Rosen Sharma, CEO of Solidcore Systems, in Palo Alto, Calif., Dec. 9, 2003. One-quarter of the engineering and technology companies launched in the United States during the last decade had a foreign-born executive among its founders.
"Tide to be Harnessed"
Op-Ed, Boston Herald
August 11, 2010
Author: Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Immigration offers way to revitalize economy
The United States is locked in debate over immigration.
If the U.S. turned inward and seriously curtailed immigration, there would be consequences for America's position in the world. With its levels of immigration, America is one of the few developed countries that may avoid demographic decline and keep its share of world population, but this might change if reactions to terrorist events or xenophobia closed the borders.
During the 20th century, the nation recorded its highest percentage of foreign-born residents in 1910 — 14.7 percent of the population. Today, 11.7 percent of U.S. residents are foreign born.
Despite being a nation of immigrants, more Americans are skeptical about immigration than are sympathetic to it. In 2009 half of Americans favored reducing legal immigration, up from 39 percent in 2008.
Both the numbers and origins of the new immigrants have caused concerns about immigration's effects on American culture. Indeed, demographers predict that in 2050 non-Hispanic whites will be only a slim majority of U.S. residents.
Most evidence suggests that the latest immigrants are assimilating at least as quickly as their predecessors. The need to communicate effectively, together with market forces, produces an incentive to master English and accept a degree of assimilation. Modern media also help new immigrants to know more about their new country beforehand than immigrants did a century ago.
In addition, even though studies suggest that the short-term, directly measurable economic benefits at the national level are relatively small, and unskilled workers may suffer from competition, skilled immigrants can be important to particular economic sectors. A 1 percent increase in the number of immigrant college graduates leads to a 6 percent increase in patents per capita. In 1998, Chinese- and Indian-born engineers were running one-quarter of Silicon Valley's high-tech firms and in 2005, foreign-born immigrants had helped start one in four American technology start-ups over the previous decade.
Equally important are immigration's benefits for America's soft power. The fact that people want to come to the U.S., together with immigrants' upward mobility, enhances the country's appeal. Many successful Americans look like people in other countries.
Moreover, connections between immigrants and their families and friends back home help to convey accurate and positive information about the U.S. The presence of multiple cultures creates avenues of connection with other countries, and helps create a broadening of American attitudes in an era of globalization. Rather than diluting hard and soft power, immigration enhances both.
One Asian statesman even concludes that China will not surpass the U.S. as the leading power of the 21st century because of America's ability to attract the best and brightest from the rest of the world and meld them into a diverse culture of creativity.
While one can understand the resistance of Americans to competition from foreign immigrants during a period of high unemployment, it would be ironic if the debate were to lead to policies that cut the U.S. off from one of its unique sources of strength.
Joseph S. Nye, a former assistant secretary of Defense, is a professor at Harvard and author of "Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics".
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