Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 08/2011

Immigrants and America's Future

Americas Quarterly

A publication of:
Council of the Americas

Volume: 0, Issue: 0 (Spring 2011)

Hilda L. Solis


The U.S. labor secretary offers a blueprint for immigration reform.

Full Text

The formal name of the Statue of Liberty, which has greeted visitors sailing into New York harbor since 1886, is “Liberty Enlightening the World.” A bronze tablet inside the statue’s pedestal displays a poem by Emma Lazarus that reads, in part, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” Those words have welcomed generations of immigrants to the United States. Countless families across the U.S. trace their heritage to immigrants—many of whom arrived under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. But wherever they come from, immigrants make the trek to the United States for the same reason: to make a better life for themselves and their children. These “new Americans” became the building blocks of our nation’s communities. Succeeding generations have helped make our nation prosperous and keep our great cities thriving. It was generations of immigrants that built our nation, and by working constructively to fix our broken immigration system, we can lay the economic foundation that America needs to win the future. Unfortunately the debate over immigrants’ role in our nation has grown increasingly polarized and heated. This need not be so. Immigration continues to bring countless benefits to our nation, even with an immigration system in need of reform. But if America is to win the future, we have to restore responsibility and accountability to our broken system. We must also strengthen our nation’s economic competitiveness by creating a legal framework that meets our diverse needs for the 21st century. The numbers paint a vivid picture of immigrants’ contributions to our economy. Foreign-born workers represent 15 percent of the nation’s labor force. Of these workers, 54 percent are 25 to 44 years old. By comparison, the average age of a U.S.-born worker is 42. The aging of the U.S.-born population and birth rate make clear that America’s workforce can only be replenished by immigration. In fact, through 2050, immigrants and their children will account for 60 percent of U.S. population growth, and nearly all of the new additions under the age of 65 will be immigrants. Immigrants work in all types of occupations. They are teachers, scientists, engineers, and construction workers. They play a valuable role in our communities and our economy—as neighbors, friends and family members. They sustain crucial lower skilled industries such as agriculture, fruit and vegetable processing, apparel manufacturing, leather and leather products manufacturing, and meat packing. Immigrant workers are revitalizing rural areas with ties to these sectors by fueling population growth. A NEW CITIZEN CELEBRATES: WITH CITIZENSHIP DOCUMENT AND U.S. FLAG IN HAND, A NEW U.S. CITIZEN JOINS THE MILLIONS OF OTHERS WHO CAME BEFORE TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE U.S. ECONOMY AND SOCIETY. The immigrant population also pumps up job growth by spurring the creation of new businesses to serve them as consumers. One figure shows how critical this growth is to America’s future economic security: over the next 75 years, documented immigrants are expected to provide a net benefit of approximately $611 billion in current value to the U.S. Social Security system. But immigrants are professionals, too. Census data show that roughly one in eight immigrants has an advanced degree. That’s another fact often overlooked when assessing the value of immigration to America’s global competitiveness. Immigrants account for 28 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in all fields, and over 40 percent of doctorate degrees awarded in science and technology. Entrepreneurship is also critical to sustaining America’s economic power. Today’s immigrant-entrepreneurs, like their predecessors, play a key role. Immigrants are credited with 24 percent of patents and founded or cofounded over 25 percent of engineering and technology companies in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005. These statistics show how crucial immigration is to our national goals. As President Obama stated: “Instead of just being a nation that buys what is made overseas, we can make things in America and sell them around the globe.” America has everything it needs to compete in today’s global economy. Our nation is full of bold entrepreneurs ready to develop new ideas. Our colleges and universities are the best in the world, and we have bright young people—both U.S. and foreign born. Yet to realize our full potential, we need policies that will ensure we win the global competition for new jobs and industries. This requires ensuring our workforce is the best trained and best skilled, and that our workplaces are safe and healthy. We need to ensure that the next Intel is created in America and hires American workers. Winning the future and building a competitive America demands an immigration system that works. It must honor our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. It must secure our borders, dismantle human trafficking groups, and set clear rules and priorities for future immigration that level the playing field for American workers and employers. Investing in our Youth The immigration-related policies that the Obama Administration is advancing to achieve these aims are reflected in his Fiscal Year 2012 budget. For example, to foster student development, the President has called for $1.2 billion for Hispanic Serving