Harvard University

How Immigration Defines America

America has an extraordinary historical transformation distinct from what most other countries went through; in that, America was founded by immigrants from numerous other countries. Early in its history, the 1492 Spanish expedition headed by Christopher Columbus which sailed to the Americas entirely impacted the New World with Western cultural archetypes that changed the Americas inexorably for centuries to come.  What could be elaborated on here is that Christopher Columbus made one of the most famous voyages of exploration in 1492 when he sailed from Palos, Spain, in search of a route to Asia and the Indies. Instead, Columbus found the New World – the Americas. Other voyages soon followed Columbus.
At first, Europeans thought of the Americas as little more than a chunk of land blocking their way to the Indies. It didn’t take long for them to realize that the Americas had great resources of its own. This led to further explorations and colonization bringing millions of Europeans with different backgrounds in skills and intellect to the Americas.

The central statement of this debate on how immigration defines America hinges on the notion that understanding the historical significance of the founding of America as an immigrant nation is to understand the current trend of immigration today with the waves of
immigrants coming to America with a vision, work ethic and fortitude to make a difference
in their lives and to contribute to the prosperity of America. The purpose is to inform about the historical foundations of America as an immigrant nation and the importance of a blanket amnesty as a path to legalizing the millions of immigrants who have come to this country, though illegally, but have lived as law abiding residents and have literally worked and paid taxes and in many ways contributed to the growth of America.

Early Motivations of Immigration

The early motivations of the exploration of the Americas were based on wealth and religion. The motives for Spanish, French and English explorers were all different, although in some ways, they were the same. The English who were motivated by a desire to colonize as much of the Americas as possible – to add to the ever-increasing British Empire, did indeed colonize the New World and the European conquest of the New World led to profound changes to America’s landscape, population, and plant and animal life. And in the 19th century alone, over 50 million people left Europe for the Americas, providing a vital and diverse wave of early immigrants that fueled the continent’s booming post Columbian Exchange era.

Understanding the historical significance of the founding of America as an immigrant nation with the waves of early settlers originating predominantly from Western and Eastern Europe to change their lives in pursuit of economic prosperity is to understand the current trend of immigration today with the waves of immigrants coming to the United States with a vision, work ethic and fortitude to make a difference in their lives and to contribute to the prosperity of America.

How America Evolved

America had evolved in a fascinating way. In the New World, the colonists who had left Europe to settle in North America longed for more freedoms and independence.  It was on July 4, 1776, that the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), approved the Declaration of Independence, severing the colonies’ ties to the British Crown. The Declaration of Independence was developed as a catalogue of a list of grievances laid out by the authors of this historical document vigorously arguing in favor of the self-evident truths that all men are “created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. And with the Bill of Rights, the collective name for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, certain
inalienable limitations were put in place to serve to protect the natural rights of liberty and property. They guarantee a number of personal freedoms, limit the government’s power in judicial and other proceedings, and reserve some powers to the states and the public.

The authors were determined to gain independence for their new found states from the British Crown they saw as the oppressor which had subjected them to “repeated injuries and usurpations” and taxing them without their consent and preventing them from trading
internationally, as well imposing on them an unjust judicial system, to the point these colonies had to band together and to rise up and fight for the independence of the thirteen united States of America.

Africa’s Contribution to the Making of America

One cannot talk about the making of the immigrant nation of America without talking about the history of slavery. Slavery became an integral part of this developing nation founded by early European settlers. By the early 18th century, the trade of African slaves in America expanded to accommodate an agricultural economy growing in the hands of ambitious planters. From the 1740s to the 1830s, the institution of slavery continued to support economic development of the New World. And as the slave population reproduced, American planters became less dependent on the African slave trade. Ensuing generations of slaves developed a unique culture that blended elements of African and American life.

Slave labor was a strong component of the financial successes for several trades such as tobacco and cotton; and much of the independence the United States sought to gain relied heavily upon the institution of slavery. Eventually, though, it became evident that in the
mid-1800s Abraham Lincoln stood up for the slaves to also gain their “independence”
within the United States of America. By an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, using his war powers during the American Civil War, proclaimed the freedom of 3.1 million of the nation’s 4 million slaves, and immediately freed 50,000 of them, with nearly all the rest freed as Union armies advanced.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not compensate the owners; it did not make the ex-slaves, called Freedmen, citizens. The Proclamation, nonetheless, made abolition a central goal of the war (in addition to reunion), which outraged white Southerners who envisioned a race war, angered some Northern Democrats, energized anti-slavery forces, and weakened forces in Europe that wanted to intervene to help the Confederacy. Total abolition of slavery was finalized by the Thirteenth Amendment which took effect in December 1865. And even though Abraham Lincoln lost his life for that, it was a honorable sacrifice he made for the slaves to win their dignity in humanity, been free and equal in America. What a great sacrifice made by a people forcibly removed from their homes in Africa and brought to the New World, who though persecuted and oppressed, marginalized and molested, contributed to propel America towards true civilization and democracy.

