform is just a symptom of these plagues. Substantive legislation will remain bogged down if neither Republicans nor Democrats can come to terms with the reality of immigration’s effects on America’s economy, both for highly-skilled and lesser-skilled immigrants. Given the current state of politics, though, such an outcome seems almost utopian. It is up to open-minded, knowledgeable Congresspeople to push for bipartisan, merit-based legislation, or the U.S. will be stuck with a faulty immigration system that hinders the ability for our country to accept those who can most effectively contribute to our economy and inhibits our own citizens from climbing the socioeconomic ladder.


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