Corporate leaders may need to be the ones who shift the narrative on immigration from negative to positive. Perhaps they will find a way to ensure that talent at every level flows more freely between nations to create greater wealth for all.
One of the best lines in the musical Hamilton comes as its hero, Alexander, the American revolutionary born in Nevis, and Lafayette, his French brother-in-arms, celebrate their impending victory over the British. “Immigrants,” they say with a high five, “we get the job done.” The lyric inspired a diverse group of rappers—K’naan, Riz Ahmed, Residente, Snow Tha Product—to build a full-length track around it, and it’s now a slogan for immigrant communities everywhere, featured on posters and mugs.
It’s also the theme of a spate of new books. Some draw on reams of data. Others focus on personal stories. But all make the same point: Immigrant populations power economies and enrich cultures. In an age when nativist sentiment is on the rise, their authors persuasively argue that developed countries should not shun newcomers but welcome them with open arms.
In 8 Billion and Counting, the demographer Jennifer D. Sciubba lays out some facts: 2% to 4% of the world’s people—about 272 million—live outside their birth countries, a percentage that has held steady for the past 50 years. The United States hosts the most immigrants, with nearly 45 million, while the Persian Gulf states have the world’s highest proportion of foreign-born residents. Sciubba outlines the many drivers of migration—political conflict, economic opportunity, geographic proximity, family ties—and emphasizes how critical the import and export of talent is to national prosperity. “Poorer countries need…their emigrants [to] send home remittances,” she writes, while rich countries that receive migrants “have all benefited from an influx of high- and low-skilled workers to fill domestic labor shortages.” She notes that “openness to immigration is a choice, not a necessity,” even for nations with aging citizens and low birth rates, but adds that “when countries open…it’s often for economic reasons; when they close their doors, more often than not, it’s for nativist ones.”
The Immigrant Superpower, by Tim Kane, a Stanford University research fellow, argues for the mostly open door. Kane focuses on three ways in which immigrants enhance U.S. power: brawn (labor), bravery (military service), and brains (innovation). Kane explains how each wave—from the huddled European masses to newer arrivals from Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere—has been willing to take on work its predecessors no longer will. Thus jobs aren’t stolen. Output increases. For U.S. states, immigration growth and GDP move in tandem. (And OECD members with higher proportions of immigrants are richer than those with lower ones.)
The foreign-born also volunteer for military combat and win Medals of Honor proportionally more often than the native-born, says Kane. And in science and business newcomers achieve outsize results: Foreigners account for 40% to 50% of U.S. PhD students in STEM fields and, visas permitting, often stay. Immigrants create 30% of new U.S. companies and are disproportionally represented among U.S. patent holders and Nobel Prize winners. Sergey Brin and Esther Duflo are exemplars, not outliers.
The sociologist Nancy Foner agrees. Her book One Quarter of the Nation presents data showing that immigrants and their children account for 26% of the U.S. population and explains how they have changed local economies, communities, and politics for the better. Her stats: A quarter of U.S. physicians and surgeons are foreign-born; as of 2013, 28% of “Main Street” U.S. businesses were owned by immigrants; and in 2018 more than half the 91 U.S. start-ups valued at $1 billion or more had one immigrant founder, while more than 80% (!) had immigrants in key management or product development roles. She points to sectors that immigrants have either rescued with their labor (meatpacking, caregiving) or revolutionized with their fresh perspectives (retail, restaurants). As workers they are “complementary” to the native-born, she says. As executives they are “fueling our information age.”
Streets of Gold, by the economists Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan, adds to this pro-immigrant drumbeat with a data-driven analysis of not just immigrants but also their legacies. Using AI to mine Ancestry.com genealogical histories, government records, and public interviews and speeches, the authors tracked millions of immigrants and their offspring—“everyone from bankers to errand boys”—over decades to see how they fared in U.S. society. They highlight two key findings: Today’s newcomer families (born in countries from Mexico to Laos) move up the economic ladder just as quickly as did past émigrés from Europe, with the “true ascent” typically happening in the second generation. And this success “does not come at the expense of [the] U.S.-born.” Immigrants don’t find “streets of gold,” the authors write. They “pave their own way.”
Stories of individuals who are doing just that—overcoming hardship to achieve success—are everywhere nowadays, from the acclaimed film Minari to the Netflix documentary Immigration Nation to yet more new books. Journeys from There to Here presents a leading U.S. immigration lawyer’s clients. Two memoir-polemics—You Sound Like a White Girl, by Julissa Arce, and Go Back to Where You Came From, by Wajahat Ali—explain, with respective outrage and humor, just how hard (and maybe unnecessary) fitting in can be. Brilliance Beyond Borders profiles “trailblazing” immigrant women, while Somewhere We Are Human offers essays, poems, and art from immigrants and refugees.
But the anecdotes that may most pique the interest of HBR readers appear in Crossing Borders, by Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. One details how the Idaho dairy industry, originally built by Dutch settlers, thrives today thanks to Latino workers and the yogurt company Chobani, founded by the Turkish-born Hamdi Ulukaya. As a result, dairy owners are partnering with the company and local labor groups to lobby for laws that will make it easier to gain legal entry to and citizenship in the United States. Noorani shows how a similar scenario played out in an Iowa pork-processing town and how immigrant medical and food workers carried the country and its businesses through the worst of the pandemic.
Indeed, corporate leaders may need to be the ones who shift the narrative on immigration from negative to positive. Perhaps they will find a way to ensure that talent at every level flows more freely between nations to create greater wealth for all. Perhaps they can help those with nativist views see that the neediest people are often the ones who will take the biggest risks and work the hardest to realize their—and their new countries’—fullest potential.
Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.