Counting on new pilgrims

Fall 2005

Of all the media coverage generated in the wake of MassINC’s recent research on immigration, The Changing Face of Massachusetts, none was more poignant than an editorial by the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth entitled “New Pilgrims.” The editors reminded readers of the Cordage Co., a local rope manufacturer, which a century ago provided foreign-born workers a library of 3,000 books (written in German, Portuguese, and Italian) and hosted classes in English and American history. These immigrants worked hard for a shot at the American Dream, enriching their new homeland at the same time. Though not arguing for “handsome wood-paneled libraries” to be built at employers’ expense, the editors did urge that we all look at today’s immigrants in a similar way: “Today’s new pilgrims are critical to the state’s future success, just as critical as some of its earlier arrivals.”

What a breath of fresh air.  The debate about immigration tends to focus on numbers (how many immigrants should we allow?), control (how do we enforce whatever limit we set?) and benefits (which immigrants should receive what entitlements?).

Currently, the question of in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants is front and center on Beacon Hill. Young people, brought here illegally by their parents but raised in Massachusetts communities, don’t have the right to pay in-state tuition rates for public higher education.  Proponents say we should give them the same price break as their lifelong classmates. But extending a state-funded benefit to individuals whose very residency here is a violation of federal law raises issues of equity for other Bay Staters. And from the economic standpoint, what good does it do the state to help people gain skills attractive to companies who cannot hire them because of their immigration status? So this remains a thorny question.

What troubles me most, however, about the in-state tuition debate—as well as the general debate over illegal immigration—is its narrowness. Yes, in Massachusetts, we have illegal immigrants, but unlike the case in border states, they are hardly the main immigration story here.  
Shouldn’t we be having a much broader discussion about immigrants, the vast bulk of whom come here legally, and how they can contribute to our state’s prosperity?  

Massachusetts has the dubious distinction of being the only state to lose population in the last year. We would have a much more rapidly shrinking population without the influx of new immigrants. Our research, Mass.Migration, showed that we lost some 213,000 residents net to other states from 1990 to 2002. Combine outmigration with aging —we are the 12th oldest state in the nation—and demographic changes in the Bay State point to population loss and a shrinking labor force. The nation, and especially border states, may worry about immigration getting out of hand. But in Massachusetts, immigration may be our best hope.

So what would a pro-immigration state policy look like? Unlike so many other areas of public policy—health care, the judiciary, zoning, etc.—states lack much authority to address immigration. There is no federalism when it comes to national borders. But what can we do to increase the positive impact of immigration here?

In part, this is a matter of getting the best and brightest from around the world to come here. “If we cream off the first-round intellectual draft choices from around the world, it will always end up a net plus for America,” writes Thomas Friedman, in his book The World Is Flat. On the state level, perhaps we need to think about trade missions anew, keeping in mind Friedman’s draft picks, not just trade and investment. In years long past, manufacturers recruited employees on the streets of Europe; more recently, high-tech firms did the same thing, offering H-1B visas for higher skilled immigrants. Maybe it’s time for the Commonwealth to do some recruiting of its own. Perhaps we also need to broaden the mandate of the state’s Office of Refugees and Immigrants, which now focuses on support services for refugees.

At the local level, forward-thinking municipal leaders in the old mill cities where so many new immigrants are making their first Bay State homes are looking at skill development for newcomers and quality public education for their children. This is a vital set of investments that will pay dividends in skilled workers. Even in suburban communities like Sharon local leaders have seen the data on immigration and are creating new English language programs.

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Given constitutional arrangements, we’ll leave it to the federal government to sort out illegal immigration. Massachusetts needs to focus on the rest—attracting, supporting, and retaining the next generation of new pilgrims to build our Commonwealth.


   Ian Bowles