Former Florida governor Jeb Bush gave one of immigration reform’s more unusual defenses when he suggested last Friday that “immigrants are more fertile” than their native-born counterparts.
Leaving aside his poor choice of words, for which he has been lambasted across the Twitterverse, Bush’s argument has some merit. America’s aging population has many experts concerned for the long-run health of our economy and the sustainability of programs like Social Security and Medicare. Bush believes that allowing more young, energetic people with decades of work ahead of them into the country can help stabilize this teetering “demographic pyramid.” Many experts, such as the outgoing chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, agree.
Other related cases have been made for immigration reform. Contained in the Senate bill are provisions for attracting and retaining high-skilled workers, and even the inclusion of permits for low-skilled labor are often defended as boons. Bush himself made the case that “immigrants create far more businesses than native-born Americans,” an assertion supported by the facts. The message is compelling: smart immigration reform equals a more dynamic, robust economy.
Given the anxieties born of globalization and a changing socioeconomic landscape, it is understandable–and politically expedient–for advocates of reform to focus on the benefits conferred. But in framing the debate in such utilitarian terms, they minimize the true value of a fair and open system.
Since its inception, this country has made it a point of pride to embrace newcomers of all backgrounds and nationalities. While reality has of course not always lived up to this ideal, it’s not for nothing that we chose to inscribe on our front door:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
For its many lapses, America has always been and still is the world’s last best hope, a place of great political freedom and economic opportunity. We celebrate the fact that people from all corners of the world have risked everything to come and share in that promise. We don’t welcome immigrants because they can fix our demographic problems or spur our technology sector or work essential minimum-wage jobs. We welcome them because that’s what we do. It’s who we are.
To be fair, I’m sure that this truth animates Bush and many others so passionate about this issue. But each time they couch their appeals in the language of economic expediency, they risk losing sight of why serious and humane reform is so important — of why America is a place worth coming to in the first place.
Nathaniel French is a freelance writer living in New York City.