Immigration nation: Only an international community can defeat a global threat

On April 22, 2020, the president signed a proclamation suspending immigration into the United States in what was claimed to be a response to the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Said to be intended to protect jobs from foreign nationals during the ongoing economic contraction, the proclamation suspends the issuance of immigrant visas to those who now are outside the country for a temporary period of 60 days. While seemingly innocuous, this order threatens to further destabilize the American economy and represents yet another attempt to sow division when the fate of the country depends on coming together. Jews understand the danger of fomenting division for the sake of political expediency. For many of us, it is all too familiar.

As has been established in numerous studies, suggesting that immigration hurts or depresses wages is a fallacy. If anything, immigration allows us to compete on a global scale, attracting the best and brightest from around the world. Limitations to immigration also will have unexpected consequences. Take colleges, for example. Universities in the United States are increasingly dependent on students from overseas, who often pay full tuition to attend. By signaling that there may not be a place for these students in the American economy after they graduate, these young men and women may reevaluate their options and reconsider where to study.

Not only do the schools themselves lose an important source of income, but the communities where these students choose to live lose consumers as local communities face dwindling taxes. Worse yet, the American workforce loses an invaluable supply of talent and investment. If the leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow decide that their futures are brighter in places like Canada, Europe, or Asia, America’s reputation as a cradle of innovation will be lost. Faced with increasing parochialism at home, even businesses created by Americans may decide to invest in the development of a workforce outside the United States in order to remain competitive with countries willing to attract and retain talented individuals and their families.

Over the last month, Americans have seen the value that immigrants add firsthand — how people from around the world have been working with native-born Americans to protect the country’s health and well-being. Immigrants make up one in four workers in the health care industry, from doctors working to save lives in emergency rooms to the home health aides looking after our seniors who are uniquely at risk during this pandemic. They are researchers looking for a vaccine, farmers ensuring crops come to market, and even clerks and grocers stocking shelves and keeping families supplied.

It would, of course, be simple for the administration to make exceptions for these invaluable frontline workers. Indeed, the proclamation has significant carve-outs for medical professionals and their families, in order to buttress a healthcare system that already was in desperate need for workers. But why would these highly educated people want to come to a country that has effectively walled itself off from the rest of the world?

Once again, the administration has picked political expediency over an effective long-term policy. Jobs will not be saved by limiting immigration for 60 days or 120 days or years, and America cannot build a wall to keep out a virus that is already galloping through American towns even as it slows in some if the hardest hit corners of Asia and Europe.

As Jews, we know the value of community and the importance of shared sacrifice and contribution to the common good. Israel itself is a country built on the toil, valor, and heartache of people who came from hundreds of cities and towns from around the world to build a new home. Its formation echoes the promise of United States’ own founding: a new beginning for those willing to fight for the future and transcend the limitations of the past.

While America is known as an innovator, it is, more than anything, an idea. It is a proposition that individuals can pass through her golden gates and find a home — not as outsiders or temporary laborers, but as neighbors and partners dedicated to furthering the grand experiment of democracy.

Every American story is an immigrant story, be it told by the first generation of settlers or the generation navigating the coronavirus. And while we are facing a crisis unlike any in living memory, the ending is not foretold. By coming together and using the talents and strength of both native-born citizens and immigrants, we will become an engine of prosperity.

About the Author
Michael Wildes is the mayor of Englewood, a member of Congregation Ahavath Torah there, and the author of 'Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Golden Door.' He is a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor of immigration law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
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