Land of the Free ... and the Immigrant

Welcoming immigrants is a grand American tradition.

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Secretary Duncan's Department of Education designed a program to boost student achievement by strengthening the knowledge and understanding among teachers of traditional U.S. history. It is called the Teaching American History (TAH) grant program. One arm gives grants to local education agencies to work with experts in the development of innovative models of teaching U.S. history within the core curriculum. Another supports competitive grants to local education agencies. Promising – except that funding for TAH was cut out of the budget. At the same time, this administration is providing a cold climate for for-profit educational enterprises, an attitude not in sync with the entrepreneurial spirit of the country.

Nor are the debates about immigration informed by an understanding of what it has meant to the emergence of America as a superpower. Again, a little quiz:

What percentage of all new businesses in 2011 were started by immigrants? Was it (i) less than 1 percent (ii) more than 10 percent (iii) 15 percent (iv) or more? How many U.S. workers did these enterprises employ? (i) 1 in 1,000 (ii) 1 in 100 (iii) one in 10 (iv) one in 15. The answers are on the Americas Society/Council of the Americas website.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

And check out the contributions to the dominance of the American legend by immigrants such as Irving Berlin, Mike Nichols, Bob Hope, or, in fashion, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Diane von Furstenberg and Anna Wintour. Immigrants were crucial to the foundation of a number of very American companies. Think eBay, the bright idea of Pierre Omidyar, of Iranian parentage; Sergey Brin at Google, James L. Kraft of Kraft Foods, Estée Lauder, the child of immigrants from Europe. And so many more. A history teacher could do worse than invite restless teenagers to trace the origins of their favorite product or service.

If "immigration" has an alien ring, we cannot fail to mention that America's welcoming beacon, the Statue of Liberty, was designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. The profile we know so well is very possibly from a sketch he did of a beauty named Isabella Boyer. Isabella was wooed and won by an American innovator, Isaac Singer, known to millions worldwide for the Singer sewing machine.

It is no accident that the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of the American dream for millions of immigrants.

[VOTE: Should the Senate Have Passed Immigration Reform?]

Nothing about immigration is simple, but there is one policy to be implemented for which the case is compelling. That is an increase in the number of H1B visas that are given to foreign students who graduate from college in the hard sciences. We have a terrible shortage of these, resulting from the bursting of the dot-com bubble early in this century. Prior to that we had 195,000 of these visas. That number was reduced to 65,000. Returning the number of H1B visas at least back to the level of 195,000 would provide an opportunity to strengthen our economy in the area where we should maintain a competitive and comparative advantage; namely, in the world of high technology.

Today, too many of these graduates who come from other countries are forced to return to their home countries, or at least to leave America, and join our competitors. We not only lose the opportunity to create middle class jobs but also lower wage opportunities in those companies that manufacture the goods that come out of the world of science and high technology. Moreover, without immigrants, the country will not have enough new workers to support retirees. Immigration also reduces the country's median age, and thus our dependence on an aging population.

It is a grand tradition in America to welcome foreigners to our shores, especially people with the ambition and the talent to contribute to our future. This has always been a part of the greatness of America, which we celebrated this past Independence Day.

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