We need a different kind of conversation on immigration

We need a different kind of conversation on immigration
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“We lead the world because unique among nations, we draw our people, our strength, from every country and every corner of the world.”

These were Ronald Reagan’s words from January 19, 1989, his last day as president of the United States.

Most Americans still agree with him: 75 percent say immigration is “good for the country” in a recent Gallup poll.

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So why is immigration now the most singularly divisive issue in American politics?

Maybe it’s because Washington has mistaken what Americans say about immigration with how they really feel.

Even amid the lowest unemployment in half a century, the average U.S. salary has about the same purchasing power as it did 40 years ago.

The middle class is in trouble, and its wage stagnation has coincided with an increase in both illegal and legal immigration that has made our share of foreign-born population the highest in over 100 years.

Many Americans have concluded these two trends are related. They may still like the idea of our country as a nation of immigrants, even as they question whether immigration makes their own lives better.

The feeling is particularly strong among Republicans. Since the mid-90s, Pew has been asking whether Americans believe immigrants strengthen our country through their hard work and talents or whether they are a burden that takes away jobs, healthcare and housing. Democrats and Republicans used to be evenly split on the question. By 2016, the numbers spread dramatically. 78 percent of Democrats said immigrants were a strength, compared to just 35 percent of Republicans.

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About a year ago, I had the honor of speaking at Monticello — the home of Thomas Jefferson — during its annual naturalization ceremony, where 67 people hailing from 35 countries were sworn in as our newest American citizens. There is no doubt these new Americans will add to the rich mosaic of people, perspectives and cultures that makes America so special. 

But they will also help current American citizens get better jobs, make more money and have more financial security. 

Immigration — by increasing our labor force — makes our economy grow faster. It reduces the prices of the goods and services we buy. And it has almost no negative impact on the wages of U.S. workers. Immigrants also contribute more in tax revenue than they take in government benefits. Those were the conclusions of a 2016 National Academy of Sciences report, which was one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of immigration’s impact on the American economy and workforce.

Immigrants are also unusually entrepreneurial. They are twice as likely to start new businesses as native-born Americans. New businesses account for essentially all net new jobs created in the United States, and many of these small businesses go on to become very big. More than half of all American startups worth $1 billion or more today were founded by immigrants.

Even refugees and asylum seekers — who some might imagine as a humanitarian burden on our government — turn out to be big net contributors to the U.S. economy. Refugees have a higher employment rate than the U.S.-born population, work more hours than other immigrants and have over $50 billion in disposable income, much of which is injected into local communities.

None of this is surprising because immigrants are a uniquely motivated group of people. Think about the will and the guts it takes to leave your home and often your family to make a sometimes-perilous journey to get to America. Immigrants desperately want a better life and in seeking it, they make Americans’ lives better too.

Immigrants may even help save Social Security. The U.S. birth rate is the lowest it has been in 32 years. This threatens the growing workforce Social Security needs to support our rapidly aging population. Immigrants, who generally come to America young and pay taxes for decades could help bail the program out. In fact, the chief actuary of Social Security estimated that immigration could add an additional $500 billion to Social Security’s finances over the next 25 years and $4 trillion over the next 75.

Today, we hear plenty about the threats of immigration but not nearly enough about the opportunities, which may explain why a recent Gallup poll found more Americans than ever before rank immigration as our most serious problem

Amid the chaos and heart wrenching reports of migrants’ deaths and mistreatment on our southern border, everyone agrees something must be done about our broken immigration system.

But there will be no comprehensive bipartisan immigration agreement in Washington until the Americans outside of Washington — and especially Republicans — are convinced once again that immigration will directly improve their lives and the lives of their families.

Who in Washington, and on the campaign trail, is willing to make that case?

Andrew Tisch is the Co-Chairman of Loews Corporation, a cofounder of the political reform group No Labels and co-author of the book "Journeys: An American Story.”