Current Motivations of Immigration

Having covered the early motivations of immigration to America by European conquest of the New World after Christopher Columbus and as a nation built with the sweat and blood of
African slaves, like the early European conquerors of America, the current waves of immigrants are similarly drawn to America by the beacons of economic opportunity and the freedoms that have evolved with this nation. The debate about immigration has today become a political hot button and succeeding administrations, both Republicans and Democrats, have found it hard to take up any meaningful immigration reforms, especially in ways of dealing with the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country. What is often talked about is the dark side of illegal immigration with insinuations labeling the current waves of immigrants as simply lazy welfare-dependent or low-wage labor seeking immigrants.  Critics have claimed that immigrants take on jobs, lower down wages, and drain too much tax money because of social services. A long list of negative side effects of illegal immigration have being brought up to include things like immigration being seen as easy conduit for terrorists entering the United States,  massive escalation in crime, surge in foreign national prisoners to support for years,  increase in number of traffic accidents,  dramatic impact on
society and infrastructure, including education,  main cause of emergency rooms and hospitals closing as well as service cut back,  introduction of third world diseases, increased welfare costs, and  massive costs to society over and above contributions.

But what can be squarely said about the current waves of immigrants is that the immigrants coming to America today are not just lazy welfare-dependent or low-wage labor seeking immigrants. Like the first waves of immigrants who were drawn to America by beacons of economic opportunity and religious freedom, this current generation of immigrants are coming to America to start out on the bottom rung of the economic ladder fueled by a strong work
ethic and are making a difference to the economy of America. The low-wage immigrant labor being sold to the American economy is helping to bring lower prices for goods and services for consumers to make America competitive in a globalized world.

Today, globalization has brought hundreds of millions of low paid workers into the global labor force, thus putting pressure on higher paid ones in advanced countries such as the United States. That said, to change this phenomenon of globalization is simply not feasible any longer. Overall, globalization has beneficial impact on global welfare making life more affordable and livable and not just the accumulation of profits. Think of the millions of people around the world who have been pulled out of absolute poverty and misery. Think also of the wider range of affordable goods available to consumers globally (the largest segment of which is in the US). And think of innovations that have saved lives and improved the quality of life. Rather than try to unwind globalization, the challenge for the US is to adapt its labor force and its economy to these realities.

Besides, why blame immigrants for bidding wages down when U.S. corporations want cheap labor any way and anywhere they can get it. Take a trip to northern Mexico, there are over one million Mexicans working in over 3,000 maquiladora manufacturing or export assembly plants, producing parts and products for the United States. Mexican labor is inexpensive and courtesy of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), taxes and custom fees are almost nonexistent, which benefit the profits of corporations. Most of these maquiladora lie within a short drive of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Maquiladoras are owned by mostly U.S. corporations and some could be considered “sweatshops” composed of young women working for as little as 50 cents an hour, for up to ten hours a day, six days a week. Maquiladoras primarily produce electronic equipment, clothing, plastics,furniture, appliances, and auto parts and ninety percent of the goods produced at maquiladoras are shipped north to the United States.

Arguably, therefore, immigrants are not merely in the United States to get a piece of the United States economic pie at the expense of hardworking, “native-born” Americans by bidding wages down. Rather, immigrants today, like the early settlers who first immigrated to America, do offer economic benefit and promise, and in many respects, they do the hard work for meager wages that contribute to the well-being of the American way of life.

