Why We Can’t Afford To Turn Away Immigrants

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The first layer of conservative grousing about President Barack Obama’s immigration executive action has been mostly complaints about separation of powers and the president-who-would-be-king’s “lawless…executive diktat.” Close behind that oddball hyperbole come others who claim that Obama’s shift is somehow “destructive” to American workers and the country at large.

Deep down, though, I think that this round of American immigration debates are really driven by competing visions of what America is — and ought to be. To put a sharper point on it, there’s a tension etched into the national seal on those dollar bills in your wallet. Each American’s ideological mileage on immigration varies according to which end of the “e pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”) equation pulls strongest on their heartstrings. Either we’re a country primarily constituted by our breadth of diversity (‘plures’), or an ‘unum’ nation that constitutes a common cultural, racial, ethnic, and linguistic whole.

The bad news: these are deep, intuitive, core convictions. They’re thickly infused with morality. It’s very difficult to persuade someone to see the promise of the American national project in new terms. But it’s not impossible. Especially in uncertain times, nothing has the same rhetorical juice as an economic argument.

So here’s one: native-born Americans simply aren’t having enough kids to sustain our social contract, especially promises we’ve made to older Americans. We’re barely replacing ourselves. Several years ago, the Urban Institute found that “children of immigrants accounted for the entire growth in the number of young children in the United States between 1990 and 2008.” These children will make up an increasing percentage of tomorrow’s workforce — and tax revenue from their earnings will help support American retirements. Given the looming wave of retiring Baby Boomers, it’s time to see these kids as worthy investments. We need more or less as many as we can get.

Even better, a new volume on American bilingual students and workers suggests that these children could be particularly valuable. “The Bilingual Advantage: Language, Literacy, and the U.S. Labor Market” offers data to test a common hypothesis about studying additional languages: multilingualism is good for your job prospects. Parents and high school language teachers have been saying this to students for years.

So … is it true? Yes, but it’s complicated.

In a chapter entitled “Labor Market Differences Between Bilingual and Monolingual Hispanics,” University of Illinois professor Joseph P. Robinson-Cimpian found that some economic effects of Spanish-English bilingualism varied according to the percentage of Spanish speakers in a given community. Specifically, that particular bilingualism turned out to be more economically valuable for workers in communities with high percentages of Spanish speakers.

In his chapter, “English Plus: Exploring the Socioeconomic Benefits of Bilingualism in Southern California” University of California-Irvine Professor Rubén G. Rumbaut tested that angle. He analyzed data on adult children of immigrants in a particular region — Southern California. And he found that young bilingual adults in that region earn between $2000 and $3000 more per year than their peers who had lost their home language and become monolingual in English.

There’s much more in the book. But there are some important caveats. First of all, not all immigrants speak a language other than English at home, and not all students who speak a non-English language at home are immigrants.

Second, the economic value of an additional language is hard to measure. Not all bilingualism is created equal, from an economic point of view. Rumbaut notes, “That English is important for socioeconomic success in the US is axiomatic.” We know that it’s much easier for strong English speakers to succeed in the United States. But, as countless native English speakers in the United States have been proving for years, English proficiency is fully compatible with adding a second language.

For testing economic outcomes, it’s important to check for differences between adult bilinguals whose first language was not English and adult bilinguals who spoke English first but added a non-English language later. In the United States, the economic value of adding English as a second language is probably different from the economic value of adding Welsh, Catalan, or even French or Spanish.

What’s more, different languages have different values in different places. That is, while it’s highly valuable for a native Vietnamese speaker in the U.S. to learn English, the details might vary. Families living in regions of the country where non-English languages (like Vietnamese) are heavily used in economic transactions (communities with high immigrant populations, for instance), English may be less economically valuable than for families living in regions where English is the dominant language of commerce.

There are also significant differences within the group of students who speak a language other than English at home. Some may be immigrants, some may be American-born children of immigrants, and some may be American-born children of native-born American citizens. For those students who move here during their school-age years, some may have no formal education background in any language, while some may have some educational experience in their home language.

And this is to say nothing of variance in socioeconomic status. The economic effects of bilingualism for students also varies according to other factors, such as family income, education levels, and much more. Part of encouraging the growth and development of future, multilingual workforce means supporting their families. Children do better in the short and long-term when they’re in stable home environments with steady income. Fortunately, Obama’s executive order takes family unity and access to work permits as its guiding objectives.

All of which offers an interesting way to consider what passes for public “debate” over immigration in the United States. Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking whether we can afford more immigrants … but whether a nation with tepid birth rates can afford to turn them away. These children represent a wealth of linguistic, demographic, and — yes — economic resources that we deeply need. Young immigrant children work hard and drive a stronger economy — what could possibly be more deeply American than that?

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.

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