For the first time in a quarter-century, and only the fourth in our entire history, Congress is attempting a comprehensive update of our immigration laws. The Senate has already passed a bill and the House of Representatives is now deliberating on a version of its own. If, in concurrence with the President, they produce legislation, it could be the most important action taken by our government in this decade. It would not only change the blend of the American clay, it would significantly influence any number of powerful issues, from competitiveness to national purpose. Immigration policy, in short, critically affects the relative position and prosperity of the United States, both domestically and on the international scene.
The first thing to be said about current immigrant flows to this country is that in historical terms they are fairly moderate. While the actual number of foreign citizens now entering the U.S. may seem high—about 650,000 per year, counting legals, illegals, and refugees, and subtracting out-migration-it amounts all in all to an annual increase in the population of only about one-fifth of 1 percent. At the turn of the century, by contrast, when immigration was at its height, it increased the U.S. population by about 1 percent per year. Furthermore, the fraction of our current population that is foreign-born is not only well below earlier U.S. peaks, it is lower than the present levels in several West European nations, and considerably below the proportions in other immigrant nations like Australia and Canada.
The extent of illegal immigration to the U.S. seems particularly subject to exaggeration. In early 1986, the U.S. Bureau of the Census, in its first official estimate, concluded that there were about two million undocumented aliens in the country as of 1980, and that approximately another 200,000 had entered each year thereafter. This figure was much lower than the ones trumpeted by many alarmists. (The Census Bureau also concluded during the 1980’s that about 160,000 persons, most of them foreign-born, emigrated from the U.S. every year.) And today there appear to be at least somewhat fewer illegals arriving than in the past. Since passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has reported a significant reduction in the number of persons caught illegally crossing U.S. borders, with the 1989 figures falling 54 percent below the 1986 totals.
This does not mean that illegal immigration is not a problem, or that strict measures may not need to be implemented to deal with it, ranging from forgery-resistant Social Security cards to more border guards. But the point is that even with illegals taken into account, the numbers of people now entering the country are not distressingly high. In fact, they are lower than what, in our judgment, a wise policy would dictate.
Before considering what such a policy might look like, however, we need to attend to the arguments against substantial further immigration to this country.
The most widespread such argument is that America already has enough people, or too many people, or will soon have too many people unless the flow of new residents is stopped.
Yet according to medium-variant (“most likely”) projections by the Census Bureau, at current levels of birth, mortality, and immigration, the U.S. over the next fifty years will experience relatively slow population growth, then slower growth, then no growth, and then decline. This is due primarily to the fact that, for fifteen years now, fertility rates have been below the replacement level. Even an immigration moderately higher than the current level would still leave us on a slow-growth path toward population stability in the next century.
The future can, of course, change. Suffice it to say that under current conditions there is no long-term population explosion under way in this country. Claims that immigration is going to bring about a standing-room-only America, or anything close to it, are bunk.
Beyond that, the risks and benefits of our current demographic trends are open to debate. Though much attention has been paid to the dangers of overpopulation and overimmigration, little notice has been directed to the dangers of stasis or decline. Over the last two centuries, America’s prosperity and growing influence have coincided with the most significant long-term population boom in history. In the century to come the population of the planet as a whole will double; is it wise for America to be a no-growth player in a high-growth world?
A second related argument against immigration focuses on potential damage to the environment. Former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm put the view clearly:
With current levels of immigration, we will always be forced to use our resources at a faster and faster rate, to try to expand our economy to make room for more and more workers, to try to spread our suburbs, cutting down the forests and clearing out the farms that used to surround our cities.
The biologist Garrett Hardin recently blamed immigration for the fact that “Traffic problems are being replaced by rush-hour gridlock. Safe drinking water is scarcer every year. Forests are being killed by acid rain.”
