Editorial: Immigrants help to make America great

On board the USS Midway, 49 service members and dependents from 19 countries were sworn in as new U.S. citizens on July 3, 2018. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS) 1240295
On board the USS Midway, 49 service members and dependents from 19 countries were sworn in as new U.S. citizens on July 3, 2018. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS) 1240295
Published Sept. 20, 2018

The heated debate on immigration could benefit from some more facts, which the U.S. Census has helpfully provided. And the facts show that rather than building walls, the United States would do far better to keep opening doors to legal immigrants. The people who make America great were often born abroad, and that's still the case.

For instance, recent immigrants are quite likely to have college or even advanced degrees. In fact, of all immigrants 25 or older who have arrived since 2010, nearly half have a college degree or more; 25 percent have a bachelor's and 20 percent have graduate or professional degrees. That's far higher than the native-born American population, and it's a sea change in educational attainment compared with earlier immigrants.

Since 2010, more immigrants have come from Asia — India and China in the main — than from Latin America. In all, 41 percent of immigrants arrived from Asia, compared with 39 percent from Latin America. That's a reversal from the first decade of the 21st century when only 29 percent came from Asia, compared with 55 percent from Latin America. In the last eight years, 2.6 million people have come from Asia, more than double the 1.2 million from Latin America.

"This is quite different from what we had thought," said William H. Frey, a senior demographer at the Brookings Institution who analyzed the data, told the New York Times. "We think of immigrants as being low-skilled workers from Latin America, but for recent arrivals that's much less the case. People from Asia have overtaken people from Latin America."

In all, there are 44.5 million foreign-born people living in America now — 13.7 percent of the total population. That's the highest percentage in more than a century, and a reminder that the United States is a nation built on the strength of immigration. Think Albert Einstein (born in Germany), Tesla's Elon Musk (born in South Africa), Google co-founder Sergey Brin (Russia) or even founding father Alexander Hamilton (born in the British West Indies). Of those entering since 2010, 47 percent are between 25 and 44 years old — the prime of life.

President Donald Trump wants to clamp down even on legal immigration, but such nativist attitudes neglect what helped to make this country great. In focusing obsessively on the MS-13 gang or sensational killings involving undocumented immigrants, the president neglects the larger picture — that nearly 3 million college-educated immigrants have arrived on American shores since 2010.

In a global marketplace that is ever more competitive, how would it benefit the United States to shut out highly educated strivers who want to make America their home? As the Census' new American Community Survey results show, millions of new arrivals are exactly those kinds of people. St. Petersburg recognizes this, which is why a new study by the New American Economy rates the city as the best in Florida — and No. 13 nationally — for promoting the economic well-being of immigrants. Eleven percent of the city's residents are immigrants, and the study says they own more than 2,100 businesses and pay millions in taxes. Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to do even more, such as encouraging international students to stay and work in Tampa Bay after graduation.

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Nationally, immigrants also play a substantial role in the nation's defence. According to the Department of Defense, more than 24,000 immigrants were on active military duty in 2012, and each year about 8,000 non-citizens enlist. As of 2016, more than half a million foreign-born veterans lived in the United States.

America is becoming an increasingly diverse place, and that's a strength, not a weakness. Demographic changes mean that the nation will soon be a plurality in the best sense, with no one group making up more than half the population. Projections expect that the United States will become "minority white" in 2045, a reality that will arrive much sooner among younger generations. For the generation under 18, in fact, minorities will outnumber whites in 2020. Rather than rejecting this inevitability, political leaders should embrace it, and make the most of it.

Being American isn't defined by creed or color or place of origin. It is a shared idea, that out of many, we can become one, that together — and even through our differences — we can jointly pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.