Zelizer: Immigrants have been the backbone of our economy from the very start of the Republic
Founders of Google, Tesla and Forever 21 came to US from other countries, he says
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
On Labor Day, it’s time to celebrate the contributions of immigrants to America’s bountiful economy.
This is not the message you hear from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. During his speech about immigration, in which Trump defied predictions that he was about to make his so-called pivot to moderation, he doubled down on his hardline stance against immigration. Surrounding himself with parents and family whose loved ones had been killed by undocumented “illegal aliens,” Trump reiterated his hardline opposition to immigrants and outlined the reasons why he thought President Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s positions are destructive.
Although he backed away from earlier primary claims that he would deport 12 million illegal immigrants, now saying that only 2 million criminals would be getting the boot, that was not much of a concession. He stood firmly against embracing a path to citizenship and his fierce rhetoric belied any possibility that he was turning some corner.
At one key point in the speech, Trump undertook a Nixonian move by pitting immigrants against working Americans. He said: “If we’re going to make our immigration system work, then we have to be prepared to talk honestly and without fear about these important and very sensitive issues. For instance, we have to listen to the concerns of working people, our forgotten working people, have over the record pace of immigration and its impact on their jobs, wages, housing, schools, tax bills and general living conditions.”
By separating working people from immigrants, Trump ignores something that is fundamental to the history of the United States. Immigrants have been the backbone of our economy from the very start of the Republic. Unless one stipulates that workers can only be white and native born, his argument doesn’t hold water.
Immigrants have been a driving force in the work of America. We are a country founded by immigrants and refugees who came here and settled the colonies, seeking new opportunities.
During the 1840s and 1860s, Chinese immigrants were central to the construction of the railway system which became the heart of the American economy. Scottish immigrants settled in Midwestern states where they farmed the land. Many were perceived to be the most efficient and effective farmers of the period. German and Irish immigrants who flocked to the cities provided the manpower behind the construction of our urban infrastructure and creation of our financial system. They were there at the start as the steel and coal industry propelled the US into a major economic power.
These immigrants were joined by another wave who followed them seeking opportunity as well as freedom. Between the 1880s and 1920s, immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe constituted the unskilled labor that fueled most of the major areas of economic growth, from the automobile industry to the garment industry.
Some of the most important labor leaders to emerge from these years, such as Sidney Hillman, arrived from overseas (Hillman was born in Lithuania). Even after nativists closed the doors to these groups in the 1920s, Mexican Americans kept arriving to the US as many farmers in the Southwest depended on them to keep their businesses running. When the Eisenhower administration tried to crack down on these communities through the brutal “Operation Wetback” deportation program, the president ultimately failed and the INS increased the number of Bracero visas given to workers.
The same pattern has been true since the immigration reform of 1965, as the influx of newcomers from Latin America and Asia have been pivotal to filling lower wage positions in the service economy as well as more lucrative positions in tech. A large percentage of the doctorate programs in science and engineering, which most agree are essential to innovation, are filled with foreign students. One study found that between 2006 and 2012, there was at least one founder born overseas in two-fifths of all start-up tech companies in Silicon Valley.
There is a reason business has historically supported liberal immigration policies. Immigrants expand the workforce. In current times, immigrants have encouraged the creation of more business start-ups. The Small Business Administration reported that immigrants were 30% more likely than non immigrants to start a business. Immigrants spend money, boosting consumer demand. Studies consistently show that immigrants don’t take jobs away from those who are already here, instead doing jobs that are otherwise unfilled, and overall they boost the strength of the industries where they work, allowing owners to employ even more people.
Immigrants have not only been pivotal at the lower and middle levels of the labor force, but they have also proven to be some of the greatest titans of industry. Most famously, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie came to the US after growing up in poverty in Scotland. Starting work in a cotton mill at age 13, Carnegie became one of the most powerful players in the economy. Louis Mayer, one of the founders of Hollywood, our most beloved American product, was born in Russia and came to the US in his late teens.
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Today there are many economic power brokers who came from abroad or grew up in immigrant families. Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, came to the United States from Moscow at the age of 6. Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk arrived in the States from South Africa.
Don Won and Jim Sook, the co-founders of Forever 21, a popular clothing store, arrived from Korea in 1981. Don Won started working in janitorial jobs before he and his wife opened their first store in 1981. Josie Natori, who arrived from the Philippines in 1965 to attend Manhattanville College and became a citizen in 1974, founded the Natori Company that sold sleepwear to stores including Target. Jose Wilfredo Flores, who came to Philadelphia from El Salvador at 14 years of age is the owner and founder of W Concrete, which earns several million a year.
If you use WhatsApp to communicate with your friends, you can thank Jan Koum, who came here with his mother from a small village in Ukraine to live in a government-subsidized apartment, and if you like soft drinks, you’ve benefited from the work of PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who grew up in Madras, India. Linda Alvarado, the president and CEO of Alvarado Construction and co-owner of the Colorado Rockies, grew up in a Latino family in New Mexico.
Besides the economy, immigrants have continually enriched our politics, our culture, and our society. The story of the United States is a story of an immigrant nation.
So on this Labor Day, in the middle of a campaign where immigrants, legal and illegal, have been blasted with a ferocity that has taken many people by surprise, it might be good to pause and remember just how vital they have been to the making of our economy.
While Trump argued that workers and immigrants are in opposition, in fact they are the same. We are all immigrants in this nation and each generation makes new contributions to our success. Instead of castigating, it’s time to start celebrating.