Statements like these are flawed in many respects. To begin with the issue of resource depletion, the truth is that regardless of the level of population, we have always been and will always be “running out” of resources, but we will never hit empty. Under any intelligent market-based system, resource use is not a matter of draining down inherited reserves but a complex process of inherent rationing, constantly evolving new applications, and substitutions based on what makes economic sense plus what is feasible with contemporary technology. Among the once-dwindling resources that are now in “oversupply” are flint for arrowheads, farmland, acetylene for lamps, high-quality vacuum tubes, latex for rubber-making, trees usable for schooner masts, good mules, and copper ore. Moreover, as the economist Julian Simon has noted, the real costs of nearly all natural resources—measured in hours of human labor needed to acquire one unit—have fallen steadily and sharply in recent decades.
Similarly, ecological degradation is caused in large measure by what people do or fail to do, not by how many people there are. Within the last two decades, since America began spending significant sums on abatement, pollution has declined even as population has gone up. Recent concern about environmental trends like carbondioxide build-up and alleged ozone depletion are particularly irrelevant to the immigration question. If, as some worry, an individual person adds to global warming, it does not matter whether that person is in South Korea or New York (unless it is beneficial for Third Worlders to stay poor, thereby using less energy).
As for the perceived crowding that so inflames environmentalists, much of it is an effect not of numbers per se but of living in a land of growing affluence. If American suburbs are expanding outward, if national parks are host to more and more visitors, if once-favorite beaches and vacation spots have been “discovered,” all that is largely owing not to a surfeit of Americans but to the unprecedented amounts of discretionary earnings at their command. Disposable income per capita, adjusted for inflation, has gone up by about 50 percent in the last twenty years; in the same period, the number of second homes has doubled. We now have about one car per adult. More than twice as many Americans take vacations abroad today as did in 1970.
This can make for crowded airports and difficulty in finding a parking spot. By any decent standard, however, these are good things, a function of greater choice and opportunity for Americans of all classes. They are not a result of letting in too many immigrants.
A third argument in opposition to immigration is that immigrants constitute a big drain on social spending.
A series of recent economic studies challenge this notion. Immigrants tend to be disproportionately young, and as a result they draw very lightly on Social Security and Medicare—by far our largest social programs. Nor do they draw much more than natives on other kinds of welfare spending, like Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, and unemployment compensation. In all, immigrants actually consume smaller amounts of public funds than do natives for about their first dozen years in the U.S. After that, levels tend to equalize.
What is more, within eleven to sixteen years of coming to America the average immigrant is earning as much as, or more than, the average nativeborn worker. Immigrant families, who typically have more working members, outstrip native families in income in as little as three to five years. In this way, immigrants become above-average taxpayers. Viewed strictly in terms of fiscal flows and social-welfare budgets, then, immigrants tend to represent a good deal for the nation.
A fourth argument directly contradicts the third: immigrants are such zealous workers that they deprive natives of scarce jobs. Here, too, major studies by the Urban Institute and by the Rand Corporation paint a different picture. Immigration to a given area can be quite compatible with job growth, and even with wage increases. Indeed, one finds little evidence of higher unemployment or of a serious depressive effect on wages even among the most vulnerable native groups—lows-kill black workers or American-born Hispanics—when there is a rise in the proportion of immigrants in the local labor market.
Immigrants seem generally to complement rather than compete with native workers. They often fill manual or specialized jobs for which domestic workers are in short supply. They sometimes attract minimum-wage industries which would otherwise have located elsewhere. They stimulate activity in the service economy. They start new businesses. As anyone who has lived in a neighborhood with such businesses can attest, these enterprises are largely original: far from driving someone else from a job, many immigrant entrepreneurs carve a narrow foothold for themselves out of the rubble of empty buildings and unserved needs.
