Human history is a history of movement. Our ancestors migrated out of Africa, establishing themselves on 6 of the 7 continents. Our ancestors and their cousins conquered almost all available lands on Earth, from the frigid Arctic to boiling Sahara and everything inbetween.

Why did humans spread? Well, I am sure some did it out of sheer adventure but for most it was a matter of opportunity. Back when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, the seasonal migration of "food on hooves" - deer, antelopes, mammoths, gnus etc as well as availability of fruits, nuts, mushrooms, berries and other edible leaves and roots drove the seasonal migration. But as these peoples discovered other food sources or means of comfort or just better places to live, they followed other migration paths. When natural resources shrank in supply, humans were forced to migrate in search of these resources. Discovery of unmolested, unutilized lands surely caused new waves of migration.

Even after all but Antarctica was inhabited, migration continued. Within Europe, many tribes moved from place to place seeking better opportunities in terms of food, shelter, political power and protection from real and imagined enemies. Speakers of proto-Indo-European language spread out from the Caspian sea, pushing against and merging with many other populations including the Basque. Migration has been an important aspect of our history right to the present day. There is a continuous movement of people from villages to cities, from country to country, chasing opportunities or escaping dead-ends. During times of prosperity, a city or country attracts migrants from other places while during times of poverty, it supplies immigrants to other loci of prosperity.

Within my own ancestory, in the last 10 generations, people have moved from city to city trying to exploit the opportunities presented or have stayed in the city of their birth hoping to take advantage of the social and political networks.

So, why such a high immigration rate to USA? Well, through most of American history, the government has felt the need to attract immigrants. And the events unfolding in Europe provided large numbers of people trying to escape persecution, war, famine, disease or sheer lack of opportunity. I would personally put the share of the last reason upwards of 99%. Another set of immigrants were the slaves from Africa who were brought to improve the economic yield of various endevours such as farming. In the mid- to late-1800s, a third set of immigrants arrived on the scene - Chinese workers willing to work hard on construction of railroad. From the response to the third set, it is obvious that the US govt and a majority of the public saw the US as a European society, not as a global melting pot.

In the 1960s, the govt changed direction once again and started admitting large numbers of people from everywhere. One of the major groups who took advantage of this new policy were skilled professionals, especially engineers, doctors and nurses, from Asia. The US economy had been galloping at a high rate and there was an acute need for such people. Ofcourse, the immigrants usually do not come alone. They come with spouses and children and soon want to reunite with their parents and siblings. There is demand for other elements from their culture which leads to immigration of priests, musicians, chefs and other such people.

US, because of its sizeable population from every country, province and city in the world, makes it easier to immigrate. Britain, being the largest colonial power, sowed the seeds of English language in many countries. Knowledge of English language further eases immigration to USA. The biggest factor though is the worldwide marketing. The American economy, though mature, is still growing at a good pace. This means that American companies need more skilled professionals than what is available at home. Therefore, we try to attract such people from across the globe. But if you are a skilled professional in say India or Brazil where the economy is growing faster still, why would you want to leave everything and come to USA? Because, as the marketers would tell you, you have freedom and money and opportunity and all your dreams would come true. This messsage has permeated the globe so well that to someone looking to make a fresh start, USA is at the top of a very short list of potential destinations.

In contrast, today there are many people in USA who believe that immigration needs to be drastically curtailed. Yes, it is possible but remember, it is not going to be easy. The last 100 years have seen a massive influx of people to USA and they have contributed heavily towards the economic growth of this country. We have also attracted a large amount of capital and thus this symbiotic relationship between talent, capital and enterpreneurship has propelled USA to be an economic superpower. If the immigration of skilled people is curtailed, what would happen to the capital inflows? Perhaps some other country (or group of countries) would become the new economic magnet and the talent and capital would flow there instead.

Others believe that it is only illegal migration that is bad and should be ratcheted down. Towards this goal, the US government is spending a fortune in stopping the flow of "illegals", primarily through the Mexico border. But I believe that this too is a failed idea. You cannot market the American Dream to the engineers in Egypt and doctors in Ghana without also marketing to the hardworking manual laborers in Mexico. Sure, we want to accept only the "creme de la creme" of the world but it is not so simple.

Why are we in such dire need of skilled workers? Well, one reason is that we, as a society, do not want to invest in education. We are telling our kids that if they want to be a doctor, either be lucky enough to have your parents pay for your decade-long education or graduate with $200,000 in debt. If we don't have enough doctors, we would import them from some other country where the state pays for the education and the doctor arrives here fully trained and debt-free!

The flip-side of the question is: Why do we need so many unskilled workers? Well, we are a fairly wasteful society. And at the same time, we are addicted to cheap prices. We don't want one pair of great shoes that would last a lifetime. We want 10 pairs of shoes and don't mind if they wear out in a year as long as they are really cheap. Therefore, there is a need for unskilled and semi-skilled workers and the budget to pay them is really small. The only group that is keen on getting such jobs is people who are in the country illegally and cannot be employed legally. If tomorrow, by some miracle, we grant legal status on everyone and ensure that there is not a single person in USA illegally, we can expect to see a dramatic rise in the costs of many labor-intensive tasks. While we may have our moral reservations about illegal immigration, we need to understand what we are going to do when cheap labor disappears.

What do you think?

No comments: