“Our attitude towards immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as the talent and energy allow. Neither race nor place of birth should affect their chances.”—Robert F. Kennedy
This quotation comes from the introduction to A Nation of Immigrants, a book written by Bobby Kennedy’s brother John F. Kennedy, and which cries out for our attention today. Half a century ago, the United States was making real headway on this promise, the most American of promises. How can we turn today’s tide of anti-immigrant sentiment, and pick the Kennedys’ banner back up?
Let’s rewind to the end of the 1950s, when JFK was calling for Congress to rehaul America’s immigration policy—a call which, in 1965, was fulfilled with the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act. The legislation accomplished something major, even revolutionary, something that makes it live up to its being signed into law at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: it finally put an end to exclusion and quota-based discrimination on the xenophobic basis of the nation of origin in one’s passport. America’s policies towards its newcomers were finally starting to look like they might—one day—fully practice what our country preaches.
Fast forward to today: if we look at our policies, our national conversations about immigration, it’s as if JFK’s call to action was never even issued. Restrictions on national origin have returned; and the scope of our collective vision has constricted again, tightening into a pinhole of fear and suspicion.
It’s time to take back the conversation about immigration and immigrants—and to make our policies include, and support, every one of us. And JFK’s example shows us how we can do just that—and, this time around, build on his first steps, instead of dismantling them.
Immigration Reform through Storytelling
JFK ’s model was twofold: change the narrative about immigration; then change policy based on this more accurate understanding. By changing the paradigm to focus on the benefits and opportunities of immigration, for citizens and noncitizens alike, he made passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act possible.
As I begin my work as a policy entrepreneur here at Next100, I’m taking that model to heart: in order to change our country’s laws, and fully realize our potential, we need to change hearts and minds. While I strive for policy change in D.C. and around the country, I’ll be working just as hard to change how we talk about immigration—the conversations that ordinary people have at home.
To show what policy combined with stories can do, let’s take a look at three crucial benefits of inclusive immigration policy. I’ve illustrated each with an individual immigrant’s achievements, to bring it to life; however, these individuals, and their stories, are one of many.
What Americans Really Think about Immigration
Before we dive in, though, let’s check the facts—national media conversations don’t always tell the whole truth. What are some hard numbers on what Americans today think about immigrants and immigration?
One aspect of the heated national conversation does have data supporting it: that immigration is increasingly becoming one of the most popular topics in the United States. As a matter of fact, 23 percent of Americans named immigration as the most important issue in the country. Generally, Americans support immigration: a strong majority, 76 percent, believe that immigration is good for the country. At the same time, immigration is increasingly becoming a very polarizing topic. Even though the majority of Americans want immigration levels to remain the same, or even increase, just over a third of the population believe that we should have fewer immigrants in the country. That being said, the public’s attitude towards immigrants has been shifting in a positive direction: today, 62 percent of Americans believe that immigrants strengthen our country, in comparison to just 31 percent twenty-five years ago.
It would seem, then, that beneath the increasingly polarized national debate, most Americans still believe that immigrants strengthen our economy, empower our communities, and enrich our cultural and social values. While many lawmakers, policy experts, and pundits continue to talk about immigration as a problem that needs to be solved, the majority of Americans consider immigration to be a beneficial fact of American life, one that should be protected and even encouraged.
With these numbers in mind, let’s take a look at three of the reasons likely underlying them—three of the reasons why we need immigrants today to continue to strengthen our communities.
1. Immigrants Are Job and Wealth Creators
Did you know that in 2017, immigrants in the United States paid $405.4 billion in taxes, including $125.1 billion in state and local taxes, and $280.3 billion in federal taxes? For reference, that is double the GDP of Greece that same year. Additionally, the United States has over three million immigrant entrepreneurs; and their risk-taking, creativity, and hard work benefit the country in massive ways. For example, in 2007 alone, immigrant-owned businesses created nearly 6 million jobs for native-born Americans. Today, nearly half of all U.S. Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and their children.
Immigration has been an economic boon during hard times, too. Take New York City as an example. During the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the city’s population dropped by nearly a million, with more than half a million jobs lost. However, every year during that period, more than 80,000 new immigrants arrived in the city, when native-born Americans kept moving out. Those immigrants, coming mostly from the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and Africa, played a key role in reviving bleak sections of the Bronx and Brooklyn, helped fill crucial health care positions, established much needed grocery stores, and contributed to New York’s critical garment industry. During that period, immigrants helped provide New York City with doctors, nurses, taxi drivers, construction workers, and much more. Most importantly, 60 percent of these immigrants were in the prime working years between 25 and 44 years old. As a result, young working immigrants increased the labor supply at a time when the city was suffering from major population decline. Immigrants helped protect New York City from a serious economic collapse.