A fifth and final argument against immigration, perhaps the most venerable of all, is cultural: immigration on a large scale will eventually disrupt societal coherence, “swamp” the national culture, and imperil our sense of shared history and unity. Benjamin Franklin was an early articulator of this view; the targets of his ire were Germans, whom he criticized as clannish, ignorant, and intent on maintaining their own language. Since Franklin’s time, the targets have varied—Irish, Italians, Jews, Hispanics, and others have each taken their turn-but the charges have remained remarkably consistent.
Yet, Benjamin Franklin and a host of other critics notwithstanding, the integration of immigrants into the national ethos has not proved notably difficult in the past. We did not develop a German-language province, or any other separate enclaves; new arrivals, certainly after a generation or two, have tended to disperse fairly broadly across the land. Immigrants have not succeeded in introducing monarchism into this country, or for that matter Bolshevism (to mention only two once-widespread fears). Our founding fathers, were they able to pay a visit, would find many of our basic social and political institutions rather familiar. American ethnic history has for the most part followed the wise old dictum, “In all things essential, unity, in other things diversity.”
Now, it could be argued that this generally healthy pattern has changed somewhat over the last twenty-five years. American politics has increasingly come to be conducted in terms of what the sociologist Nathan Glazer has called “ethnic populism”—one bloc against another, with the national interest perceived as nothing more than an aggregate of group appeals. This has made many Americans defensive, and probably less charitable toward the idea of large immigrant flows with their implicit threat of Balkanization. Then, too, there is the changing makeup of those immigrant flows themselves. Increasing proportions come from Asia, Latin America, the Muslim world, the Caribbean, and Africa, places where historical, religious, racial, and political traditions are often quite different from those of the majority of Americans.
There is no ignoring the unsettled feeling many people experience upon walking into a New York City subway car or a Los Angeles public school—the feeling of being, as the saying goes, “in a Third World country.” Mass public opinion in America has never been pro-immigration, and may be less so today as immigration from European nations has dwindled. That is understandable enough; within a properly tempered political system citizens should not be made to feel like strangers in their own land.
But there are many grounds for reassurance. Data from California, for instance, show that somewhere between a quarter and a third of all Hispanics marry “Anglos”; us-vs.-them politics becomes much harder to sustain when it is difficult to tell the sides apart. Moreover, the powerful forces of Americanization are far from dead. More than 90 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics are now entirely fluent in English, and more than half of that group speaks only English. Young Hispanics aged twenty-one to twenty-five who are either native-born or have been in the country for more than ten years have reading scores comparable to the all-U.S. average.
Continued emphasis on English-language proficiency and other essentials of the collective American identity is obviously wholly desirable, not only from the perspective of the larger American interest but from the point of view of immigrants anxious to make progress in society. Militant advocates of linguistic and cultural separatism are, as it happens, out of step with the actual practices of most immigrants. It is in fact newcomers who often have the most powerful interest in the creation of common cultural ground—one reason Spanish is not going to become California’s co-official language is that new Californians from Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, the USSR, India, and Cambodia would not stand for it.
When it comes, finally, to a sense of shared national values, in the United States this has almost never been based on common blood but rather on specific traits and attitudes, both real and idealized. And the simple fact is that those traits and attitudes—self-reliance, a disciplined work ethic, strong family attachments, religiosity, an inclination toward entrepreneurship, a stress on education, independence of mind, an appreciation of individual liberty-are often notably prominent among immigrants to this country. It is no accident: in some large measure, after all, they come to America because they admire what America stands for.
International pollsters tell us that Americans are more patriotic, more willing to fight and die for their nation, and prouder of their heritage than residents of other industrial countries, even the most homogeneous ones. Our common ground derives from the surpassing power of deeply held principle. The democratic and individualistic values associated with that principle have proved and continue to prove assimilable by immigrants.
These, then, are some of the reasons why we need not fear additional immigration to the United States. Beyond these, there are other reasons why, especially in the period just ahead, we should positively welcome it.
