Jim Hollifield is an international scholar and policy analyst who has spent 35 years studying the impact of migration on communities around the globe. “Immigration is hardwired into our political and economic DNA,” says Hollifield, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University and director of SMU’s John Goodwin Tower Center. “If you look at our national motto, it’s ‘Out of many, one.’ And throughout our history we’ve either been happy with the many, or worried about the many. It’s a political cycle.”
The United States needs immigration, he says, for social, cultural and economic reasons. But the concern over the ‘many’ is oftentimes misinformed. Immigrants are generally hardworking, ambitious people, he says: “It takes a lot of motivation and skill to pick up and move over long distances. Immigration is a risky thing. But if you’re going to make that move, it means that you’re a little different from the average person, and the United States benefits because these highly self-selected, entrepreneurial immigrants are coming here. That’s the pure economics of this.” Additionally, immigrant workers don’t threaten the livelihoods of American-born citizens, Hollifield says: “Immigrants — including illegal immigrants — do not take jobs from native workers. It’s one of the biggest fallacies when you look at this conversation. Immigrant workers are compliments to the labor market, not substitutes.”
We need a policy that balances the economic and social needs of the United States, while respecting the rights of immigrants and giving them a path to full membership and citizenship.
Still, as important as the economics of immigration are, Hollifield adds that we have a responsibility to treat immigrants with the same high standards we hold for citizens. “Immigration isn’t just about economics — it’s about identity, politics. It’s about our society, and it’s about a social contract,” he says. “If you are going to bring people into your country to work and you have a liberal society where freedom and rights are going to be respected, then those people have to have some prospect of acquiring rights and settling and becoming citizens. If you don’t deal with the status question, you are going to run into problems, and that’s where the United States has failed. We cannot have 11 million people living in our country illegally. It’s detrimental to our society and the immigrants themselves.”
Hollifield says that in the short term we need to fix the status of the undocumented immigrants currently living in the country. “Legalize and regularize this population,” he says. “You’re not going to deport this population; our system is not going to tolerate that. How quickly we put them on a path to citizenship, that’s an open question. But we need to let them live and work here legally. In the long-term we need an immigration policy that works for our national interest, with sufficient visas for those who want to come here to work and for whom there is high demand. In the words of former President George W. Bush, we need to ‘match willing workers with willing employers.’ We need a policy that balances the economic and social needs of the United States, while respecting the rights of immigrants and giving them a path to full membership and citizenship. Only then will we gain the full benefits of immigration.”