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America needs immigrants' ambition

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

AMY SCOTT: There's evidence that fewer Mexican migrants are entering the United States illegally these days. Some credit stepped-up border security. Then there's that decline in housing construction. Jobs have dried up. But illegal immigration is still a hot topic on the campaign trail. Commentator Robert Reich says the current debate over the issue misses the mark.


ROBERT REICH: The biggest divide in America today isn't over social issues like abortion or gay marriage. It's not even over the war in Iraq or taxes. The biggest split is over immigration.

Demagogues on the right and left are telling Americans our jobs are threatened, our social services overwhelmed, and our streets unsafe because of immigrants. Fear and prejudice are on the rise. According to a recent Pew survey, more than half of Hispanic adults in America today worry they or someone close to them could face deportation. Earlier this year, when Congress tried to enact a bipartisan bill that would better secure the borders and also try to regularize the plight of undocumented immigrants -- giving them a path to become regular citizens -- the bill was killed by these agents of fear and intolerance.

Well, I have some news for these fear mongers. If they think this country or this economy can succeed in coming decades without tens of millions of additional immigrants, they're not thinking straight. The huge baby-boom generation will be retiring, and there aren't nearly enough native-born Americans after them to keep this economy going, let alone keep money flowing into the boomers' Social Security and Medicare trust funds. The graying of America means we need this new wave of immigrants.

Remember also that most of us born here are descended from immigrants. What we've learned is that people with the gumption to leave their country of birth and come to America are almost by definition ambitious. And the single most important asset of this economy and society is ambition.

I'm not arguing that we throw our borders open. We need better border security. But to think immigrants are our enemies, or to believe that they're taking more out of the economy than they're putting in, is pure baloney. At this time of year, especially, we need to remind ourselves of the tolerance and generosity that built this country by allowing our immigrant ancestors to become full-fledged Americans.

SCOTT: Robert Reich was Labor Secretary under President Clinton. His new book is called "Supercapitalism."

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