In a normal labor market new people not only “consume” jobs, they also “create” jobs through their labor and their buying. That is usually justification enough for not being overly concerned about “job-stealing.” But the United States is not at present experiencing a normal labor market. The unemployment rate stands not much above 5 percent (which is near “full employment”), and the supply of young workers is shrinking (due to earlier depressed fertility).
Many, though not all, economists believe we may be entering an era of long-term labor deficit. Business cycles may rise and fall, they maintain, but the long-term trend will probably be one of too few qualified workers for the positions available. From mid-1985 to 1990, eleven million new jobs opened up while the total working-age population grew by only five million. If that squeezing trend continues, it will become harder and harder for employers to fill positions.
In some areas, grave labor shortages have already surfaced, and not just at entry levels. As once-young workers get older and low-fertility cohorts become a more significant part of the workforce, recruitment problems are shifting upward in the employment chain. Nationwide surveys find that one of the biggest problems facing American companies today is hiring and retaining employees.
A future of more jobs than workers may sound like a happy circumstance, but it reflects imbalances for which there can also be penalties. One such penalty is deteriorating service, and an increase in underqualified, rude, and weakly committed employees. Another is the cancellation of expansion plans for many businesses. Still another may be the advent of wage inflation, which could damage not only the U.S. but also other nations in both the Western and developing worlds.
Many of these dislocations could be avoided by immigration, a superb smoother of economic and demographic swings. Immigrants flow not to areas of labor surplus but to the regions and the occupations where demand is greatest. In this way they serve as a natural shock absorber in the U.S. labor market.
The most immediate beneficiaries of immigrant enterprise, moreover, are often the very individuals who are assumed to be their competitors—the poor. Ghetto stores are perhaps the clearest example. In vast stretches of low-income inner cities all across America, the most striking fact of life, aside from the staggering crime incidence, is the underprovision of basic services. In Washington, D.C., for instance, in the large poor neighborhood east of the Anacostia River, home to a significant portion of the city’s population, there are only a handful of decent sit-down restaurants and grocery stores. Block after block passes unpunctuated by commerical operations. To obtain even the simplest of goods and services often requires a long bus ride.
The absence of provisioners is not conspiratorial, but “rational.” With the harassments of crime and the low spending habits of the residents, only long hours of unpleasant work can make innercity businesses succeed. And in Anacostia, as in many other places, it is largely immigrants who are opening establishments in the commercial desert. It is easy to downplay the significance of their contribution, and their motive is not altruism. But for residents who can buy milk and newspapers and hay-fever pills at 2 A.M. where before there was nothing, they make a significant addition to the quality of life.
Beyond a strong dose of the enterprising spirit, immigrants typically bring something else to the country, and that is their youth. The United States is in the midst of becoming a significantly grayer nation. Census Bureau projections show median age rising from thirty-three to forty-two over the next forty years. Just from 1990 to 2000, the number of young adults aged twenty-five to thirty-four is expected to drop from 44 million to 37 million. The ratio of working-age taxpayers to elderly people will shrink from the 5:1 of today to 2.5:1 in 2030.
The cultural effects of such a demographic shift are uncertain, although anyone who has recently visited Vienna or Stockholm will have noticed the very different quality of a society in which one out of five, one out of four, one out of three citizens is over age sixty-five. Less uncertain are the economic effects. Social Security and Medicare have become the largest single component of the federal budget, and one of the most important elements of U.S. macroeconomic policy generally. Because the generation born roughly since the late 1960’s is so thin compared to its predecessor, the Social Security system faces some painful readjustments in coming decades as the baby-boom generation reaches retirement age. And the decline in the ratio of prime-age workers to retirees is being further compounded by spiraling health-care expenses, coupled with the inexorable lengthening of life spans. As a result, we face a future of more taxes, fewer benefits, or both.
