The United States remains the top destination for aspiring immigrants, because we offer the best opportunities to newcomers for economic improvement, skill development and cultural freedom. St. Louis contributes well to this proud tradition through initiatives such as the St. Louis Mosaic Project, designed to invigorate the region by welcoming new Americans.
Immigrants’ contributions will become only more important as our demographics continue to change in coming years. At an “Immigration 2020” National Strategy Session last month, hosted by the National Immigration Forum, a wide range of academic, business, religious and community leaders considered these changing demographics and how our communities approach immigrants and immigration.
I represent the National Association of Evangelicals, which got its start at a meeting in St. Louis in 1942. As one of the faith leaders present for the immigration discussion last week, I felt encouraged and challenged by the vision of Immigration 2020: a thriving nation that will provide immigrants with the opportunities, skills and status they need to fully participate in making the United States an even better and more attractive country.
Historically our nation has offered startlingly rapid access to full legal status and citizenship. While our antiquated legal bureaucracy no longer serves immigrants as well as it once did, our culture remains welcoming, and our economy is remarkably adept at providing win/win opportunities for hardworking newcomers willing to go the extra mile (or thousand miles). Being immigrant-friendly is a strategic competitive advantage that the United States enjoys in the interconnected world of the 21st century.
But immigration is about more than economics. Americans have come to love the rich diversity of cuisines, art and culture that immigrants bring to our doorstep. Our universities, sports teams and high-tech corridors are more vibrant, because some of the best talent in the world chooses to come to our shores. Our fields and orchards are the most productive in the world, because skilled and hardworking farm workers help to tend and harvest our crops.
Immigrants might continue speaking their mother tongue and might choose to settle among others from the home country. But their children and grandchildren quickly became Americans through and through.
Contrast this welcoming atmosphere with societies that can’t or won’t open up their societies to immigrants. This approach is stunting the futures of rich countries with declining populations such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Luxembourg.
Sure, they have guest workers from other countries, working as nannies and consultants, nurses and engineers. But these workers have time-limited contracts, and everyone understands that they can never join the cultural or ethnic mainstream. They will always remain apart, and consequently their loyalties lie elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the freedom and prosperity that Americans enjoy is the envy of the world, and we are the beneficiaries. Millions of Americans travel abroad each year, but those who don’t are not left behind, because the world has come to us.
The benefits of immigration, of course, are not evenly distributed. Not every immigrant is the next Albert Einstein, and not every newly minted port of entry community has adjusted ideally. Immigrants create jobs, but they do raise the bar for employment in many fields, providing stiffer competition to natives than we would otherwise encounter. And there are improvements to be made in education, language proficiency and social services.
That’s why the Immigration 2020 conversation is so important. Churches can contribute to this dialogue. After all, churches will continue to benefit from the contributions of new immigrant members.
American evangelicals care about our country and want it to succeed. We support our elected leaders, but we hold them accountable to lead. A constructive conversation is important on its own, but we need Congress to overcome political jitters and create good policy. When members return to Washington, they should make passage of immigration reform legislation the first order of business.
The key elements necessary to replace our broken system are well understood and supported by strong majorities of Americans. There will certainly be opposition from extremes on both the left and the right. But with a little more backbone, our leaders should be able to put aside their minor differences and enact permanent immigration reform.
If we have done this well with a broken system, imagine what we will be able to do when we are once again firing on all cylinders, fully incorporating the gifts and skills of all of our immigrant neighbors.
Galen Carey is vice president for government relations with the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington, D.C.