Debt and immigration

Anders Breivik’s rampage in Norway last week has intensified scrutiny of the EU’s attitude toward immigration. Many Europeans are increasingly vocal in declaring multiculturalism a failure and complaining that immigrants exploit their generous welfare systems without attempting to assimilate.
 
America’s also in the midst of an important immigration debate — but one that is mind-boggling compared to the one taking place across the pond. While we debate incessantly about how to stop illegal immigration, we barely talk about how to ensure that we continue to attract the world’s best: the brightest students, the most productive researchers and the most innovative entrepreneurs. At a time when our leaders can’t seem to agree on anything, one would think policies to bring and keep such talent here would earn nonpartisan support (there are some who joke that we should staple a green card to the visa of every immigrant who graduates from an American college or university).
 
And yet, as the Financial Times’s Clive Crook put it recently, “If you sat down to design an immigration policy to erode U.S. prosperity, you would struggle to come up with anything better than the current rules ... the immigration of skilled workers is especially discouraged — perhaps more so than in any other industrialized country ... Unskilled workers, meanwhile, arrive through the country’s permeable borders.”

In austere economic times like these — we’re less than a week away from defaulting on our debt! — our policymakers have to rank the country’s interests (and the threats to those interests) rigorously. A useful thought exercise is to answer the question: What is America’s most vital interest, without whose achievement we can’t think about other national interests? Most people’s answer: Americans’ safety.
 
Ensuring that security isn’t, however, just a matter of increasing the defense budget. In reality, defending the homeland requires a continuous flow of the world’s best: individuals who understand the changing constellation of threats to our nation; discern which among those will grow more important in the years to come; and design “hard” systems and “soft” policies to respond to them dynamically.
 
There are at least two other reasons why immigration is so crucial:

(1)   ‪It keeps our nation young. Indeed, if — and it’s a big if — we’re able to sustain our immigrant inflow, we should be able to avoid the demographic challenges that beset the EU and ‬Japan (and which, within another decade or two, will begin to take a toll on China).
 
(2)   America, above all, is an idea, perhaps the most important component of which is openness: openness to people, to ideas, to risk taking. An America that closes itself off will guarantee its decline. Harvard University’s Joe Nye has argued that “the greatest danger to America is not debt, political paralysis or China; it is parochialism, turning away from the openness that is the source of its strength and resting on its laurels.”
 
The debate over the debt is important. But the debate over immigration gets to who we are and, more importantly, who we will be.