Rationalizations for Blanket Amnesty

The founding of America as an immigrant nation and the sustained trend of new waves of immigrants coming to America are very important, but the issue of the many millions of illegal immigrants in America cannot be ignored. What needs to be done to legalize the millions of immigrants who have come to this country illegally and have been law abiding and hardworking taxpayers is equally important. In any public discourse about a comprehensive immigration policy, a blanket amnesty can be spoken of solely as an illegal immigrant’s aspiration to be accommodated in American society. Politicians can cite blanket amnesty as the solution and in doing so can insist those who want to participate in American society must not only comply with the law and follow the constitution but above all, they must learn the English language. The most profound consequence of anti-immigration rhetoric and humane immigration policy double-talk is its power to antagonize those who are capable of making a difference in America’s growth and stability. For instance, by suggesting a humane approach to dealing with the immigration problem in the United States and decrying a blanket amnesty approach—clearly contradictory standpoints—the former Republican Speaker of the House of
Representatives, Newt Gingrich, is playing to two audiences: 21st century Americans with a migration background, which at one-fifth of the population represents a large part of the electorate and those discontented with immigration, including many in his conservative base.

Arguably, a blanket amnesty is the only sensible path to legalize the millions of immigrants who have come to this country illegally but have been law abiding and hardworking taxpayers.  Immigration amnesty is the process or the practice of granting legal immigration status to those persons who are in the United States illegally. But immigration amnesty as a path to legal immigration has been a contentious issue in the United States since at least the 1980s. In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan offered blanket amnesty to about 4 million persons. Since 1986, Congress has occasionally passed legislation offering immigration amnesty to specific groups of persons. And since the 2000s, immigration amnesty has become a much debated issue. Some people believe that blanket amnesty should again be offered to all persons who are in the United States illegally but who have committed no other crimes. These proponents of blanket amnesty are saying if all the persons who are in the United States illegally were removed; the United States would suffer severe economic setbacks. This could be true because states and localities that recently passed anti-immigrant bills have experienced significant negative economic consequences. In Arizona, for example; the losses from its controversial anti-illegal immigration law with the passage of SB 1070 by a Republican-controlled state senate, totaled $141 million in conference cancellations alone and $253 million in overall economic output. Georgia is already beginning to see a severe labor shortage from workers avoiding the state due to its immigration law. This shortage is likely to reverse a decades-long trend in which fruit and vegetable crops gained an increasing share of the state’s total farm value and enlarged
Georgia’s agricultural sector with estimated losses of about a billion dollars in 2011.

As the advocacy organization Justice for Immigrants points out, any immigration enforcement measures, such as an expansion of the E-Verify program will only continue to negatively impact the American economy and stifle its growth. In the past decade, Congress has
spent $117 billion of taxpayer dollars on immigration enforcement initiatives, yet the number of unauthorized immigrants in the country has grown exponentially and the demand for foreign-born, low-skilled labor has continued on pace with the ebbs and flows of the United States economy. Approximately 8 million—or 70 percent—of the unauthorized population are in the U.S. labor force and each year another 300,000 to 400,000 enter the country. It is clear
that another approach is necessary.

Besides, there is the diversity visas program which provides 50,000 green cards annually by lottery to persons from countries that do not currently send many immigrants to the United
States (contributing 4.8 percent of the total permanent immigration to the United States shows the role of immigrants in America’s economy is taken seriously by some lawmakers. The diversity immigrant category was created by the Immigration Act of 1990 to stimulate “new seed” immigration from parts of the world that are under-represented in the United States.

While there are no precise statistics about the number of illegal immigrants in the United States, many experts claim that 12 million persons are in the United States without legal immigration status, although this figure itself is highly debated. Opponents to immigration amnesty allege that persons who are in the country illegally have already broken the law and should not be rewarded with legal immigration status. They argue, offering immigration amnesty is an affront to those immigrants who follow the rules when applying for immigration status.

Worryingly for the United States, if the divisive political rhetoric against immigration is poised to accomplish anything of lasting significance, it will be to alienate many of the most hard working  immigrants of diverse backgrounds—those in the best position to meaningfully contribute toward fixing many of the problems of the ailing American society.  The United States’ policy toward its current waves of immigrants and their descendants has not been constructive. For the third time on December 18, 2010, the vote for moving the debate forward on the DREAM Act had failed. The motion failed 55-41. Sixty votes were required. Senators Lugar and Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the DREAM Act on March 26, 2009. “The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would provide immigration relief to a select group of students and allow them to become permanent residents if they came to the United States as children (under the age of 16), are long-term U.S. residents (5 years or more), have good moral character, and attend an institution of higher learning or enlist in the military for at least two years”. Even with such a DREAM Act that does not go all the way to grant blanket amnesty all illegal immigrants of good moral conduct, it is still rejected by politicians of all shades who are making a mantra out of saying that a general amnesty as a path to integrating the millions of illegal immigrants currently living in the United States as unacceptable, even though American-born children of illegal immigrants are all eligible for citizenship, resulting in a generation of immigrant-children born and raised in the United States and whose parents have no claim to legal residency let alone citizenship.

