Growing up in a middle-class family in Monterrey, Mexico, Jorge Gonzalez saw people living around him in poverty and longed to change the world. Now a respected professor of economics and the newly appointed president of Kalamazoo College, where he oversees more than 100 faculty and some 1,400 undergraduates, he says it’s a goal he’s still working toward. “Being a professor lets you affect a lot of people and do your bit to change society,” he explains.
This country attracts the smartest people in the world. They’re here, they’re studying, they’ve proven they can be successful.
As a young man, Gonzalez was profoundly shaped by visits to the United States, first as an undergraduate exchange student in Wisconsin, then as a PhD student at Michigan State University. “It was a life-changing experience for me,” he says. “It opened the world in ways I’d never seen before.” Since gaining a green card by marriage and becoming a professor, he’s led hundreds of young Americans on study-abroad trips in the other direction, back to Mexico. His goal: To help them understand the immigrant experience. “Through studying abroad, you develop a tremendous amount of respect for immigrants, people who have no linguistic or cultural ties to a place and yet somehow make it work,” Gonzalez says. “I take it very personally, because I’m one of those immigrants.”
Much of Gonzalez’s research and teaching focuses on immigration. The consensus among economists, he says, is that immigration is a net positive for the U.S. economy. In fact, in 2006, a group of 500 economists penned a consensus opinion stating that “vastly more” Americans benefit from immigration than are harmed by it. “I know many immigrants, at all levels, and every single one of them is here because they want to work and make a contribution to the economy,” Gonzalez says. “And that’s been true of any immigrant that’s come to this country for the past 200 years. There’s no question that the entrepreneurial ability they bring, and their willingness to work, and their creativity has a tremendous positive impact.”
Gonzalez says there’s little evidence that immigrants take jobs from Americans. He points to farm labor, which Americans today simply aren’t very interested in doing. Tomato farmers couldn’t operate without immigrant or migrant labor, he points out, so getting rid of America’s foreign-born workers would simply mean that America’s tomato farms would shut down. “If you don’t let immigrants pick tomatoes in the United States, it’s not like Americans will get those jobs. It’s more that all those jobs will move to Mexico,” he says.
Gonzalez says it’s this type of misunderstanding that leads to immigration policy that hurts the economy. For example, he sees many talented foreign-born students forced to return home after graduating. “This country attracts the smartest people in the world. They’re here, they’re studying, they’ve proven they can be successful,” he says. ”It’s a waste to say ‘I’m sorry, you’re going to have to go home.’ If there are companies that want to hire them, we should find pathways for them to stay.”
That sense of wastefulness is especially stark, Gonzalez says, when it comes to undocumented immigrants raised in the United States. “If a child has been brought up in this country, with or without papers, then you’re wasting human capital if you don’t invest in them,” he says. “These are people who could have been the creators of the next Google, or the next Microsoft. All that potential is there, and we’re wasting it just because we can’t get our act together to provide immigration reform.”