Restoring some demographic equilibrium to the system by more nearly balancing the number of workers and retirees would lessen the need for tax increases or benefit reductions for many decades. While new pro-natal tax policies would be very useful, changing native birth rates is difficult, and there is a long lag between the arrival of the extra child and his entry into the productive workforce. Immigration, however, can begin to ameliorate these imbalances fairly quickly. Each payroll-taxpaying immigrant adds thousands of dollars per year to the Social Security trust funds.
Of course, immigrants provide our society and economy with other, more ineffable, benefits than these. It is often said, for example, that America’s future depends on our ability to cultivate strengths and bolster weaknesses in an increasingly competitive global arena. Even though current immigration policies give inadequate consideration to occupational qualifications—a subject to which we will return—the U.S. still gets more than 11,000 engineers, scientists, and computer specialists per year. We also get future practitioners of these professions; of the 40 finalists in the 1988 Westinghouse high-school science competition, 22 were foreign-born or children of foreign-born parents: from Taiwan, China, Korea, India, Guyana, Poland, Trinidad, Canada, Peru, Iran, Vietnam, and Honduras. In Boston, 13 of the 17 public-high-school valedictorians in the class of 1989 were foreign-born. Researchers at San Diego State University report that “immigrants and refugees to the U.S.—whether from Asia, Europe, or Latin America—are systematically outperforming all native-born American students in grade-point averages despite . . . English-language handicaps.” Beyond the specific contributions made by such people, we may also consider the salutary shock effect their presence in our schools could have on young native-born Americans.
Immigration, then, can bring us significant numbers of bold creators and skilled workers. It can diminish whatever labor shortages may be coming our way. Immigration can keep America from aging precipitously and fill in the demographic holes that may harm our pension and health-care systems. Immigration can energize whole communities with a new entrepreneurial spirit, keeping us robust and growing as a nation. At a time when the idea of competitiveness has become a national fixation, it can bolster our competitiveness and help us retain our position as the common denominator of the international trade web. And as most Americans continue to believe that we have a mission to foster liberty and the love of liberty throughout the world, immigration can help us fulfill that mission through successful example.
None of this means that Americans lack the right to define the membership of their nation. Of course they do. Nor is every immigrant a bonus, as witness the castoffs from Cuba’s jails and asylums, the nearly 10,000 aliens now serving time in federal prisons, and the 50,000 more who have committed crimes but have been released or sentenced to probation.
It is clear enough that recent policies have not always produced the optimal immigrant stream. Deportation of undesirable individuals could be greatly speeded, and careful selection of future citizens is well within national prerogatives. American immigration, after all, is one of the world’s great buyer’s markets—many fine candidates are lined up for each spot—and we need only specify more carefully what we are looking for.
Unfortunately, the incentives in current laws not only make for an inefficient system, but they often cut against our interests.
Since 1965, when the system was overhauled to end forty years of quotas that were unfair to residents of many countries outside Western and Northern Europe, our criteria for accepting immigrants have more and more boiled down to family connections—what has been called the nepotism standard. Nearly 90 percent of all nonrefugee immigrants now come to the U.S. in the name of “family unification,” a category which carries no skills or educational requirements. That has tended to give a big advantage to residents of a handful of Asian and Latin American countries where extended kinship ties are strong. (Two-thirds of all immigrants come from the following fifteen countries, and one-third from the first four alone: Mexico, the Philippines, Haiti, Korea, China, the Dominican Republic, India, Vietnam, Jamaica, Cuba, Iran, the United Kingdom, El Salvador, Canada, and Laos.) The nepotism standard has left little room for immigrants valued on other grounds. Today, only about 5 percent of immigrant visas go to persons qualifying specifically on occupational merit.
Yet there is no good reason why our immigration laws should fail to serve our social and industrial needs. In perhaps overly romantic homage to our notion of America as an open sanctuary for the world’s huddled masses, we have been strangely reluctant to design immigration policy in order to maximize the contribution it might make to our economy and society. There is no basis for such reluctance, especially in light of the fact that over the years we have consistently taken in more refugees and immigrants than all other nations combined. Without eliminating the humanitarian thrust of our current policy, without cutting down (indeed, while probably widening) existing immigrant streams, we can substantially increase our total acceptance of immigrants and allot a good portion of the available slots with both eyes squarely on the national interest.
