What immigrants bring us

What immigrants bring us – By Ian Bowles – October 6, 2005

THE IMMIGRATION debate needs a breath of fresh air. Right now, it tends to focus on numbers (how many immigrants should we allow?), control (how do we enforce whatever limit we set?) and benefits (which immigrants should receive what entitlements?).

  • Currently, the question of in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants is being debated on Beacon Hill. Young people, brought here illegally by their parents but raised in Massachusetts communities, don’t have the right to pay in-state tuition rates for public higher education. Proponents say we should give them the same price break as their lifelong classmates. But extending a state-funded benefit to individuals whose very residency here is a violation of federal law raises issues of equity for other Bay Staters. And from the economic standpoint, what good does it do the state to help people gain skills attractive to companies who cannot hire them because of their immigration status?
  • What is most troubling about the in-state tuition debate — as well as the debate over illegal immigration more broadly — is its narrowness. Massachusetts does have illegal immigrants — enough to make them a contentious issue in some areas — but unlike the case in border states, they are hardly the main immigration story here. Shouldn’t we be having a much broader discussion about immigrants, the vast bulk of whom come here legally, and how they can contribute to our state’s prosperity? Doesn’t the state need to look at immigration in terms of economic strategy, if not necessity?
  • Massachusetts has the dubious distinction of being the only state to lose population in the last year. We would have a much more rapidly shrinking population without the influx of new immigrants. MassINC’s research has shown that — leaving aside international immigration — we lost some 213,000 residents net to other states from 1990 to 2002. Combine outmigration with aging — we are the 12th-oldest state in the nation — and two of the three major demographic changes in the state point to population loss and a shrinking labor force. The nation, and especially border states, may worry about immigration getting out of hand. But in Massachusetts, immigration may be our best hope.
  • So what would a pro-immigration state policy look like? Unlike so many other areas of public policy — healthcare, the judiciary, and zoning, for example — states lack much authority to address immigration. There is no federalism when it comes to national borders. But what can we do to increase the positive impact of immigration here?
  • In part, this is a matter of getting the best and brightest from around the world to come here. ’’If we cream off the first-round intellectual draft choices from around the world, it will always end up a net plus for America,” writes Tom Friedman in his book ’’The World is Flat.” On the state level, we need to think about trade missions, keeping in mind Friedman’s draft picks, not just trade and investment. Long ago, manufacturers recruited employees on the streets of Europe; more recently, high-tech firms did the same thing, offering H-1B visas for higher skilled immigrants. Maybe it’s time for the Commonwealth to do some recruiting of its own. Perhaps we also need to broaden the mandate of the state’s Office of Refugees and Immigrants, which now focuses on support services for refugees.
  • There is much to be done at the local level as well. Forward-thinking municipal leaders in the old mill cities where so many new immigrants are making their homes are looking at skill development for newcomers and quality public education for their children. These investments will pay dividends in skilled workers. Suburban areas are looking at the data on immigration and are creating new English-language programs.
  • Given constitutional arrangements, we’ll leave it to the federal government to sort out illegal immigration. Massachusetts needs to focus on the rest — attracting, supporting, and retaining the next generation of new pilgrims to build our Commonwealth.
  • Ian Bowles is president and CEO of MassINC and publisher of CommonWealth magazine.