Nation has, and will, continue to greatly benefit from immigrants

Thanks to the presidential candidates, immigration is once again at the forefront of the national agenda.

Unfortunately, the focus on unauthorized immigrants threatens to cast a pall over the whole issue.

As we continue the debate, we would do well to remember that a willingness to welcome people from all over the world is one of our nation’s greatest strengths.

Fifty years ago, America set in motion the “fourth wave of immigration.” The 1965 passage of the Hart-Cellar Act ended the national origin quotas that had favored the Northern European countries since 1924 and opened the doors to the Hispanic and Asian immigrants who would reshape America.

Passed as an extension of the civil rights movement, few expected the bill to result in major changes. President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “This bill we sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not restructure the shape of our daily lives.”

He, and the others who predicted a similar outcome, were wrong.

Since 1965, 59 million immigrants have arrived. Approximately 25 percent of our current population is first or second generation Americans.

The percent of foreign-born Americans has risen steadily. In 1965 it was 5 percent; today it is 14 percent; by 2065 it will be 18 percent. (The historic peak was 14.8 percent in 1890.)

Hispanics and Asians account for most of the increase. In 1965, they were 5 percent of the total population; today they are 24 percent; by 2065 they will be 38 percent.

The largest current immigrant group is Hispanics but this is changing. By 2055, it will be Asians.

America has four times more immigrants than the country with the next largest immigrant population (Russia).

Contrary to some political narratives, the changes cited above are supported by Americans.

A recent Gallup poll reports that 73 percent believe immigration is “a good thing … for this country today” and 65 percent believe immigration levels should increased or kept at its present level.

This is confirmed by a Public Religion Institute Poll. It tells us that 55 percent of Americans say immigrants strengthen our country compared to 36 percent who say immigrants are a burden.

So why the support?

Immigrants give us economic strength. They are 17 percent of our workforce; 33 percent of our engineers and 27 percent of our mathematicians, statisticians and computer scientists; small business owners that employ 4.7 million people and generate $776 billion annually; and founders (along with their children) of more than 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies including Google, eBay, Yahoo!, Sun Microsystems and Intel.

And there are other important benefits in this increasingly interconnected world: linguistic and cultural diversity, expertise and exposure to other ways of life, enthusiasm and ambition, and connections to millions or people in other countries.

America is primarily a nation of voluntary immigrants. Two percent of Americans are Native Americans and 13 percent are black (most of whose ancestors were forced to come here), but 85 percent are voluntary immigrants or their descendants. We should be proud of this heritage.

At the signing of the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act on Oct. 3, 1965, President Johnson said that, “The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources – because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.”

It was true 50 years ago and it is even more true today.

Editor’s note: Gene A. Budig is past president of three major universities (Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas) and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board.