Will Immigrants Who Built America Redeem It?

The potential gains from allowing the economy to continue to grow and for the unemployment rate to drop further are enormous.

Author’s Note: the trigger here is a provocative essay by OpEdNews’ Rob Kall, asking,“Why Do Immigrants From Communist Nations Tend to Become Right Wingers?” What struck me goes farther afield, evaluating the wider immigrant picture that puts the lie to rightwing manias against “illegal aliens.” Instead, we find an invaluable legacy from centuries of migrations, even the promise newly-minted citizens will push reform of their adopted, less than perfect union. 

If not enlightened demographics to the rescue, then what? Not today’s cacophony of nativist gridlock.

America is not just a land of immigrants, but one built by “foreigners” who risked life and limb, enduring high costs and truly horrible early transport, to reinvent themselves. In the process, an endless flow of optimistic newcomers left an indelible mark both on infrastructure and our capacity for wonder, even change. Like Gatsby, they stare with fascination at that “green light, the orgastic future,” readying “boats against the current.” Why, without immigrant sweat at construction, farmland and factories, and somewhat better weather, we might not wield imperial power more successfully than, say, Greenland.

Not only does superpower status elude us without a tsunami of 100 million+ entrants, would we ever have fostered a standard of living envied by the world? For better and of late worse, our “melting pot” has cooked up a fancy plutocratic stew thanks to low-cost immigration muscle, enslaved Africans, plus overworked Native Americans and early Hispanics.

“Manifest destiny,” whatever its geopolitical virtues, didn’t come cheap for underpaid serfs. Whose hands mined coal and fired steel, built cities, highways and bridges, planes (and aircraft carriers), trains and railroads, as well as manufactured numberless automobiles, trucks and buses?  Yet even now, as work itself changes, émigré brainpower fuels both intellectual capital and reform pushes to regain the luster of their once promised “beacon of democratic freedom.”

Immigrants, especially Hispanic and Asian, represent the most formidable critical mass against an entrenched right, whether blue collar or blue stockings gung ho to erase the very opportunity that spurred the world’s greatest migration. For a reality check, FDR captures our truest legacy, “Remember always, that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

Years of GOP Amnesty

Let’s also dramatize past differences when so-called Republicans like Reagan and HW Bush approved amnesty, burnished with unilateral executive orders. Until Tea Party manias, amnesty was not such a divisive wedge issue. Reagan’s branded his 1986 “legalization program” as both “generous to the alien and fair to the countless thousands of people” who legally came to America. “The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows . . . able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.” Sounds like Obama.

Even George W. Bush sounded coherent when praising heroes willing “to leave their homes and leave their families and risk everything to come to America. Their talent and hard work and love of freedom have helped make America the leader of the world.”  He echoed Bill Clinton, “More than any other nation on Earth, America has constantly drawn strength and spirit from wave after wave of immigrants . . . the most restless, the most adventurous, the most innovative, the most industrious of people . . . [who] strengthened our economy, enriched our culture, renewed our promise of freedom and opportunity for all.”

Driving Social Mobility

Topping the “most innovative” is the fabled, Russian-born, Google-founder, Sergey Brin.  In fact, 40% of today’s S&P 500 founders are the newly-arrived or their children (though foreign-born populations since 1850 rarely exceeded 15%). No wonder rich winners, beyond dreams of avarice, bellow with patriotic fervor about “exceptionalism.” No wonder reactionaries from Communist countries, like Cuba and Russia, embrace the right. But such fat cats remain a tiny, unrepresentative minority, rarely critical in national elections.

Science and internet startups remain irresistible beacons. On point is this American exceptionalism, boasting the world’s greatest foreign-born population of over 40 million strong. Ditto, higher education, as overseas youngsters total 40% of all MA and PhD graduate students in STEM programs. Many stay here, productively. Almost one-third of last century’s “American” Nobel Prize winners in medicine and physiology were born elsewhere. Research by Johns Hopkins on 11,000 students proves immigrants excel in school and careers, with higher status and income.

Obviously, conservatives fleeing “socialism” choose the US over northern Europe, even Canada. Yet many more millions lean leftward, demanding of the US its fabled level playing field that rewards hard work, top schooling, and self-sacrifice. Do not such enlightened democrats best answer the elitist, moneyed rule of crony capitalists? More than older, white, backward Republicans, new Americans understand the threat of outsourcing to the middle-class they are eager to join, to insanely regressive national budgets, even to reality-denial on science and global climate change.

‘Huddled Masses’ Flex Their Muscle

Certainly affluent ex-Cubans “driven out” by Castro still fume their “home” was “stolen,” and the rightwing feasts on such anti-communist malarky. But not even Cuban strongholds make Florida a predictable red state in national elections as urban blacks, northern liberal and Hispanics twice proved with Obama. Per 2013 Pew polling, less than half of registered “Cuban” voters are still Republicans, down from 64% a decade ago, during which time Democratic allegiance doubled to 44%.

Surveying the top ten “immigrant” states, Pew found only Texas a decidedly red state, with Florida at #4 and Nevada at #5, all lagging much bluer California, NY and NJ.  Other populous immigrant states are safely blue: Hawaii, Mass., Maryland, and Illinois, and that trend continues as offspring lean leftward. Thus, we see the predictable shift from first-generation mindsets (“let’s get settled by getting ours first”) to wider perspectives that favor communal, regional and national interests.

More politically-evolved offspring are transcending parental zero sum models (winning means the less powerful lose). With aging, medically-challenged parents, who wouldn’t cheer for “socialized” Medicare and Social Security?  Thus today’s “manifest destiny” is less about conquest than free public education, child care, job training and housing supports, even health care for the poorest.  Millions now applaud access to university degrees and far more available capital to fund “job creating” businesses than the closed, hierarchical structures their parents willingly left behind.  Let us celebrate optimistic shifts and hope demography is destiny.


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