“Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth…joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide. The land flourished because it was fed from so many different sources – because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and people.”
– President Lyndon Johnson, October 3, 1965
“Immigration makes us stronger. It keeps us vibrant. It keeps us hungry. It keeps us prosperous. It is part of what makes this such a dynamic country. And if we want to keep attracting the best and the brightest that the world has to offer, then we need to do a better job of welcoming them.”
– President Barack Obama, March 25, 2013
With these words from two great American Presidents in mind, I traveled to Milwaukee and Chicago yesterday to discuss comprehensive immigration reform with community and business leaders and immigrant advocates. In two cities that express deep pride about their immigrant histories, I was reminded that the American story is — at its core — the story of people from every nation, all races, and a multiplicity of ethnicities. The risk takers. The adventurers. The liberty seekers. The freedom lovers. They come to the U.S. in search of opportunity, to work towards a better life for themselves and their families, and to help renew their new home: America.
This is the story of my family, and I expect it is the story of many other families, as well. My grandparents came from Eastern Europe — Russia, Moldova, Austria-Hungary — in the beginning of the 20th Century. My mother’s father and his brother walked from Russia to Hamburg, Germany to escape the Czar’s tyranny and find their places in steerage aboard a ship to the United States. I suspect they couldn’t have dreamed that one day their grandson and grandnephew would sit in the Cabinet of the President of the United States.
President Obama has made clear that the time has come for comprehensive legislation that fixes a broken immigration system and strengthens the American economy. The community leaders in Milwaukee and Chicago echoed his view as they spoke in human, personal, and evocative terms — discussing families separated by thousands of miles and torn apart without recourse, and young people desperate to step out of the shadows into their American lives.
Advocates from immigrant communities with roots in Central and South America, Eastern Europe, Africa and all parts of Asia shared strikingly similar experiences, and the same aspirations and concerns. And while everyone around the table agreed on the moral and social justice arguments for immigration reform, we also spoke of the economic case for fixing the system.
The President has said that our immigration policy defines who we are as a country, but also helps to determine how we will grow our economy in the coming years. Immigrants have been a foundation of U.S. economic strength for decades — failure to fix our immigration system would represent a loss of that advantage in a global economy.
Immigrants help drive American innovation. In 2011, immigrants started 28 percent of all new businesses while accounting for only 13 percent of the population. Immigrants are substantially more likely to secure patents for new innovations and represent more than $1 trillion in consumer spending power. A study by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has concluded that immigration reform could add as much as 1.3 percent to GDP by 2016. But we need to do more to ensure that immigrants, who are educated in America, stay to create jobs in America. That’s why the President has proposed “stapling” a green card to those who receive advanced degrees in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In the coming weeks and months, the discussion of comprehensive immigration reform will continue, as various proposals work their way through Congress. But the President and his administration will continue to press for reform that honors our values, making the case about all the ways that immigration enriches American life. It gives us economic, civic and cultural vitality. It keeps us on the cutting-edge. It is a unique source of national pride and dignity. It is what makes America America. Fixing our immigration system is a matter of the greatest urgency — the right thing to do morally and the smart thing to do economically.
Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.