Thursday, May 24, 2007

Immigration--some further thoughts

Yesterday, I noted the irony--or is it hypocrisy--that the GOP, for so long the self-proclaimed party of family values, should back an immigration proposal that tilts the field toward those with desirable skills, rather than family members of prior immigrants.

Tom Friedman makes an argument, if not for the proposal now before Congress at least for taking skills into account. Recounting his experience at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduation (where he apparently received an honorary degree), Friedman says that it seemed that virtually all of the PhD recipients were foreign-born, and argues that if we do not make it easy for such graduates to stay in the country, we are doing tremendous damage to our economy and our world position.

Friedman has a point. Immigration has always been like the Nile floods in ancient Egypt, which kept that narrow valley fertile and formed the basis for Egyptian power. Immigrants have watered the fields of American enterprise and achievement. And in a global age, when we bring students here and then tell them to go back home, we are improving the lot of our competitors.

Now there may be good reasons for doing just that, most clearly where we have a sufficient supply of skilled graduates. And the best argument for restricting immigration may well be that it imposes a drain on nations that can ill afford to lose human capital--not on France or Britain or Japan so much as on Haiti, Mexico and other places that need the kind of energetic, intelligent, active people who are most likely to emigrate.

While I tend to agree with Friedman on narrow national-interest grounds (subject to the caveat just above, which bothers me somewhat), that does not mean that the proposed new visa scheme is a good idea. It would impose the elitist concept that we can pick winners--that those who already possess certain skills are the immigrants we want. Sounds good, but watch out.

The truth is, we don't know which immigrants we want. The proposal before Congress now would have kept out Andrew Carnegie and others who came here with nothing and built the nation. (It would have kept my grandparents out, too.) We may think that a computer programmer or someone with an engineering degree from a well-regarded foreign university is preferable to a Mexican farm worker or a Haitian who's first job will be bussing in a restaurant. Maybe. Maybe not. Last week, CBS did a profile on the doctor who heads Johns Hopkins' department of neurosurgery. He came here from Mexico as a teenager, to pick crops. Only after he was here did he get on a track to education and professional brilliance. Do we want to keep such people out of our country?

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