Immigrants have the potential to make great contributions to the US; the current political debate clouds the pressing need for greater migrant labor.
By José Azel
As I remember the story, sometime in 1938, the infant Kal-El, born on the planet Krypton, was sent unaccompanied to the United States by his scientist father Jor-El to escape the imminent destruction of Krypton. He was discovered by a farm couple from Kansas and raised as their son Clark Kent. Kal-El went on to use his abilities to do great things for humankind.
I cite the Superman story, not to defend undocumented migration, but to introduce a little levity to a topic often discussed only using hyperbole, acrimonious statements, and name-calling. Today, over three percent of the world’s population, 244 million people, are international migrants, and the immigrant population of the United States is approaching 50 million. The topic requires thoughtful deliberation and statesmanship.
In our hemisphere, Mexico leads the way with 12 million immigrants; from Central America, thousands continue to flee violence and poverty, and from Cuba, nearly eighteen percent of the population has escaped that tragic island in search of freedom. The motivations to leave one’s homeland are diverse but essentially fall into an economic or political category or both.
Fundamentally, migration expresses a desire for the liberty to improve one’s quality of life. Fortuitously, as of this writing, in the summer of 2018, the labor needs of the United States are perfectly aligned with the needs of immigrants searching for employment in the United States to improve their lives.
Full employment means that unemployment is at the lowest possible level that will not cause inflation. The Federal Reserve considers an unemployment rate of 5.0 to 5.2 percent as “full employment.” This rate is technically known as the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment or NAIRU. In plain language, “full employment” means that everyone who wants a job can have all the work hours they want.
As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. unemployment rate is down to 3.8 percent and expected to decline further. We are currently facing a severe shortage of labor in the United States, and most U.S. companies are experiencing hiring challenges. In Big Sky, Montana, where I live several months out of the year, some restaurants have had to curtail their working hours to serve only dinner as they are unable to staff for breakfast or lunch.
In other words, there is a compelling macroeconomic case for a comprehensive review of U.S. immigration policies with an eye on our economic needs. But the politics of immigration are highly contested, and the immigration discussion revolves around contested points such as: immigrants erode a nation’s culture; immigrants lower wages and take jobs away from citizens; immigrants want to live on welfare programs; immigrants commit a disproportionate number of crimes and the like. These arguments are mostly inaccurate.
By way of example, in 1961, when I was 13 years old, my lawyer father, not unlike Jor-El, placed me unaccompanied, and somewhat clandestinely, in a cargo ship headed for the United States to save me from the Cuban Communist authorities. I was part of the exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied children from Cuba between 1960 and 1962 that became known as Operación Pedro Pan. We were far from undocumented, as we traveled with passports, visas or specially granted “visa waivers,” health and police certificates, a power of attorney from our parents and more; but we were unaccompanied children.
As far as I know, none of my Pedro Pan brothers and sisters, and certainly not I, developed super powers. And yet, studies show that we have made significant contributions to American life in all fields of human endeavor with an extensive list of Pedro Pan notables.
The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the right to act on our life requirements, the right to be free from coercive restrictions, and the right to pursue our dreams provided we do not violate the rights of others. When immigrants choose to leave their homeland in search for a better life, they are acting on these rights. Our political class must formulate immigration policies that meet both our security, and our economic needs. There are many Clark Kents among us.
José Azel is a scholar and author. Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.