It's been two decades since California Gov. Pete Wilson used grainy ads of undocumented immigrants – "They keep coming" – as an effective means of stoking fear of newcomers and assuring his re-election. Yet, increasingly America's immigration realities are moving far beyond the mojado paradigm of the 1990s in ways that challenges the stereotypes of both conservatives and progressives.
This discussion of the undocumented, and about the relative benefits of accepting millions of poor, often modestly educated newcomers, has sharply divided the Left and Right. But this often-polarized debate largely has missed the changing nature of immigration and its potential long-term impact on our national future.
The biggest shift in immigration lies in primary motivation. Traditionally, most immigrants came primarily for economic reasons. Poor people in Mexican or Central American villages saw a better life in the United States and, unlikely to do so legally, chose to make the crossing, anyway. Legal immigrants from further away, including many with educations, such as from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, also came to reap financial opportunities that their still-developing economies could not provide.
Today these economic motivations are losing their primacy, both for documented and undocumented workers. Many of the economies from which immigrants once fled – including Mexico, Korea, India, Taiwan and China – are now arguably doing better than the U.S. economy. A machinist from Monterrey, a technician from Taipei, or a biologist from Bangalore can find ample, and even greater, opportunities at home than here.
Most important have been changes with Mexico, from where most undocumented immigrants have come. A survey from the Pew Hispanic Center notes that, during 2005-10, about 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. – exactly the same number of Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children who moved back, or were deported, home.
This trend is likely to continue. Brighter economic prospects south of the border, a rapidly declining birth rate and lack of good jobs for the modestly skilled do much to explain the plunge in Mexican immigration. The "back to Mexico" numbers could even grow since many Mexicans immigrants here – roughly two-thirds of legal residents – have chosen not to become American citizens.
Now we see a shift both in the primary motivation and geography of immigration. Increasingly, immigrants are coming less out of economic distress and more as a result of what may be called "lifestyle" migration. This may be particularly applicable to the largest source of immigration, Asia. Opportunity, notes a recent Pew study, remains a key lure but freedom to express political views and a better environment to raise children was cited by more than three in five as reasons for coming here.
Asia has become much richer in the past few decades, but many people find conditions there less than satisfactory. In a place like Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore, even the highest levels of wealth and "success" cannot buy you the comfort and privacy of single-family home. In China, even a billionaire can't breathe clean air, drink the tap water or easily access quality public education.
Recent immigrants to places like such as Irvine or Eastvale, a newly minted suburb just outside Ontario, California, will tell you that the "quality of life" here is simply unavailable in their home country, at virtually any price. This quality-of-life migration is particularly evident in California, where twice as many new immigrants now come from Asia than from Latin America. Even the New York Times admits they are not coming here to duplicate the high-density environment of Mumbai or Shanghai, but to indulge "the new suburban dream."
Of course, some immigrants still come for venerable reasons, such as the freedom to worship. Christians, who make up some 42 percent of Asian-Americans, face surveillance and repression, particularly, in China, where religion is tightly regulated, and dissent from the party line can land adherents in jail. Over half of Asian immigrants, Pew notes, cite freedom of religion as a key advantage of living in America. New faith-based migration could also be seen soon among Christians fleeing increasingly Islamic regimes in Egypt, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.
And then there's the related issue of legality. In China, in particular, property ownership is never secure from state confiscation. This, in part, accounts for a rise in immigrant investors, not only to the United States but to such bastions of legality as Canada and Australia. Lack of faith in the long-term political stability is also driving a growing group of Chinese professionals to emigrate.
"Chinese come from a country where it isn't infrequent that government takes land for redevelopment with little concerns for the American notions of due process," Realtor Tommy Bozarjian of Aslan Properties told Chapman University researcher Grace Kim. "Vietnamese come from a country where they had to gather what little they had into pillow cases and makeshift bags" before boarding helicopters and boats in efforts to escape the communist regime.
Overall, this new immigration is far more promising than that portrayed in Pete Wilson's grainy videos. An influx of young families, seeking to establish a better way of life for the children, represent something of an elixir for a sagging economy. Asians, the fastest-growing group, outperform other racial groups across a broad array of measurements, notably education and income.
Higher entrepreneurship rates among immigrants are providing a bright spot in an otherwise-sagging start-up economy. The immigrant share of all new businesses, notes the Kauffman Foundation, more than doubled, from 13.4 percent in 1996 to 29.5 percent in 2010.
But not all the positives pertain at the higher end. Clearly, the country will also need some lower-skilled workers, particularly in agriculture, who work in circumstances few Americans would embrace. More important still, immigrants may be necessary for addressing a looming shortage of skilled technicians, such as process engineers, machinists, mold-makers, which are, in part, a result of our still-neglected high school vocational training programs, trade schools and junior colleges.
At the same time, there may be less need to encourage the migration of workers in hospitality, retail and other entry-level industries when many native-born and naturalized residents still struggle for employment. College graduates, in particular, are increasingly turning to these professions since the number of opportunities for all but the most credentialed, and gifted, seem rather limited. More than 43 percent of recent graduates now working, according to a recent report by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, are at jobs that don't require a college education.
This dynamic may even be applied to some higher-skilled professions. Silicon Valley executives, such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, insist we need to import large quantities of tech workers. He's even backed a faux conservative group to push his agenda within the GOP. Yet, there is growing evidence, as recently revealed in a study by left-of-center Economic Policy Institute, that the country's much-ballyhooed shortage of STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics-related) workers may be vastly exaggerated.
If EPI's analysis is accurate, importing vast numbers of young code-writers – what in the Silicon Valley has been sometimes referred to as "techno-coolies" – may result in lowering the price of labor and allow the Silicon Valley elite to not address issues such as inflated housing costs that keep older, American-born workers out of the Valley's labor pool.
These are the kind of issues Washington should focus on as politicians look to reshape our immigration laws. So, too, are policies that encourage the immigration of families likely to stay and put down roots long-term here in the United States. As an immigrant country, we do not want to duplicate the dependence on transitory workers associated with places like Dubai, Singapore and large parts of Europe.
Overall, the newer wave of "lifestyle" immigrants seems a net plus, but legislators should take care to recognize that even the most obvious windfall could have negative unintended impacts on Americans and our economy. Rather than simply a politically motivated rush to judgment, or replaying the immigration wars of the past, we need to pay more attention to the emerging realities of this new wave and devise a policy that best serves the long-term interests of the nation in the decades ahead.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.