By Ellie Schaack.
The other day, I was watching a Steve Jobs interview from 1995. The picture was poor, and the sound was a little distorted. The poor quality added to his mystique, to his legendary charisma. He had recently been forced out of Apple and was watching from afar as the company plummeted. With perfect articulation and a profound sadness in his eyes, he ruminated on how easy it is for a company to forget what made them great. They come out with this incredible product, and they’re wildly successful, but often they haven’t identified what it was that made them so successful. So when the time comes to replicate their success, they fail.
And I thought: this is happening to us.
In the immigration debate, so much of the language revolves around American opportunity being “stolen.” People fret all the time about immigrants taking our jobs and taking our education and taking our tax dollars. So many look at employed immigrants and can only see unemployed Americans.
The problem with these complaints is that they require that opportunity is finite, that there is a limited quantity of it that must be doled out to the most deserving. They require that opportunity is a zero sum game, that giving you a little bit more success brings me a little bit more failure.
But what brought this nation so much success – our Macintosh, if you will – was an understanding that the reality was exactly the opposite. That which made the US soar to the top in GDP per capita and standard of living was the understanding that your success brings me success, because then you can buy the products I’m selling. You won’t rob me in desperation. You can contribute to the cost of our children’s school. You can employ other people who can then also buy the products I’m selling.
Opportunity doesn’t end. It keeps growing.
When an industry employs an immigrant, that industry becomes a little bit more prosperous. The immigrant then needs a house, helping local construction companies and realtors and driving the value of houses up so that when you sell yours, it sells for more. They need food and refrigerators and televisions and plane tickets back to their home country to visit their families.
Conversely, when many of our industries are kept from hiring immigrants, they experience labor shortage that can shut down businesses entirely.
Jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math fields are growing at three times the rate of other jobs in the United States, and American labor supply simply cannot fill these jobs quickly enough. One hundred thousand valuable American-based positions in critical high tech firms like IBM, Microsoft and Intel have been left unfilled. By 2018, estimates suggest that this number will increase to 230,000. My father, who sells businesses in my hometown, told me that he knows of multiple businesses that don’t want to illegally hire immigrants under the table that will close if immigration reform isn’t passed.
The same holds true in industries like agriculture. The demand for labor far exceeds the supply of Americans who are willing to work long days of difficult labor for minimum wage. This labor shortage has led to crops being left to rot in the field and thousands of dollars in economic losses to our communities.
Currently, in order to deal with these shortages in both high and low skilled labor markets, immigrants are often hired in the shadows. This unregulated, under-the-table hiring hurts immigrants, who experience frequent exploitation, constant fear of deportation, and often debilitating poverty. It also hurts Americans, who experience depressed wages and higher unemployment as a result of competition with this cheap underground workforce. This is where the perception that immigrant success takes away American success comes from.
The senate immigration bill remedies this situation by bringing the workforce aboveground. E-Verify sharply reduces employer incentive to hire illegal immigrants, which reduces incentive for illegal immigrants to cross the border. Moreover, unprecedented border security enhancements will stem the flow of illegal immigrants. Politicians like John McCain and Jeff Flake, senators from Arizona (a state infamously hostile to illegal immigration) and two of the eight architects of the immigration bill, have their political futures riding on the fact that this bill will secure the border.
The beauty of the bill is that it simultaneously widens channels for legal immigration, the goal being that people simply aren’t here illegally. Employment visas will be issued on the basis of a data-driven formula that changes with industry demand, ensuring that illegal labor never floods an industry not yet ready for such growth. Meanwhile, the estimated 11 million immigrants currently here illegally will be afforded the dignity and protection of legal status in return for a decade-long process including paying back taxes and fees, passing multiple background checks, and proving a history of employment.
Legalization of immigrants means that the rules put in place to ensure that companies don’t take advantage of their labor force apply to immigrants as well. This takes away the incentive for companies to hire illegal immigrants instead of Americans. It also helps immigrants, who will be protected, like Americans are, from employer exploitation. Everyone is better off.
So the true dilemma comes to this. When crafting immigration policy, we can see opportunity in this country as finite and attempt to hold it possessively to our chests. What would this look like?
The senate bill already has us building an enormous fence at the border and adding 20,000 Border Patrol agents, but we could install even more state-of-the-art technology to let not a single soul cross over. We could deport the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally. This deportation would destroy families, requiring a complete lack of empathy towards people whose only crime was to chase that better life first dreamed up by this nation of immigrants many years ago. It’s also economically infeasible. Identifying, detaining, and deporting every unauthorized immigrant in this country would have an annual price tag of $41 billion, which is more than the entire discretionary annual budget for the Department of Homeland Security, the department in charge of deportation. Moreover, the cost in the loss of labor and the cost of losing an enormous market for goods would be immeasurable.
There is another choice. We can remember that giving someone an opportunity doesn’t take away your own. Often, it creates one.
A nation of immigrants is a prosperous one. Those who question that should keep in mind that more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or their children. This isn’t surprising, as immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a small business. In the 1990’s, immigration was responsible for one third of the explosive growth in patenting for capital. We’ve seen this innovation pay dividends: immigrants founded Google, eBay, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, and Intel.
They say that we are a nation of immigrants, and that’s true. But I think the more important message is that we are a nation that, in its most triumphant moments, displays the understanding that no matter who you are, your loss is mine as well, and your gain is mine too.
We had one of those triumphant moments a few weeks ago. Only on rare, momentous occasions does the Vice President, who is President of the Senate, preside over the chamber, and rarely do senators sit at their desks.
But they did on June 27th. Vice President Biden sat at the front of the chamber. One hundred senators filled the room, and the senators rose to vote when their names were called. The ayes and nos rang out. Specifically, 68 ayes. 32 nos.
House leadership responded a few minutes later. They said that the House cannot pass such a bill. They said that the House bill won’t provide any path to citizenship, taking away the delicate balance that allowed labor groups and pro-business groups and pro-immigrant groups to all come together and create a coalition that allowed over two thirds of the senate to rise in support.
I feel like I understand that look in Steve Jobs’s eyes. There was a frustration that arose from the people in charge not understanding what they had once understood. And there was a sadness, a deep sadness, as he watched from afar as that lack of understanding chipped away at something he loved.