The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the visa ban is a piece of President Donald Trump’s broader efforts to drastically curtail immigration into the United States. A centerpiece of his “America First” agenda, Trump’s anti-immigration offensive also involves seeking to deport the so-called Dreamers and deter Central Americans from crossing the southern border by separating parents from their children. The message is clear: America is slamming the door on new immigrants, especially those coming from the global South. The harmful human consequences of these restrictive measures are painfully obvious. Globally, the defeat of the US candidate to lead the UN’s migration agency, the International Organization for Migration, is but the latest illustration of America’s diminished standing in the world. At home, the images of detained children longing for their parents are now seared in our consciences. What is less obvious but also significant are the negative effects these restrictions are having on US businesses and our economic vitality more generally.
U.S. President Donald Trump, center right, listens during a lunch meeting with Republican lawmakers in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
From the outset, the American economy has been fueled by the energy, determination and talent of generations of new immigrants. President John F. Kennedy examined our early history in his book A Nation of Immigrants, noting that “What Alexis de Tocqueville saw in America was a society of immigrants, each of whom had begun life anew and on an equal footing. This was the secret of America; a nation of people with a fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers.”
For more than two centuries, America has been the destination of choice for millions of restless people looking to improve their lives, many of them the best and brightest in their own societies. In each generation, immigrants have played a vital role in propelling the American economy forward. Today, for example, as jobs have shifted to the technology sector, immigrants like Andy Grove of Intel, Google’s Sergei Brin, and Sadya Nadella of Microsoft have helped make and keep our country competitive and strong. Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, reflected on this phenomenon, noting: “In many ways, immigrants know what Americanism is better than we do…They wanted to be part of our raucous drama, and they wanted the three m’s – money, mobility, and meritocracy.” She urged that “to succeed we must draw from our newcomers the toughness and resilience of spirit that have nurtured America since its birth.”
Yet there is also a strong counter-trend in our history, one that becomes evident during periods like the present when large numbers of Americans turn our backs on the clear links between our melting pot traditions and economic prosperity. In the 1850s, the “Know Nothing” party called for the expulsion of all foreigners, Catholics and Jews. In the 1880s, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited any Chinese laborers from coming into this country. In the 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese, many of them citizens, yielding to those in his own government who wrongly believed that national security concerns dictated this draconian response.
Often restrictions on immigrants and immigration have come in times of economic hardship or amid dire threats to our national security. But neither of those conditions exist today, which makes the president’s fervor and vitriol all the more perplexing. Reflecting back on each of these periods, we now view past restrictions as misguided. Future generations undoubtedly will view the administration’s current actions the same way.
So where do we go from here? The Supreme Court’s refusal to overrule the visa ban is a reminder of the broad executive power over immigration and the reluctance of courts to override that authority. What this means is that others must step up to help our country regain its equilibrium. Given the value immigrants play in bolstering our economy, this is a moment for the leaders of American industry to publicly remind our president and those in his inner circle of the vital role that immigrants play in sustaining our economic vitality. As part of their message they should stress the unique quality of the American experience and the crucial role immigrants have played in our unrivaled success. Former British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher captured the essence of this viewpoint when she said: “No other nation has been built on an idea—the idea of liberty. Whether in flight from persecution or poverty [immigrants] have welcomed American values and opportunities. And America herself has bound them to her with powerful bonds of patriotism and pride.”