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How Immigration Benefits America’s Position in the World

Popular fears over assimilation and the effect of immigration on a coherent sense of American identity are nothing new in American history. But while most developed countries will experience a shortage of people as this century progresses, immigration remains one of the bright spots about America’s position in the world

Flagimmigrants
source: Gerson Galang
Immigration has become a central issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, particularly after the recent terrorist attack in Florida. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate, had already used the issue of President Barack Obama’s alleged foreign birth to appeal to nativism several years ago, and he successfully used Marco Rubio’s one-time support for immigration reform as a weapon in the Republican campaign debates. After the American-born son of an Afghan immigrant carried out the attacks in Orlando, Trump repeated his calls for restriction of immigration by Muslims. President Obama and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, responded that religious restrictions on immigration were inconsistent with American values and were counter-productive in terms of winning the assistance of moderate Muslims in defeating terrorist attacks. 

The debate is joined and the issues are sharply defined on the question of whether such restrictions on immigration will help or hurt America’s ability to deal with the current issue of terrorism. Important though these questions are, most of the debate is focused on short-term issues. But what is the effect of immigration in a longer historical view of the effect of America as a world power? A year ago I addressed this question in my book Is the American Century Over? 

The United States has a long history of cycles in public opinion in which people worry about the country’s decline. After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, we believed the Soviets would outstrip us. In the 1980s, we thought the Japanese were ten feet tall. After the great recession of 2008 and before Chinese economic growth rates slowed our anxieties focused on China. Ironically, all three of these countries, Russia, Japan and China, are slated to shrink in terms of population in coming years. The United States, on the other hand is projected to grow. 

 Immigration is one of the bright spots about America’s position in the world. The United States is one of the few developed countries that is projected to avoid demographic decline and keep its share of world population, partly as a result of immigration. Population alone does not determine national power, but it is an important component, particularly if those human resources are educated and assimilated. 

Popular fears over assimilation and the effect of immigration on a coherent sense of American identity are nothing new in American history. The 19th century “Know Nothing” Party was built upon opposition to immigrants, particularly the Irish. Within a century, the country elected President John F. Kennedy, a descendent of Irish Catholic immigration. The U.S. remains a nation of immigrants with a creed of opportunity for newcomers. During the 20th century, America recorded its highest percentage of foreign-born residents in 1910—14.7 percent of the population. Today, about 40 million people – nearly 13 percent of Americans – are foreign born citizens. 

Despite being a nation of immigrants, a 2015 Pew poll showed Americans have complex views about immigrants living in the U.S. today. On balance, U.S. adults are more likely to say immigrants are making American society better in the long run (45%) than to say they’re making it worse (37%). Both the numbers and origins of the new immigrants have caused concerns about immigration’s effects on American culture. Data from the 2010 census showed a soaring Hispanic population driven, and at 16 percent of the total population, Hispanics have replaced Blacks as the nation’s largest minority. Critics fear they will not assimilate, but most of the evidence suggests that the latest immigrants are assimilating at least as quickly as their predecessors. 

Most developed countries will experience a shortage of people as this century progresses, whereas the U.S. Census Bureau projects that between 2010 and 2050 the American population will grow by 42 percent to 439 million.  According to United Nations demographers, today’s top ranking of states in terms of population is China, India, and the United States. By 2050, they project the order will be India, China, and the United States. Because of its one child policy in the past century, China’s population will shrink and age.  As many Chinese say, they fear that their country will “become old before we become rich.” 

 Fifty years from now, the United States will likely remain one of the top three or four most populous countries with an age distribution that will be younger than that of other developed countries. Not only is this relevant to economic power, but given the fact that nearly all developed countries are aging and face a burden of providing for the older generation, immigration can help reduce the sharpness of our policy problem. We should particularly encourage the education of young immigrants. Studies show that as the number of immigrant college graduates increases, so does the increase in patents per capita. A quarter of high tech start-ups have an immigrant founder, and 40 per cent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. 

Immigration also benefits America’s soft or attractive power. The fact that people want to come to the United States enhances American appeal, and the upward mobility of immigrants is attractive to people in other countries. America is a magnet, and many people can envisage themselves as Americans. Many Americans “look like” citizens of other countries. Moreover, connections between immigrants and their families and friends back home help to convey accurate and positive information about the United States. Rather than diluting hard and soft power, immigration enhances both. 

In January 2010, I asked Lee Kwan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore and an astute observer of both the United States and China, whether he thought China would overtake the United States as the leading power of the 21st century. He said “no” because the United States is able to recreate itself by attracting the best and brightest from the rest of the world and meld them into a diverse culture of creativity. China has 1.3 billion people to recruit from domestically, but in his view, its Sino-centric culture makes it less creative than the United States which can draw upon a talent pool of more than 7 billion people – so long as we remember that we are a nation of immigrants. Let us hope we do not forget that in the heat of the electoral competition of 2016. 

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author of Is the American Century Over?