Ibrahim AlHusseini is one of countless contemporary examples of immigrants making crucial economic contributions to the United States. Born in Jordan and raised in Saudi Arabia by two Palestinian parents, he immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s to attend college at the University of Washington. Ibrahim started his entrepreneurship in college where he founded a nutraceutical distribution company, which he sold in 1997, making his initial fortune. He quickly became a prominent entrepreneur and investor who raised half a billion dollars to support dozens of companies: he was an early investor in Tesla Motors, Bloom Energy, and Thrive Market. What’s more, he is also the founder and CEO of FullCycle, an investment company focusing on reversing the impact of climate change by implementing restorative environmental technologies.
2. Immigrants Are Drivers of Social and Cultural Advancement
Did you know that over a quarter of Major League Baseball players—234 out of 877—were born outside the United States? These immigrant players hail from all over the world—the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, Japan, Canada, South Korea, Colombia, Curacao, Australia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Panama, Aruba, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, South Africa, Taiwan, Lithuania, and South Africa.
Immigrants have contributed so much to our society and culture across the board. Take music: today, the United States has nearly 23,000 professional immigrant musicians. Or film: immigrants make up more than one in eight workers in the movie industry. Or scientific advancement: A quarter of U.S. patents included at least one non-citizen inventor in 2007, and more than a third—33 of 85—of America’s nobel prize laureates in science have been immigrants. From science and technology, to music and sport, immigrants’ contributions to the rich and diverse cultural fabric of America are endless.
Padma Lakshmi provides an excellent illustration of strong cultural contributions. She was born in Chennai, India, and came to the United States with her mother in 1974. Early in her career, Padma established herself as a food expert and became host to one of America’s most popular shows, Top Chef. She’s since leveraged her fame and influence to drive social change through major philanthropic endeavors. She co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization focused on raising awareness about the disease, supporting surgical training, and funding research. Additionally, Padma serves as an ACLU ambassador, advocating for women and immigration rights.
3. Immigrants Are Leaders and Changemakers
Did you know that there are fourteen foreign-born voting members of America’s 116th Congress? Those representatives, born as far afield as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Japan, India, Taiwan, Poland, Ecuador, Vietnam, Somalia, Cuba, and Guatemala, are but one demonstration of the work that immigrants do every day to drive change in and give back to our communities. In 2019, immigrants made up 20 percent of Forbes’s Class of 30 under 30. As a matter of fact, young immigrants change makers in particular have been contributing so much to our communities that Forbes started its own 30 under 30 Immigrants. From political leaders and community organizers to artists and small business owners, immigrants play a vital role in building and strengthening our social cohesion.
As an immigrant myself, it does not surprise me that immigrants so often lead in the public sphere and push for needed social change. We come to America for all kinds of reasons—we may be fleeing war and violence, as I was, or gender discrimination, or poor economic conditions; we may just be looking to build a better life for ourselves and our children. We believe—we know—that America can create opportunity. As a result, we want to do our part to ensure that that opportunity is truly available for all.
One immigrant who has dedicated his entire career to strengthening America by highlighting the contributions of immigrants, through the art of storytelling, is Jose Antonio Vargas. Jose was born and raised in the Philippines and came to the United States when he was 12 years old to seek a better life. What Jose did not know at that time is that he was an undocumented immigrant. As an adult, Jose decided to share his story and what it is like to be undocumented in the United States. And he didn’t stop there: in 2011, Jose founded Define American, a non-profit organization that uses the power of storytelling to impact policy and shift the narrative about immigration and what it means to be an American. The organization was named by Fast Company as one of the world’s most innovative companies. Jose is also an Emmy-nominated filmmaker who produced and directed Undocumented, an autobiographical documentary which received a NAACP Image Award nomination; and in 2018, Jose published his best-selling memoir Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. Jose also serves on the advisory board of TheDream.US, a scholarship fund to support undocumented immigrant students.
Jose, just like Ibrahim and Padma, brilliantly illustrate the profound and diverse ways in which immigrants have contributed to their new home. And they’re not alone: just as all immigrants come to the United States seeking a new beginning, they also learn about, and build towards, the fulfilment of America’s core values: freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. Let’s keep listening to immigrants and their stories, and use what we learn in making our policies live up to what our country promises. If we do so, we will, as Bobby Kennedy wrote, show that our faith in the American ideal is as strong as ever.