Institutions and a $150 million investment in a new initiative to increase college access and completion and improve educational productivity. These actions, which will benefit all students, will help America restore its international leadership in the number of college graduates, while supporting institutions that produce a large share of math and science-oriented minority students. The budget also proposes $146 billion for research and development and maintains current funding levels for science, technology, engineering, and math. Funding is doubled for a comprehensive science and technology workforce program that brings graduates from historically underrepresented communities into these careers. Through these investments, we are working to make college more affordable, revitalizing community colleges, connecting graduates to businesses that need their skills, and giving people with gaps in skills the training to secure employment. But we must also build from the ground up. That is why the President’s budget supports a competitive early learning challenge fund to encourage states to improve the quality of early childhood developing programs. High-quality learning programs serving migrant children must be supported so these children can overcome the unique challenges they face. These challenges stem from frequent moves and the resulting changes in curriculum, graduation requirements and academic achievement standards along with the barriers that come from high poverty rates. And while many immigrants have achieved high levels of education, many others struggle to receive high school diplomas. English-language learners represent 10 percent of our nation’s students in grades K-12. Of them, nearly 4.7 million attend K-12 schools in areas of the country that have less experience serving these types of students. Still others lack access to higher education. These students are integral to our twenty-first century economy. But a sad reality is that many who have grown up as Americans and pledge allegiance to the American flag live in daily fear of deportation. That is why the President supports enactment of the DREAM Act. Continued failure to give these children an opportunity to fulfill their potential and to contribute to our economy harms them and, ultimately, the economic prosperity of our nation. The U.S. is one of the world’s most open societies. Yet despite the undeniable contributions of immigrants to all walks of life, the debate about the role of immigrants in our communities attracts increasingly heated rhetoric. Immigrant Integration Through civic, economic and linguistic integration efforts, we can more effectively communicate and demonstrate the successes and contributions of everyone in our communities. With this aim in mind, the President proposed $20 million to promote citizenship through education and preparation programs for new immigrants. These programs replicate the promising integration practices already used in communities across the country and expand innovative English-language learning tools. For all communities, substantial investments have been made to strengthen civil rights enforcement against racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, religious, and gender discrimination. At the same time, this administration takes very seriously its responsibility to enforce immigration laws and secure our borders. Just as these laws are being enforced, so too are we enforcing labor and employment laws. For example, last December the Department of Labor recovered nearly $160,000 in back wages owed to 110 garment workers in Los Angeles after it was found that the contractor, Joe’s Jeans, failed to pay minimum wage and overtime. The ability of the company to enjoy high profits on the backs of vulnerable workers is an abuse and affront to the law. In enforcing labor and employment laws, the department is combating a reliance on vulnerable workers while leveling the playing field for law-abiding employers who follow the nation’s labor and employment laws. We are also strengthening protections for U.S. and foreign workers in nonimmigrant visa programs. Reforms to the H-2A visa—a program for temporary agricultural workers—increased worker wages while providing greater access to jobs for domestic workers. These reforms will help make the agriculture industry a better place to work by ensuring that U.S. and foreign workers receive equal wages and by providing transparency through the creation of a national electronic job registry. They will also combat employment abuses by prohibiting employers from shifting to workers the costs associated with recruitment, visas, border crossing, and other fees mandated by the government. As a result of these reforms, it will be possible for those working hard on American soil to receive fair pay while at the same time expanding opportunities for U.S. workers. The H-2B visa program, which allows employers to use foreign workers in areas where domestic workers are scarce, is also being improved. Through these reforms the department is working to create a level playing field for employers to sustain and grow their business while ensuring domestic workers have access to jobs and all workers are protected. Immigration is closely tied to our nation’s history. Each year, more immigrants take the citizenship oath, committing themselves to the future of our great country. We cannot deny the instrumental role that both immigrants and native-born Americans play in winning the future. Through worker training, education, integration, enforcement and reform of the immigration system, America can compete globally and continue to welcome immigrants with open arms.