The economist Barry Chiswick has produced a useful plan for the reform of our visa preferences, and the proposals that follow build upon the program he has sketched in Regulation magazine.
As under current policy, we propose that refugee visas be allotted independently, and adult citizens of the United States be able to bring in any bonafide spouses, minor children, or parents without limit (but not more distant relatives, who would be judged under meritocratic criteria). These two categories together-refugees and immediate family-would make up a little more than half of the yearly total of immigrants to the United States. All other entrants would be selected through a skill-based system, with points awarded for years of school completed, apprenticeship or vocational training, knowledge of English, high professional status or special educational achievements, and some carefully drawn blueprint of occupational demand in the U.S. Extra points could be given if a spouse also had scoreable skills, and as a continuing partial boost to extended family members, the presence of relatives in the U.S. willing to guarantee financial support could also count in an applicant’s favor. Entrepreneurial talents and willingness to invest capital would be recognized, and extra points would be granted to young workers.
At the end of each year’s scoring process, the available entrance slots would be filled simply by accepting, in order, the top scorers on the list. This is similar to the way Canada, Australia, and New Zealand already select most of their immigrants, with a great deal of success. It is a fair, rational alternative to the unjust, helter-skelter preferences now in place, and it would open up immigration channels to a much wider range of applicants across a broader spectrum of countries.
Moving to a more merit-based system would quickly increase the average qualifications of new arrivals to the U.S. That in turn would produce favorable ripples throughout our labor force, within our universities and laboratories, and all across American society. One example: the educational profile of current U.S. immigrants is exaggerated at both the top and the bottom—the fraction of recent immigrants who have a college degree is significantly higher than among the U.S. population as a whole, but so is the proportion with grade-school-only educations. A point system would enlarge the number of highly educated immigrants even further, and somewhat reduce the number of lightly educated ones.
This is appropriate. Chiswick points out that recent adult male Mexican immigrants have arrived with an average of 7.5 years of total schooling. Unskilled, weakly educated immigrants may earn much more here than they could in their countries of origin, and so find themselves personally better off, and they also can make valuable economic contributions—from maids, busboys, and gardeners, up the occupational ladder as far as aspiration and ability allow. But they do little to improve immediately the overall competence of the American workforce. Under the system proposed here, there would continue to be ample room for such hard-working but undereducated immigrants. It is very unlikely, however, that a seventh-grade education would continue to be an average level of achievement.
Another advantage would flow from the fact that most immigrants have already had their educations completed elsewhere. In terms of the costs of schooling alone, even the relatively small number of professional and technical-occupation immigrants we currently accept are worth an estimated several billion dollars annually. Raising the average educational level of future immigrant cohorts would swell this figure dramatically.
Large benefits would also accrue every time we attracted an immigrant with proven financial skills and capital. The payoff is double: we gain the nest egg and, even more important in the long run, the talent. America does not nationalize investments, but investors frequently nationalize themselves (as it were). This tendency might be encouraged. In Canada a program to bring in venture capitalists has been in place for ten years, providing Business Immigrant visas to individuals willing to sink at least the equivalent of about a quarter of a million U.S. dollars in a new enterprise. In 1988, according to Canada’s Employment and Immigration Office, 3,258 foreignborn entrepreneurs pumped nearly $2 billion into such new enterprises, creating an estimated 15,000 jobs.
It is a sign of progress that Congress has taken at least some short steps in the direction of more meritocratic criteria in the immigration bills now under consideration. In something of a breakthrough, the new Kennedy-Simpson legislation passed by the Senate sets up a scoring system to allot a substantially higher number of visas (to a total of 150,000 per year) to people who possess special skills or hold doctorates. Among other changes, it also earmarks 4,800 visas for people who bring at least $1 million and create ten jobs upon their arrival, and 2,000 slots for immigrants who bring $500,000 and promise to invest in a depressed area.
