Thanksgiving is a celebration of the foundation of America – the idea that a diverse group of people came together united under the banner of one nation. This ideal feels like it is under an increasing amount of threat thanks to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Trump administration however.
Not only does this stance against immigration undermine American values; it doesn’t even make sense economically. It’s long-since established that highly educated and skilled immigrants are a large portion of the science and technology workforce in America. Immigrants have won Nobel Prizes, become eminent scientists, and head up high tech companies. It’s not just the highly-skilled immigrants that benefit the economy, but immigrants from every walk of life.
A recent study examined the economic role immigrants have played in America since the end of the 19th century. It found that immigrants have played a major role in the long-term economic prospects of particular places. The study was conducted by Andrés Rodriguez-Pose and Viola von Berlepsch of the London School and Economics. It compared the proportions of immigrants living in US counties during 1880, 1900, and 1910 to the economic performance of the counties in 2010, measured as economic output per capita. Even after controlling for demographic factors such as education, unemployment, industry, labor force participation, gender, race, and other such variables thought to affect economic growth, immigrants being present in a county had a significant effect on the long-term prosperity of the area. This only happens in the areas where newcomers integrate with the general population of an area however.
The largest wave of immigrants came to America following the end of the Civil War, up to the Great Depression. Over 30 million immigrants entered America during this time. They spread themselves across the country though, including my own grandparents who left Italy to settle in Newark at the turn of the 20th century. With immigrants heading to a small number of cities and the booming industrial areas, much of the country was left practically untouched by immigration.
If you look at an immigration map you’ll see for yourself that immigrants clustered around the Northeast corridor, stretching from the Great Lakes through Wisconsin and Minnesota. They settled on the West Coast as well, around the Texas/Mexico border. The south and the lower Midwest remained relatively untouched.
It takes more than just looking at an immigration map to see the whole picture though. It’s also important to consider the “fractionalization”, which basically determines how well immigrants integrate. Looking at this paints a different picture, as immigrants integrated well in the Mid-Atlantic States and along the west, but areas in the south – such as Florida – remain diverse. There are also areas that have a lot of immigration – such as Texas and the Great Lakes – that have low amounts of fractionalization.
All in all, the study shows plenty of evidence that American counties that had a high amount of integrated immigrants a century ago are performing better economically today. Whereas the areas that have high amounts of “polarization” – or a segregation between immigrants and natives – are performing worse economically.
This shows that a diverse community has a clash of different identities and ideas, which leads to a dynamic economy not just right now; but for decades to come. It creates a sense of openness that becomes a part of the fabric of the place, benefiting everyone involved.
There are many other reasons that people with high amounts of immigration tend to be successful in the long run as well. Immigrants will be drawn to places that have an economic opportunity in the first place; no one wants to uproot from their home, cross an ocean, and then settle down somewhere they can’t make a life for themselves. It’s almost ironic that the places known to be hostile towards immigrants wouldn’t appeal to immigrants much anyway because they never had the mixture of ideas needed to fuel growth in the first place. In the places that anxiety about the economy has led to anti-immigrant stances, the lack of immigration could indeed be the reason the economy isn’t performing well in the first place.
The growing anti-immigrant stance in America threatens not only innovation and economic growth across the short term, but also in the long term. On the other hand, pro-immigrant countries such as Canada stand to benefit by taking in the talent shunned by America, starting a journey towards long-term success.
This Thanksgiving, when it feels like America forgets that it’s a land of immigrants, don’t forget the immigrants that have long been the driving force behind the growth and quality of life in America.