I’m an immigrant. My mother, older brother and I left Italy and arrived in New York City in June, 1958. I was just under four years old. My father had come to America two years earlier to find work and get financially established before calling us over. We all were legal immigrants, and all eventually became naturalized American citizens.
Although as a four-year-old my worldview was quite limited, my adult views were formed living in the Italian immigrant community in Cleveland during the pre-Great Society era. My experiences include first hand interactions with other immigrants of various nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures. This amalgamation of immigrants, before the modern progressive age, was at one time referred to as America’s “melting pot.”
Throughout history, all great civilizations have required immigration to survive and advance. But immigration is far from a necessary evil. The success of all great civilizations, from Sumer (where written history begins) to present day America, can be somewhat attributed to their new migrant blood.
History thus shows that no advanced nation can exist solely on its native talent. (There is a quasi-mathematical explanation for what follows, but paraphrasing the famous physicist Stephen Hawking, for every equation you use, you lose half of your readership. So I’ll skip the math and just stick to words.) First, advanced societies by their nature create migration paths for people to rise to the middle and upper classes. Once people reach their new class levels, they quite naturally refuse to do manual or lower-class labor. Second, advanced societies create technical, economic, and social innovations at a rate faster than the natural population can supply skilled laborers–people equipped for managing society’s innovations and broadening the path to discovery. This second point means that even given the migration to the middle and upper classes, there aren’t enough people in those classes to continue expanding the nation’s material and intellectual infrastructure. [Related on OCR: “Let’s Divide the Work”]
This is why I believe the great influx of money into STEM education will result in mediocre gains at best. STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and it is a program aiming to push more American students into those disciplines because the demand has outstripped current supply. However, consider that 50% of a population is composed of people at or above average mental acuity, the intelligence-type needed to handle advanced abstract mathematical concepts. But not everyone who can do math wants to do math, and you don’t want too many people uninterested in their professions designing bridges, elevators, heart valve devices, and the like. If we further assume that this top 50% can be broken down into 50% that want to go into technical disciplines, as opposed to 50% who want to pursue the myriad of non-technical professions, then we end up with only 25% (50% x 50%) of the population available for work in STEM related disciplines.
In 2006, I did some background research through the National Center for Education Statistics to find out how many technical degrees are being awarded from American colleges and universities. I found that in the year 2000, the last year when complete numbers were available at the time of my research, the number of awarded degrees in technical fields (including health and medical fields) was in the 25% range. This is close to the natural supply level roughly calculated above, and any real gain in filling the gap in supply and demand for technical talent must be through immigration. This is no different than importing any other limited natural resource. STEM spending may increase the number of technical talent on paper, but not the effective engineering talent the country needs.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act, abolished the system of national-origin quotas. Therefore, it’s not surprising that countries such as India, China, and those from the Middle East, with a large supply of educated people but with a low demand for their skills, are the sources of many of our new engineers, scientists, and doctors. And poor countries, such as in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia, with a large supply of poor unskilled workers and no jobs for them, are the sources of many of our manual laborers.
Europe is no longer a major exporter of brawl or brain to America. In 1970, Europe accounted for 60% of all immigrants. By 2000 the rate fell to 15%. Besides the effects of the Hart-Cellar Act, the drop in European emigration to the United States could be due to rises in the standards of living in European countries, either through stable and dynamic economies or because of short-term successes of cradle to grave welfare systems. Whatever the reason, today Europe has its own immigration problems.
Many erroneously argue the solution to our immigration problem is to shut down our borders. However, whether countries are major exporters or importers of labor depends on their supply and demand needs. America needs to fill jobs that Americans don’t want to do, or jobs that require specialized skills at numbers that cannot be met by our native population. These are facts that many Americans either don’t understand or don’t want to hear.
When it comes to emigration or immigration, America has no choice but to be a net importer. We just have to be smart going about it. Part of our frustration with immigration, besides the issue of border security, is no doubt related to the problem of immigrant assimilation into the greater American family–a topic I will address in my next two articles.
NEXT IN THIS SERIES: European Immigrants and the American Melting Pot
Tony Corvo is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with a Ph.D. in physics. He is active in local Beavercreek, Ohio politics and is the author of All Politics is Loco: Musings from the Conservative Next Door. He and his wife have two grown daughters. He writes extensively on local issues. Many of his recent articles can be found at taxbusters.wordpress.com/author/phdmc2.
All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff.
Related on OCR: “A Conservative Case for Immigration Reform”
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