Conclusion

Immigration, defined as the movement through which individuals permanently move their place of residence from a particular country to another, has been a concept that is widely just talk and debate in the United States short of any meaningful policies to deal with the existing problem. There is no doubt that immigration has its distinct advantages. The economic gains with immigration, for instance, are just too many. Never mind what the critics are saying that immigrants are taking on jobs, lowering down wages and draining too much tax money because of social services, are far more favorable to the healthy growth of American society. The true benefits of immigration can be seen in the productive resourcefulness of immigrants—in a sense immigrants are ready and willing to take up jobs most born citizens of America will not take. According to a Fact Sheet on Immigrants’ Economic Contributions published by the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, it is reported that the American middle class and low-income workers striving to earn a middle-class standard of living rely on the economic contributions of immigrants, both authorized and undocumented. Overall
U.S. natives gain an estimated $37 billion a year from immigrants’ participation in the U.S. economy, according to the President’s Council of Economic Advisors.

As workers one in every four doctors in the U.S. is foreign born, as well as one in three computer software engineers and more than 42 percent of medical scientists. Immigrants helped to invent a quarter of the U.S. patent applicants in 2006. Undocumented immigrants contribute significantly to the U.S. workforce construction, agriculture, maintenance and hospitality – they pick and process food products and build and clean homes and offices, they care for the American elderly as certified nurse aides, licensed practitioner nurses and registered nurses and they engage in all sorts of productive enterprises as productive contributors to the American economic, social and educational environments.

As consumers, immigrants create new jobs by increasing demand for the products and services produced by current and aspiring middle-class workers. In the Chicago metropolitan area alone, undocumented immigrants spend $2.89 billion on goods and services, creating an additional 31,908 jobs in the local economy. Immigration is a significant contributor to the rapid growth of the Hispanic and Asian-American consumer markets, which together accounted for an estimated $1.46 trillion in buying power in 2008. Immigrant consumers will be particularly critical in reviving the nation’s devastated housing market, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center on Housing Studies. They reveal that immigration contributed to over 40 percent of net household formations between 2000 and 2005.

As entrepreneurs, immigrant-owned businesses employ American workers and raise capital from abroad to invest in the U.S. economy. More than one in ten self-employed business people in the U.S. is an immigrant. Engineering and technology companies headed by immigrants created 450,000 U.S. jobs between 1995 and 2005. Latin American immigrants in South Florida have helped to make the area a leader in attracting foreign direct investment, particularly international banking.

As taxpayers, policies that strengthen and expand the American middle class are funded by the taxes immigrants’ pay. Immigrants pay sales, property, and income taxes. The Social Security Administration also estimates that three quarters of undocumented immigrants pay payroll taxes. The average immigrant pays $1,800 more in taxes than she receives in public benefits, according to a landmark study by the National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences. Over their lifetimes, the average immigrant and her immediate descendants contribute $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concurs, stating that “over the past two decades, most efforts to estimate the fiscal impact of immigration in the United States have concluded that, in aggregate and over the long term, tax revenues of all types generated by immigrants—both legal and unauthorized—exceed the costs of the services they use.” However, the federal
government does not always share this tax revenue with state and local governments in proportion to the services immigrants use. Undocumented immigrants contribute $7 billion a year in Social Security taxes even though they cannot claim benefits from this program. At current immigration levels, new immigrants entering the U.S. will provide an estimated net benefit of $407 billion to the Social Security system over the next 50 years.

Generally, it is worthy of note that, immigrants as a source of low cost labor are cost reductions eventually passed on to consumers, and results in gains in economic welfare. Besides, goods produced through efforts of immigrant workers generate additional profits
as goods are sold at lower prices. Furthermore, increase in cultural and product diversity with more ethnic restaurants to dine in and more cultural centers to enjoy can all be seen to constitute the true benefits of immigration that need to be talked about as benefits contributing to the multicultural greatness of America. Contrary, therefore, to popular belief, immigrants do not take away jobs from American workers. Instead, they create new jobs by forming new businesses, spending their incomes on American goods and services, paying taxes and raising the productivity of U.S. businesses. Immigrants are good for the economy, not the other way around. A blanket amnesty as the most righteous path to legal immigration is what is to be offered to all persons who are in the United States illegally already but who have committed no other crimes. 

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