I was talking with a friend the other day about immigration. It’s one of the most divisive issues of our time, and we, too, found ourselves divided. “Our country is full,” he quoted President Donald Trump, who said this back in April. Let’s improve the country with the people we already have, my friend added.
I had a quote, too, and it’s one I still believe in. You’ll find it on the Statue of Liberty. “From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome,” it reads. And then, of course, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Immigration makes us stronger as a nation and represents the best of what we stand for. This country is a defender of individual rights, a beacon of tolerance and equality, and a champion of the notion that offering opportunity to all who live here — regardless of national origin — yields the innovation and hard work that drive our economy and culture.
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True, we don’t have the resources to let everyone into the U.S. who wants to come. But that’s a far cry from saying that we’re full, or that we’re facing an immigrant “invasion,” or that large numbers of immigrants are “stealing” jobs from Americans. There’s very little evidence to support any of those claims.
Instead, I’d argue that immigration is an opportunity for the country. We have to use immigration to meet our needs, especially in the labor market. Every month for the last year and a half, the U.S. economy has had more job openings than people looking for work. And in a twist from what you’d expect, it’s not the higher-end jobs that face the most acute shortages. It’s health care, hotel, and restaurant workers who are in the highest demand. In an array of categories, from retail to food processing to landscaping, we don’t have the low-skilled laborers we need.
So while I’m not arguing that we should throw open our doors to all comers, we should lean toward openness, recognizing that we have limits and constraints that demand building immigration policy around a principle. And what should that be? That immigration is a powerful tool for meeting our needs, strengthening our labor markets, bolstering our pool of talent, and remaining a beacon to those everywhere who believe that their own hard work, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit can build their own lives and contribute to the communities around them.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.