Stable productive American imports

A press release earlier this week by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation describes a new study of the economic impact immigrants have on the Arkansas economy. The study titled, A Profile of Immigrants in Arkansas 2013, reaches some interesting and evocative conclusions about our state’s most recent arrivals.

The report — produced by researchers from the Migration Policy Institute, theKenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Arkansas — is a follow-up to a similar study in 2007, concludes, “immigrants represent a small but growing part of Arkansas’s population and are having a positive impact on the state through their investment in communities and productivity to Arkansas’s economy.”

Moreover, Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury, Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation President and CEO observes, “The economic benefit is only part of the story we want to tell. Immigrants are long-term residents of the state and are contributing to stronger neighborhoods and vibrant communities.”

The modern United States is often fraught with complex economic and social issues. Nowhere do we see this more starkly than the omnipresent debate surrounding immigration policy. While the topic may seem au courant, it’s been grist for the mill since the fog cleared around Columbus’ ships.

The ironic ugliness of it comes from the fact that we are almost all immigrants or their progeny — some of us forced, some willing. Our forefathers displaced multiple long-established cultures of native people in the drive to forge our young nation.

At several points in our national history, anti-immigration fervor has come to a head. The fences along our southern border evidence as much. Even so, the topic warrants a little historical context.

More than nine million immigrants entered the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1907, newly arriving immigrants accounted for 15 per 1,000 persons in the population, a number surpassed only in the early 1850s and 1880s.

Like other waves of mass migration before it, this “third wave” ushered a heretofore unsurpassed nativist backlash. This one was distinct because it saw the ratification of new restrictions on immigrant arrivals. The 1917 Immigration Act literacy tests, the congressionally enacted Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the National Origins Quota Act of 1924 all served to curb the flood of immigrants. By 1930, the immigrant arrival rate was only 2 persons per 1,000 in the population — where it remained until the quota system was abolished in the 1960s.

Then as now, anti-immigrant sentiment tended to revolve around two contentions: that immigrants undercut the wages of the native born; and the perception that immigrants increased crime. Beginning in the 1890s, the list of inadmissible classes of immigrants was expanded to include persons convicted of crimes in their home countries. Echoing a similar sentiment, the 1917 Immigration Act included a provision to deport immigrants convicted of serious crimes.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that we should want the U.S. to become the world’s expatriate penal colony, merely that the early focus on immigrant crime fostered a mindset about racial, ethnic and cultural minorities that exists even today — irrespective of its limited basis in fact.

The new Rockefeller Foundation report should serve as an important milestone in our evolving sensibilities about immigrants. They aren’t some horde, riding into town for the purpose of taking our jobs and corrupting our children. For the most part, they’re just like the rest of us — common folks trying to make a living, raise their kids and live somewhere free of oppression and violence. As sentiments go, those seem pretty American.