Bryce W. Ashby

Bryce W. Ashby is an attorney with Donati Law, PLLC, and the board chair of Latino Memphis. 

Michael J. LaRosa

Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

Immigration: 'The best problem'

By Published: April 01, 2019 3:52 PM CT

“If immigration is a problem, it’s the best possible problem for this country to have.” With these words, Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from El Paso and current presidential candidate, reminded Americans of how we should understand immigration.

Since day one of President Trump’s march to the White House, he has sought to vilify refugees and immigrants. On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.…” Upon taking office, he implemented a “Muslim ban” precluding, among others, women and children fleeing an unrelenting war from finding refuge on our shores. He’s complained of the origin countries of people coming to our country, lamenting that we don’t have “more people from places like Norway.”

President Trump’s fundamental misunderstanding of immigrants and immigration is not original. It largely parrots the thinking of Samuel Huntington, the former Harvard professor, adviser to pro-Apartheid South Africa, and legendary isolationist. In his 2004 book “Who are We?,”  the professor wrote, “Few Mexican immigrants have been economically successful in Mexico; hence presumably relatively few are likely to be economically successful in the United States.” We don’t believe that Mr. Trump has read any of Huntington’s missives, but individuals like Stephen Miller and Chris Kobach — who have driven much of Mr. Trump’s immigration policy — certainly have.

But what Trump, Huntington and their supporters fail to grasp in their analysis of our immigration reality is the incalculable value that immigrants bring with them, and the myriad additional qualities that are less quantifiable. 

New immigrants bring a willingness to take risks upon their arrival compared to those of us who have been here for generations. New immigrants, whose businesses constitute more than a quarter of all new business in the United States, are two times more likely nationally to start a new venture than native-born Americans.

In Memphis, the impact is even greater, according to a study by New American Economy, Latino Memphis and Gateways for Growth. New immigrants make up just over 5 percent of our metro-Memphis population but account for 9 percent of the area’s business owners. In fact, foreign-born Memphians are 26.7 percent more likely than those born in the U.S. to be entrepreneurs. 

Additionally, contrary to Huntington’s and Trump’s assessment about their likelihood of success, entrepreneurship among new immigrants without college degrees is higher than those with a college degree. Of course, starting up a company does not guarantee success, though the data indicate that new immigrants’ businesses tend to last longer and grow faster than those of individuals born in the U.S.

Immigrants’ acceptance of greater risk provides America with an economic and innovative bump; the willingness to take such risks arises not only from immigrants’ self-confidence, but in their belief that success in America is possible. For generations, our country has welcomed individuals — Italians, Irish, or Mexicans — who might not meet Trump’s “the best” standard — yet their faith in the promise of America reinvigorates all of us and prods us to do the work necessary to continue to create a nation worthy of our foundational aspirations.

Japan and Italy, two nations with aging populations coupled with exclusionary, anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, have experienced negative economic growth for two decades (in the former case) and since about 2008 in Italy. Trump’s anti-immigrant platform represents the absolute wrong path toward sustained economic growth in America.

So we look to the words of someone with a clear understanding of our nation, a man with roots at the border — a Spanish-speaking, Irish descendant congressman from El Paso — to reframe the immigration debate consistent with our ideals. There is no doubt that our immigration system is broken and outdated. All sides agree on that. Families wait for decades to be reunited through legal channels, while other families are torn apart simply for seeking protection from unacceptable levels of violence in their home countries.

Despite the barriers of a broken immigration system, men and women still wish to migrate here. They are willing to leave their homes because they believe in the America that we have promised to the world — an America that offers opportunity. They want to inject their sweat and optimism into our communities in the hopes of building something better. They come to help us make good on the promise of America. If that represents a problem, then Mr. O’Rourke is right — it is one we are quite fortunate to have.



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