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The Immigration Dividend

Wednesday 7 October 2015

By TED WIDMER

OCT. 6, 2015

IMMIGRATION is not the easiest issue to debate. It stokes emotions about “homelands” and invasions, as we have seen all summer, both in the Republican presidential contest and in the tragic situation in Europe. These arguments tend to produce more heat than light, making objective analysis difficult. Many politicians find that their poll numbers rise the further from reality they stray — as the Donald J. Trump playbook continues to prove. A recent Pew report confirms that the parties remain far apart, with Republicans far more certain than Democrats (53 percent versus 24 percent) that immigration is making our society worse.

But history provides some clarity about the relative costs and benefits of immigration over time. Fifty years ago this month, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. By any standard, it made the United States a stronger nation. The act was endorsed by Republicans and Democrats in an era when cooperation was still possible. Indeed, the most serious opposition came from Southern Democrats and an ambivalent secretary of state, Dean Rusk. But it passed the Senate easily (76-18), with skillful leadership from its floor manager, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and Johnson himself.

Since 1924, United States immigration policy had been based on a formula, derived from the 1890 census, that made it relatively easy for Northern Europeans to immigrate. But the formula set strict limits for everyone else. That seemed ridiculous to John F. Kennedy, who was trying to win hearts and minds in the Cold War, and it seemed even more so to his successor in 1965, as Johnson was escalating the war in Vietnam. The act’s passage was one of the few positive legacies of that complex moment in American foreign policy.

Johnson promised his opponents that the act would “not reshape the structure of our daily lives.” But that prediction proved utterly untrue. By destroying the old national-origins system, the act opened the floodgates to the parts of the world that had been excluded in the past.

What ensued was arguably the most significant period of immigration in American history. Nearly 59 million people have come to the United States since 1965, and three-quarters of them came from Latin America and Asia. It was not unrestrained immigration — the act created preferences for those with technical training, or family members in the United States. But it was vastly more open than what had come before.

There is little doubt that the act succeeded in the ways that its progressive supporters hoped — it made America a genuinely New Frontier, younger and more diverse, truer to its ideals. But it also was a success when measured by a more conservative calculus of hard power. It certainly increased American security. Significant numbers of immigrants and their children joined the United States military after 1965, and in every category the armed forces became more ethnically diverse.

The flood of new immigrants also promoted prosperity in ways that few could have imagined in 1965. Between 1990 and 2005, as the digital age took off, 25 percent of the fastest-growing American companies were founded by people born in foreign countries.

Much of the growth of the last two decades has stemmed from the vast capacity that was delivered by the Internet and the personal computer, each of which was accelerated by immigrant ingenuity. Silicon Valley, especially, was transformed. In a state where Asian immigrants had once faced great hardship, they helped to transform the global economy. The 2010 census stated that more than 50 percent of technical workers in Silicon Valley are Asian-American.

Google was co-founded by Sergey Brin, who emigrated from the Soviet Union with his parents at age 6. The new C.E.O. of United Airlines is Mexican-American. And an extraordinary number of Indian-Americans have risen to become chief executives of other major American corporations, including Adobe Systems, Pepsi, Motorola and Microsoft.

In countless other ways, as well, we might measure the improvements since 1965. A prominent AIDS researcher, David Ho, came to this country as a 12-year-old from Taiwan.

Immigrants helped take the space program to new places, and sometimes gave their lives in that cause (an Indian-American astronaut, Kalpana Chawla, perished in the Columbia space shuttle disaster). Almost no one would argue for a return to pre-1965 American cuisine, which became incomparably more interesting as it grew more diverse. Baseball has become a more dynamic game as it, too, has looked south and west. The list goes on and on.

There will always be debates over immigration, and it’s important to acknowledge that opponents of immigration are usually correct when they argue that immigration brings dramatic change. But a careful consideration of the 1965 Immigration Act shows that our willingness to lower barriers made this a better country. To convey that hard-earned wisdom to other nations wrestling with the same issues, and to open our own doors more widely, would be a modest way to repay the great contributions that immigrants have made on a daily basis to the United States over the past 50 years.

Ted Widmer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He edited “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 6, 2015, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: The Immigration Dividend.

See online: The Immigration Dividend