"If they want to be in America," the argument goes, "they ought to return to their own countries and apply for a visa legally. America should not reward law breaking."
That sounds sensible — but what happens when the immigrant does that, goes to the U.S. embassy and says, I'd like to work in America legally?
He gets paperwork to fill out and is told to go home to wait. And wait. A Forbes investigation found that a computer programmer from India must wait, on average, 35 years. A high school graduate from Mexico must wait an average 130 years!
We tell eager workers, "Do it legally; just wait 130 years"? This makes no sense. We should make legal immigration easier, relax the rules, issue work permits. Conservatives usually understand that complex regulations make life hard for people. Immigration bureaucracy makes life harder not just for the immigrants but for the rest of us.
America needs immigrants. Immigrants co-founded most of Silicon Valley's start-ups. The Patent Office says immigrants invent things at twice the rate of native-born Americans.
Immigrants are special people, people with the ambition and guts to leave their home to pursue an American dream. We ought to let more of them in. And not just PhD's. Half of America's agricultural workers are here illegally, according to the Department of Agriculture. But without them, the government says food would cost much more. Milk would cost 61 percent more.
Some people say, well, maybe immigrants in the past were a boon to America, but now there are just too many. They make up 12 percent of the population! True. But in 1915, it was 15 percent.
Others complain that immigrants once worked hard and tried to assimilate, but today's immigrants are different: less educated, more likely to collect welfare, less likely to adopt the American work ethic.
Maybe. But I doubt it. Every new immigrant group has been derided as backward, unclean or criminal.
Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R, Mass.) called Slovaks "illiterate and ignorant in the extreme." He called Italians "the lowest type as to character and intelligence." Irish immigrants had such a bad reputation that in job advertisements businesses posted job notices: "No Irish need apply."
Fears about newcomers weren't totally unfounded. It took them time to assimilate and accumulate wealth. But they did. The Irish, Italians and other once-vilified groups are now leaders in America.
People say that immigrants steal "our" jobs. And yes, they do take some. But they create new jobs, too, lots. When people move to another country and encounter a different culture, they see things in new ways. Some pick the best from each culture and create useful things.
Imagine your life without Google searches, cheap Ikea furniture, YouTube, bicycles, blenders, ATM's. All came from immigrants. New Americans also gave us blow dryers, basketball, football, the first shopping mall, comfortable jeans, even the American hot dog (that came from Germany's frankfurter).
Immigration enriches our language. Jewish immigrants gave us the word "glitch." "Gee whiz" came from the Irish. The song "God Bless America" was written by an immigrant — the prolific Irving Berlin, born in Russia.
The TV network on which my weekly show is broadcast exists only because an immigrant from Australia saw the need for Fox News. And I'm only here because my parents left Germany in 1930, a year when immigration rules were still pretty lax (if you weren't Chinese, since there were racist quotas).
Today, we'd solve many problems if work permits were available and legal immigration easier. If people can come here legally, fewer sneak in. It will be easier to secure the border because police can focus on actual criminals and terrorists. As Lao-tzu said, "the greater the number of laws and enactments, the more thieves and robbers there will be."
America should say yes to immigration.