Immigration May Be Hurting Our Country, But It’s Definitely Hurting Theirs

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Immigration is one of the thorniest issues facing Americans today. All American should be involved in the decision concerning what is the best path both for our nation and for the millions, maybe even a billion, of individuals that want, often desperately, to be part of our nation. And why wouldn’t they want to be part of such a strong and prosperous nation?

Do the thought experiment:  If you were a young man or woman, living in any number of countries that have no freedom or limited freedom, and offer few economic opportunities, would you not jump at the chance of living out your future in America? Particularly if you had a young family? Our guess is that hundreds of millions would pack up and head for our shores.

We are a large and prosperous country, but the question is:  “How many can we take in?” More fundamentally:  How many can we assimilate into our economy and our democratic system, a way of life that rests on an informed and responsible citizenry?

Wanting to be free, wanting a better way of life, and wanting the economic benefits that currently come with the American life is fine and natural. But our nation requires more from prospective newcomers if we are to preserve what we currently have. While immigrants often are a great benefit to the country, those who are unprepared to learn and to follow our laws and traditions represent a burden and a danger to the nation.

Our media today is filled with claims and debating points about immigration, with arguments ranging from open borders to closed borders. The political Left appears to be championing aggressive pro-immigration policies. As the party of Big Government, it sees more Left-leaning voters as more political power. Larger numbers mean more government and more services of all kinds, from more welfare to more public education. The Right, the party of business, is pro-immigration because that means more cheap labor, lower wages, and lower consumer costs. It means more young consumers for the products of American industry.

Religious leaders, from the Vatican to the majority of Protestant ministers in our country, are urging more and more immigration of refugees. The case of endangered Christians in the Mideast is especially compelling. Some suggest that the Catholic bishops see the influx of immigrant Catholics from south of the borders offsetting the loss of born-in-America Catholics who have been slipping out the backdoor of our churches.

As the immigration controversy comes to a boil, a perspective that deserves more attention comes under the heading of “the unintended consequences of immigration” — first, on the family; and, second, on the left-behind nation. 

Behind these rosy and popular pro-immigration arguments is the thesis that America is the world’s great incubator of talent and innovation — that our welcoming the world’s best and the brightest and most talented is a positive benefit for humanity at large. As this argument goes:  Opening our arms to the world’s gifted scientific minds and most entrepreneurial spirits, and inviting them first to our universities and then on to our great industries means harnessing their talents to produce environmental and health breakthroughs that would not occur if these individuals stayed home.

A compelling scenario. But there is an alternative scenario that could be called “the United States as talent strip-miner,” where U.S. universities, acting as talent scouts of business, recruit the cream of a poorer nation’s talents, leaving that nation bereft of their potential contribution. This happens, of course, after the left-behind nation has made a huge investment to nurture and educate these individuals only to watch them leave to be cogs in the service of the American business and industrial behemoth.

Besides the loss to the left-behind nations, there is, perhaps, a more serious loss:  The loss to individual families and to the very institution of the family. Most serious sociologists recognize that the family is the fundamental building block of a society. There is much pious and sentimental talk about families, but the fact is that without sturdy family units the social order tends to collapse.

Families foster new life and continue human existence. More important, they civilize the newborn, teaching a child the rules of the game:  how to cooperate, fairness, give-and-take, and, above all, self-control. Family members, including sisters and brothers, grandparents, uncles, and aunts, are invested in a child ‘s development as a successful and productive person.

When the young individuals and families of our other nations described in our earlier thought experiment depart to be part of the American Dream, the left-behind family is deprived of the support they deserve. They are weakened. In turn, their community and their nation lose their most precious resource:  the gifts and talents of their people. Annual visits home, bearing presents from the American abundance, are hardly enough. This is what William Butler Yeats warn about when he wrote, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

Immigration, by its very nature, causes instability to both the sending and receiving nations. Our world is currently rocking with instability, as masses of people are being uprooted or uproot themselves. While fostering a foreign policy of welcoming newcomers speaks both to our generosity and to our economic self-interest, it may, indeed, be feeding larger and more devastating chaos just down the road.

As Americans, we need to come together on an immigration policy based on a larger vision of the common good, one which is both good for our country and good for those who seek to come to our shores.


Kevin Ryan is a Boston University emeritus professor and Marilyn Ryan is a political scientist and writer.  The Ryans live in Brookline. Read their past columns here.