Commentary: Immigrants are part of solution to U.S. troubles

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano addresses the Democratic National Convention, August 26, 2008.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano addresses the Democratic National Convention, August 26, 2008. Brian Baer / Sacramento Bee / MCT

Among the more promising candidates nominated Monday for President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet was Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was named for secretary of Homeland Security. She was a good choice, not only for her wisdom as a border state leader but also because she seems to get that an educated work force is the key to economic strength.

The one time I heard Napolitano speak in person, she pounded home her view that America needs to seize a "Sputnik moment." That is, we need to grasp how far behind the rest of the world our students are falling in educational achievement in technology, the sciences and math. I agree. We are at the beginning of a painful national reality check, and the time to act is now.

Under the Obama administration, the secretary of Homeland Security will be well positioned to encourage the necessary shifts in attitude, so that policy begins to match some of our nation’s most cherished beliefs about ourselves. Such as that we are "a nation of immigrants" and the "land of opportunity."

Let's leave aside for the moment the passionate feelings about immigrants who are among us illegally and consider some facts outlined in a new report by the Migration Policy Institute.

For instance: "About one in three immigrants is a person with either a U.S. or foreign college degree." So much for the image of huddled undereducated masses slipping across borders. One in six members of America’s 130 million-person labor force came to our shores an immigrant. In 2007, 15 percent of all college graduates in the U.S. labor force were immigrants. Of the 6.5 million college-educated foreign born, one-third arrived in the last 10 years. About 18 percent of college-educated immigrants were of Latino descent.

And here is the statistic that ought to embarrass U.S. citizens by birth: College-educated immigrants are more likely than native-born graduates to achieve postgraduate degrees. And they are far more likely to be educated in high-tech, science or engineering — all areas vital to sustaining the nation in the future.

If Napolitano is approved to take the helm at Homeland Security, the agency that handles immigration, she will have the power to make the most of what these immigrants can offer. Time will be on her side. Obama will have plenty of other seas to calm before any real overhaul of immigration law can occur. It’s unlikely to happen in his first year in office.

But that just might give Napolitano the time to pursue the difficult work of changing public perception about what immigrants offer. They ought to be viewed not as competitors but as stimulators to the economy.

Bill Gates understands that fact. Along with other CEOs, he hounded Congress earlier this year to increase the numbers of highly educated immigrants allowed entry into the U.S. In 2007, the 65,000 visas allowed for this group of immigrants were spoken for within the first four months of the fiscal year.

The denied immigrants could have become catalysts and co-workers of native-born people. Consider this other fact from the report: More than 1.3 million college-educated immigrants were underutilized in the U.S. labor market in 2005-2006.

Meaning, many of those who are here are not being used to the best of their abilities. And you can bet that means the trickle-down job creation that comes from the highly educated and motivated classes did not occur. That hurts U.S.-born people as well, including those sons and daughters who have long forgotten or never knew that their teeming immigrant forefathers did not speak perfect English.

Every economic downturn in U.S. history has produced a backlash against the most recent immigrant arrivals. But maybe this time it can be different.

America needs more than ever to retool itself for future economic growth. Immigrants are a source of innovation and inspiration that can help us rebound — just as they always have been.