By Partha Chakraborty-
(Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA, is an economist, a statistician, and a financial analyst by training. Currently, he is an entrepreneur in water technologies, blockchain and wealth management in the US and in India. Dr. Chakraborty lives in Southern California with his wife and teenage son. All opinions are of the author alone.)
Sometime early August of 1995, I was asked a question that seemed stupid, and I am being generous here. Perched in her high seat across a (presumably) bulletproof glass barrier, a lady spoke in all earnestness and with the heaviest drawl I had heard till then. She exclaimed at my visa interview, paraphrasing, “What assurance does the United States of America have that you will return to India post your education? None, Mr. Chakraborty, None.”
She was right, of course. I produced no (fudged) papers that purported to show reasons to come back and she was required to document such evidence before she gave her nod. I had nothing to offer, so kept mum. [Full disclosure: I did get the visa].
In a parallel universe, the question she could have asked instead goes something like this. “What more does the United States of America need to do to keep you from returning after you’ve graduated from an Ivy League university with an education that is paid for by our own taxpayers?”
As images from the Southern border dominate our screens, I cannot but draw a parallel. What can we, as a nation, do to engage the throngs of children, women, and men, who may have walked the Darién Gap, or at least the Rio Grande? What can we do to strike a balance of order and welcome? How do we stanch the flow of contraband that cloud an otherwise clear narrative? What about coyotes, gangs and cartel that thrive in the chaos? How do we, and should we, demarcate refugees and economic migrants in times of high inflation and abnormally low unemployment? What about refugees in other parts of the world, many of them victims of our own misadventures? What about skilled labor that are ready, willing, and able to come in and champion an innovation ecosystem we so desperately need? How does our system remain true to our ethos and values as a nation of immigrants? How do we compare with other destinations across the globe? Does immigration adversely impact the already disadvantaged?
At the risk of repeating ad nauseam, I’d start with a few observations. It is estimated that over two-thirds of a person’s wealth is determined by where they live and work, which underscores a moral argument for immigration. When a person immigrates to a “better” (loosely defined) location, her productivity jumps not just because she may work longer or harder, but more because she accesses a system already in place; this is the economic argument.
Proponents claim that world GDP will “instantly” double if there were open borders. Opponents claim that (typically less-skilled) immigrants compete against those at the bottom of the rung in host countries, depressing their wages and extending their woes.
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The Welfare State mechanism at host nation is stretched, at least when there is a large influx. There can be a cultural gap, on top of a language barrier, which entices insidious harangues like “Replacement Theory.” Most people are neither for nor against open borders, liberal democracies acknowledge the right of asylum while they have limits on immigrant numbers – explicit or implicit.
The sheer magnitude of some numbers in the US is unprecedented. A record 2.2 million arrests along the Mexican border in the 2022 fiscal year, up from 1.65 million arrests in 2021. More than 1.5 million illegal immigrants have slipped into the US since President Biden took office—more than three times the number recorded during the last three years of Trump’s presidency.
Even with that influx, US unemployment is at a historically low of 3.4%. There are 10 million job openings in the country even if some of the previously high-performing sectors are facing serious headwinds; only 5.6 million unemployed people are looking for jobs.
It does not take a genius to understand why there is a flood at the southern border – demand creates supply. Not that it is creating headwinds for the native born. Even after the pandemic, significant nominal wage gains were recorded by all groups; unemployment and poverty level amongst traditionally disadvantaged people are at a record low.
Immigrants are competing against themselves for the jobs, filling jobs native-born folks are loathe to take, thereby keeping wage inflation in check overall. By extension, this lowers the pressure on the Federal Reserve to hike rates which could force halt in many sensitive sectors.
As Baby Boomers hand over the mantle, labor shortage in the US will become more acute, not less; longer term the only effective solution is to encourage others to come in.
If there is a win-win solution to economic malaise, no matter the cause, immigrants are it. Becoming the next Japan does not look attractive for any country, let alone the US that boasts of being for-and-by the tired, the poor, those huddled masses yearning to breathe free no matter where they are from.
Still, it is hard to ignore the chaos at the border. It is hard to ignore the shrill vile vitriols against “dirty” newbies. It is hard to ignore that the US has not had any significant immigration reform in over three decades, during which time foreign born people doubled in the US. It is hard to ignore that getting a visa appointment takes eighteen months or more these days, Green Card processing takes over three years, and H-1B visa is all but a mirage for Indians.
It is hard to ignore that Afghan would-be refugees – hundreds of thousands of collaborators – are still left at the mercy of murderous mujahids. By all accounts, management of US immigration system is a hot nasty mess, both parties have every incentive to let it fester and gain and hope the muck shifts hands before the blame lands on their starched diapers. It is even sadder that the whole world is waking up to the need for more immigrants, even in countries where unemployment is high, because generational transition will leave their aged without a support otherwise.
I refuse to believe in trite talking points. I refuse to believe that border security and a much-expanded intake system are necessarily incompatible. I refuse to believe that immigrants will ignore to go the legal route if there were a process that was more transparent, higher capacity, and, in general, more humane, yet more rational.
I refuse to believe that immigrants are here to replace any native-born, except in pockets within big cities which historically go through cycles of various ethnicities. I refuse to believe that today’s immigrants are for any other reason than to secure a better life for themselves and their (grand)children, just like millions before them, few exceptions do prove my rule.
Simply said, I refuse to believe that US has any other destiny – or purpose – than to prove, again and again and again, that it is the beacon of hope, the shining city up on the hill, for whoever wants to work hard, stay clean and enjoy whatever fruits life gets them. That is what makes this country so exceptional.
I refuse to believe the current situation is so intractable that good intent, cooler heads and American ingenuity cannot solve. A recent study by the Cato Institute identified several policy choices that potentially can eliminate immigration backlogs with little incremental resource need. These are, most certainly, not the only options on the table. All deserve consideration and a candid review.
If you want to know what “American Values” are, ask an immigrant risking everything to access it. That makes immigrants’ values American values, and the other way around. By the same token, sine qua non of American Exceptionalism is that American Values and American Dreams are inseparable – you deny the opportunity to make it here and you run afoul of the values; you deny its values and you steal the air out of its dreams. Nobody exemplifies that better, as a group, than immigrants who are here because they too had dreams. It will be a sham, and a shame, to put up barriers on their way, to make them hide in plain sight, to make them go begging for acceptance while they are our bragging rights.
Immigrants are the raison d’être of the Republic. Anything else is something less, and you know it.