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Immigration as an Economic Engine

The US still draws its `masses' - to the chagrin of some and delight of others

Few Americans have thought harder about immigration than Ben J. Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Mr. Wattenberg's most recent book, "The First Universal Nation" (Free Press, 1990), includes numerous observations, mostly positive, about the contributions made by newcomers to America.

Monitor Editorial page editor Keith Henderson recently interviewed Wattenberg at his office in Washington.

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YOU view immigration as an economic engine of sorts. What do immigrants bring to a now struggling United States economy?

Immigrants are - insofar as you can characterize them - upwardly mobile, ambitious, saving, they have traditional values, care about their children, all that sort of stuff.

They've done something very dramatic to upgrade themselves. This is a hard thing to do. Even if you come from a poor country, it's a hard thing to uproot yourself and your family.

The argument against that is, "Oh yeah, sure, but these Hispanics are coming and they're day laborers - they don't have the same kind of values." You get horror stories. I've been on radio shows saying immigration is good for the economy, and I get the calls in, and they say, "You don't live where I live...."

I have a little game I play with myself. I get into these cabs, and when I see the guy is not from America I say, "Where are you from?" He says, "Oh, I'm from the Punjab, or whatever." I say, "What do you think about America?" I try to count the number of sentences until you've hit the word "opportunity," and it's usually in sentence one or two....

And I think it's true. This is a vibrant, dynamic work force that immigrants bring in. Sure, immigration takes jobs, but it also creates jobs. Somebody has to make the tape recorder, sell the tape recorder, sell the pen, sell the shirt, make the shirt.

Are you essentially saying the more people, the more demand and the more work?

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There's no question about that. The question is, is there more demand per capita? And the answer to that is, maybe. It's not simply that there are 100 jobs available, and if you bring in 40 people there are then 60 jobs available. That's not the way it works.

My inclination is that in the US, which has ever since its inception been a growing country, demographic growth is generally salutary. It is true, in certain areas at certain times, a given American may be replaced by a given immigrant, and we ought to do everything we can to make that transition easy.

But as a macro-economic phenomenon, particularly now with the new immigration law stressing skills over family, you are bringing in scientists and engineers and technologists and people who make patents. They work very hard, and they expand the market. And in a global economy, by the way, when you have to have people speaking other languages and knowing other cultures, you have a great comparative advantage.

One criticism of some immigrants, particularly Hispanics, is that they don't want to assimilate. They want to keep their own language and culture.

I think that's vastly overstated. We have some evidence on it. Fifty percent of the Hispanics born in the US - second generation - are monolingual. English only. So every generation half of the Hispanic community is going English only.

You can't win against the English language in this country. Tell me those Latino kids are not interested in watching NBA basketball? They're not interested in watching the LA Rams? They're not interested in rock music?

Latino mothers are telling their kids that if they want to be upwardly mobile they have to learn English. Everybody knows that.

What about some people's concerns that immigrant culture is overwhelming the "native" culture?

The place where you hear this is in southern California. They say, "It's gone all Spanish." If the only immigrants to southern California were Latinos, maybe you could make that case. I kind of doubt it. But you have hundreds of thousands of Koreans, Taiwanese, Russian Jews, and mainland Chinese now - and Malaysians, Filipinos, Africans, and Muslims - people from all over the world in southern California. Do you think they're raising their children to learn Spanish? Forget about it.

[While] English is sweeping the board across the world, is southern California going to go from English to Spanish?

I was in Monterrey, Mexico, recently. What they're watching is NFL football at night, their kids. And the Playboy Channel, which they pirate. Their parents are trying to teach them Mexican culture and Spanish.... I think they have a bigger problem than we do.

Immigration plays into politics. Pat Buchanan, for instance, has been talking about building a stronger fence between Mexico and the US.

I'm diametrically opposite from Pat Buchanan about the value of bringing in new immigrants. But he said something interesting early on, which is, "Why can't we talk about this? This is something we ought to have a dialogue on."

Sure. It ought to be aired. Time magazine ran this story: "What's going to happen when America is nonwhite?" I think the numbers were addled. There are a lot of ways to play [with] those numbers. It's going to be 100 years, if then, until a majority of people in America are of non-European descent. And I would underscore the "if." There is a change going on. It went from 5 or 10 percent to 15 or 20 percent, to 25 percent. The country's becoming more multiracial, multicultural. And people have a right to talk about that.

The one thing Americans agree on is that everybody's against more illegals. But we've let two arguments get mixed up - legal immigration and illegal immigration. I'm the world's biggest pro-immigration hawk; but I'm also the world's biggest anti-illegal immigration hawk.

And for the same reason: I like legal immigration. And I know that if you're going to have the perception of floods of people coming in illegally, you're never going to be able to get any laws to allow more people in legally.

What other kinds of immigration reforms would you like to see?

Something happened in the world in the last few years. The cold war ended. People from eight or nine nations, before the Iron Curtain descended, had a major stream of immigration coming into the US. And it was just cut off for half a century.

The curtain goes up, and we say, "Now that you can get out, you're no longer a refugee, which gave you a right to come in." Our society says, "Sorry, our policy was if you can't get out, you can come in. If you can get out, you can't come in." That's not real nice.

What we ought to do now, in my judgment, is for the next 10 years to offer, say, 200,000 liberty visas each year to the former Iron Curtain countries - the nations of Eastern Europe and the nations of what used to be the Soviet Union.

You'd get a terrific kind of people - you'd get scientists and engineers and technicians, hard-working people. You could design it. You can customize it as to the kind of people you want to get.... It wouldn't mean keeping anybody out. We'd continue to take in Asian immigrants. We'd continue to take in Muslim immigrants and Latino immigrants.

You'd say, hey, look, something came out of this system 40 or 50 years ago that said, "These people can't come in." We ought to give them a backward bump. And that would tend to slow down this de-Europeanization - without keeping any non-European out.

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