Opinion

Why Our Immigration Debate is an International Embarrassment

 

Alain Juppe is the mayor of Bordeaux, France, and a former French prime minister. He’s also the leader considered most likely to become the next president of the country.

Recently, Juppe and I had a chance to connect over dinner while I was in France for business. Our tablemates included an impressive group of European leaders. But despite my dining companions’ achievements and our storybook setting, I remain haunted by one question posed by the former prime minister.

He wanted to know why Americans, most of whom are themselves immigrants, or are descendants of immigrants, have become so hostile to immigration.

Juppe was not the first to raise this issue on my trip to France. Journalists, business leaders, artists and other government officials asked me about the Donald Trump phenomenon and the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

As a frequent global traveler, I refrain from criticizing any sitting U.S. president or even presidential candidate. But this time, I did confess to my embarrassment about the anti-immigrant vitriol and other harsh campaign rhetoric.

I’m not sure why I ended my global silence. Perhaps it was the French puzzlement or even actual pain as they see what we have become. After all, France gifted us the Statue of Liberty in 1886. Since 1903, Lady Liberty has welcomed millions of immigrants in New York Harbor with a plaque on its pedestal inscribed with Emma Lazarus’ words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Perhaps it was my frustration that our efforts to change our immigration laws to allow more highly skilled immigrants into the U.S. have thus far failed.

Perhaps it’s the frustration I see every day among startups and CEOs of our biggest technology companies alike who want to hire the best science, technology, engineering and math graduates from our top schools.

Or, perhaps it is my frustration that a substantial portion of the $7 billion U.S. taxpayers spend annually to fund the National Science Foundation goes to non-American graduate students doing cutting-edge research, who we send home upon graduation to innovate abroad.

These gifted graduates would make us better. It has been estimated that even with our restrictive laws, immigrants created more than half of the so-called “unicorns,” private startups whose market value exceed $1 billion.

Immigrants represent one-third of U.S. innovators, according to a recently released study from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Think about some of the biggest tech companies in America: Google, Yahoo, Uber, eBay, SpaceX – all of these companies were founded or co-founded by immigrants.

Perhaps my frustration stems from the fact that our best hope to grow our economy, create jobs, cut our deficit and get out of our moribund economic-growth rate is immigration. Demographers agree that our low birth rate and the needs of an aging population are best answered through net growth in immigration.

Perhaps I am frustrated by the massive dislocation from Syria and other countries, from which families are fleeing for their lives, and risking rape, robbery and drowning as they escape to Europe. The tepid American response mortifies me and reminds me of our nation being closed to Jews and others seeking to flee Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust.

Perhaps the frustration is my core belief that our American exceptionalism and our innovation culture stem from our diversity and genetic immigrant desire for doing things better.

Of course, I am equally frustrated by stories of immigrants who come to the U.S. illegally, suck off our social-welfare system and don’t pay taxes. We need to rewrite our laws to attract and retain highly educated, entrepreneurial immigrations who are willing to embrace our values.

All of these thoughts ran through my head as I mulled Juppe’s question about our immigration problem. Against this complex backdrop, I simply told Juppe that Americans are suffering and that “populist” politicians are exploiting their fears by blaming “others.” Stagnant wage growth, an uncertain future and several years of drumbeats about inequality have made many Americans easy pickings for simple solutions by presidential candidates like Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders who ignore facts, assign blame and don’t do their math.

I told Juppe I want to boost – not limit – immigration in America. I want better laws. I want new Americans who will create jobs, start families, embrace America and make us better.  He seemed pleased that not every American has turned his back on what France thinks helped make America great in the first place.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)™, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro  

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