From front page headlines to the opinion section, few issues are more at the center of the national political dialogue than immigration. Just consider this letter to the editor published in a newspaper:
"To open the immigration floodgates in American now would only weaken us by drastically altering our national, racial, and cultural composition…”
But that’s not today’s paper. It’s from The Indianapolis Star in 1965, just before President Lyndon Johnson signed a major reform to the nation’s immigration law, which had favored northern and western Europeans over those from elsewhere. Johnson said the new law repaired “a very deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice.”
What a difference 54 years makes – or not. Inflammatory and divisive rhetoric coming from many quarters in recent years, including President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE, have exacerbated our divide as a nation.
So on Nov. 12, when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the DACA case, we’ll hear the parsing of federal statutes – more than 400 pages of briefs filed so far. But inside and outside the court, we’ll also hear the sound of a nation exploring its own identity.
DACA seems simple enough: The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was established under President Obama in 2012. People brought into the country as children and found to pose no security threat were granted temporary, but renewable, permission to stay. They’re often called “Dreamers” because of their belief in the American dream.
“Brought to this country as young children, Plaintiffs have spent virtually their entire lives in the United States,” says a brief filed on their behalf. “They consider themselves to be Americans and call our nation home.”
The Trump administration announced an end to the program two years ago, saying Obama exceeded his authority, but supporters of the Dreamers won lower court decisions to keep DACA in place.
The Supreme Court’s decision is expected by next June, and nearly 800,000 dreamers can only wait in the meantime. On their side are a host of states, universities and more than 140 of the country’s largest businesses, including Google, Amazon, IBM and Starbucks, say that ending the program will hurt the economy.
These companies are right. Our nation has a growing need for talent; millions of jobs are unfilled because qualified applicants aren’t available. And even as we grow our national pool of talent through post-high school education and training, we also need to attract more from other countries. More effective, equitable education strategies and smart immigration policies go together.
But our approach to immigration remains stuck in a muddled past. We’re too focused on mythical threats to border security, and we admit too few newcomers who can contribute to our society economically, culturally and socially.
We need to think about attracting talent across every level of ability. Many of our best entrepreneurs are immigrants, for example, but lack a college education when they get here. They often get that education when they arrive, adding to the talent base, so we have to be creative when we think about the limits we place on newcomers.
We’ll miss big opportunities if the national discussion centers on building walls and creating barriers, rather than focusing on the value that immigrants bring. Already, we can see that the debate has little to do with the facts. Most of what we hear is about what’s happening at our southern border, but today about 40 percent of new immigrants are from Asia.
We sometimes hear that these immigrants are taking jobs that Americans want, but the data show that’s not true. They’re actually filling unmet needs – not only with jobs at the low end, such as basic labor, but in technology and certain medical fields.
There are important and complex issues around border security, to be sure. And it’s true that national leadership hasn’t produced the changes needed to modernize our immigration system. We’ve seen interesting models elsewhere: Japan is one, because like us that nation has an aging population. Australia and Canada have explored immigration strategies that focus on a broad range of talent. Those countries have thought about attracting the right combination of people for each segment of the labor market, so they can bring those people into the society, and help them prosper and contribute to the well-being of everyone. We should learn from those models and craft a solution that is unique to the American context.
Hundreds of pages of legal filings aside, the debate about the Dreamers can be summarized this way: We need them, they’re not to blame, and they’re in trouble. Even if one court case won’t solve this completely, maybe it will be the catalyst, finally, for legislative action.
We’ve stumbled before as a country, but we largely got immigration right in 1965. At our best, we’ve always been about helping others when we can and when it makes sense. This is one of those times.
Jamie Merisotis is a globally recognized leader in philanthropy, education, and public policy. Since 2008, he has served as president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.