You can sing about sea to shining sea or amber waves of grain, but it's immigration that provides America's basic rhythm. Nothing distinguishes the American experience from that of other nations more than the mass migration of people from elsewhere to here. We are truly a nation of immigrants: Close to 90% of the population--excluding Native Americans and those who were forced here in shackles--moved here out of their own volition.
Not that this has made things any easier for immigrants. In the 1850s the nativist Native American Party--reacting to a wave of Irish Catholic and German immigrants--declared that America faced "an imminent peril" from immigrants "of an ignorant and immoral character." California in the late 19th century tried to ban Asian immigration and land ownership. In 1924 immigration from everywhere outside northern Europe was severely restricted.
The current wave of immigration, largely from Asia and Latin America, has once again sparked nativist fears. (Witness Arizona's recent, harsh immigration law.) Yet America needs immigrants now more than ever. The U.S., like virtually all advanced countries, produces insufficient native-born children to prevent it from becoming a granny nation-state by 2050.
Only immigration can provide the labor force, the expanding domestic markets and, perhaps most important, the youthful energy to keep our society vital and growing. Many bustling sections of American cities--the revived communities along the number 7 train line in Queens, N.Y., Houston's Harwin Corridor, Los Angeles' San Gabriel Valley--are dominated by immigrant enterprise. In contrast, the cities without large-scale immigration, such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, have stagnant and even declining populations.
In the future successful immigration will distinguish America from most key competitors. Globally, resistance to immigration or any form of linguistic, religious or ethnic diversity has become more commonplace. Over the past few decades Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia and the nations of the former East Bloc have constricted their concept of national identity. In Malaysia, East Africa and even the province of Quebec preferential policies have led successful minorities such as Jews, Armenians, Coptic Christians Indians and Chinese to find homes in more welcoming places, often in the U.S.
In recent decades Europe has received as many immigrants as the U.S., but it has proved far less able to absorb them. The roughly 20 million Muslims who live in Europe remain marginalized. In Europe, notably in France, unemployment among immigrants--particularly those from Muslim countries--is often at least twice that of the native born; in Britain as well Muslims are far more likely to be out of the workforce than either Christians or Hindus.
But in the U.S. immigrant workers with lower educations are more likely to be in the workforce than their nonimmigrant counterparts. And most American Muslims are comfortably middle class, with income and education levels above the national average. The newly crowned Miss America is from a Detroit-area Shiite immigrant family from southern Lebanon.
Our 21st-century economy will be shaped in large part by these immigrants and their descendants. Much is made of the movement of poor, largely uneducated immigrants from south of the border, but more than half of all skilled immigrants in the world come to the U.S., too. Even with its slow-growing population, Europe continues to be a major source of American immigrants, particularly skilled workers. By 2004 some 400,000 E.U. science and technology graduates were residing in the U.S. Barely one in seven, according to a European Commission poll, intends to return to their home continent.
Of course, the majority of the nation's immigrants, both undocumented and legal, come from developing countries: China, India, Mexico, the Philippines and the Middle East. Since roughly four in five immigrants come from nonwhite countries, by 2039, due largely to immigrants and their offspring, the majority of working-age Americans will be "minorities."
Even if immigration slows down dramatically, particularly with a weak economy, these groups will grow in significance as we approach mid-century. In 2000 one in five American children were already the progeny of immigrants; by 2015 they will make up as much as one-third of American kids. Many demographers predict that by 2050 non-Hispanic whites will be in the minority. America's racial and ethnic dye is already cast, and permanently shaped, by immigration.
By embracing, and being embraced by, immigrants, America follows the path of history's most successful civilizations. The Roman civilization, which started in a tribal city-state, gradually opened citizenship to all Italians, and by the third century made citizenship available to free men throughout the "multi-nationed" empire; less than half the Senate came from Italy. "Rome," wrote a Greek writer in the second century, "is a citadel which has all the peoples of the earth as its villagers."
In this sense the American model of immigration and ethnic integration, for all its many flaws, forms a critical pillar for the nation's future global leadership. Even those who return home will retain strong familial and business ties to the U.S. They will confirm America's unique status as the world's one great global civilization.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.