Yet even while these modest efforts have been mounted, non-merit-tested visas for non-immediate family members continue to be a big part of the system. In particular, an amendment to the Senate legislation sponsored by Senators Hatch and DeConcini guarantees a special quota of 216,000 annual entrance permits, to be distributed outside any point system or merit test to non-immediate relatives like siblings, nieces, nephews of U.S. citizens as well as to relatives of permanent resident aliens. This very unsound proposal would tend to block further movement toward a more balanced mix of criteria for immigrant selection.
Still, the Senate has established the beginnings of a better system—and somewhat increased the total number of expected immigrants. Equally important, the Congress as a whole has made some small progress toward addressing the problem of European immigration. The 1965 immigration reform had the effect of unfairly curtailing European entrants to 10 percent of the total incoming flow. Yet ours is a heavily European nation, and so long as our immigration policies leave hardly any room for arrivals from the original sources of our culture, those policies will lack broad support.
This is an especially appropriate moment to increase sharply our acceptance of East European and Soviet immigrants. By adding a new program of Liberty Visas we could provide 150,000 legal slots annually to people who for decades have been doubly impeded by Communist governments that would not let them out and now by an America that does not let them in because they have no family connections. But demand also exists in Western Europe, particularly in Great Britain and Ireland but also in Germany, Spain, Greece, and elsewhere. A bias of twenty-five years’ standing could be ended by making available a special allotment of 75,000 legal slots annually for immigrants from democratic Europe. Both of these programs would be designed to terminate after ten years. By then, a stream of European entrants (many of them skilled and highly educated) would have been established, representing somewhere around 25 to 35 percent of our new arrivals, a fairer and much more balanced figure than present ratios.
Although wildly varying numbers have been floated, basically what the proposed Senate bill seems to establish is a system which, while moving toward a merit-based selection process, adds only a modest number to the total of new immigrants. The proposal of Congressman Bruce Morrison (D.-Conn.), chairman of the House subcommittee dealing with immigration, adds more, but without an individual-merit point system. The proposal sketched here would yield an overall increase of 250,000-probably somewhat more than Morrison-with a merit system.
We have long since passed the point when we could hope to be a nation in the tribal sense. We are ethnically, religiously, and racially diverse. This does not always make for easy relations, but there is no changing it. Moreover, there are compensations for our diversity in the form of our unmatched dynamism and our capacity for successful synthesis. Adaptability is our strong suit, something we are better at than any other people. This is in some significant measure thanks to our immigrant tradition. Our most recent immigrants have made America the first truly universal nation in history. We now come from everywhere.
Our many generations of working pluralism, derived in such large measure from broad immigration, have demonstrated the effectiveness of free values to peoples from all corners of the globe. That an increasingly integrated world more and more lives by our own code is no accident. To a great extent the shift toward universal liberty has been inspired by hard-earned, sometimes painful, but ultimately triumphant day-to-day American practice.
Americans are properly proud of this historical role, and politicians or political parties that have failed to take it into account have suffered for their lack of understanding. Americans believe they seek not just prosperity for themselves but the fulfillment of a national purpose. Wisely designed immigration policies can help in pursuing that national purpose.
But our immigration policies ought not be conceived as some kind of messianic international public service. From our inclusionism we reap rich fruits, bolstering our numbers, enhancing our competitiveness, increasing our influence. A nation like ours functions best when confident, welcoming progress and growth, and demonstrating a willingness to absorb the lessons of outsiders. It wounds itself when it turns inward—excluding foreigners, protecting its markets, resisting fresh ideas and infusions. We would dilute both our own prosperity and our reason for being were we to fail to extend, and widen, our gangplank to the world.