It was the ultimate cowboy ballad – late in 1959 Marty Robbins released El Paso, that song about the cowboy, out in the West Texas town of El Paso, who fell in love with a Mexican girl. Within a few months the single was number one on both the country and pop charts. You can listen to it here and read the background here – a great tune, beautifully presented, with a compelling narrative of the smitten guy who kills a seeming rival and has to get out of town quick, then cannot help himself. He knows the law will take him and hang him if he returns, but he has to see that Mexican girl one more time. He’s shot dead trying, and as he dies in the dusty streets of El Paso, the girl gives him one last kiss. It’s very Shakespearean, in a Tex-Mex sort of way. And it’s one of those songs that endures – heck, even the Grateful Dead did a cover of it.
But of course it doesn’t get much play these days. And perhaps that’s because the idea of the devastatingly attractive Mexican – the Mexican girl that Gringo cowboy just couldn’t quit – just doesn’t fit the current narrative we’ve got going about Mexicans. They’re the bad guys now – shiftless and dirty and sloppy and out to take our jobs, when they’re not in gangs or running drug cartels, and they fill up our public schools, and flood our emergency rooms, all the while talking funny, in Spanish of all things. We want them gone. That Marty Robbins song would just puzzle people now.
And of course El Paso is no longer a dusty little cowboy town. The army has the ironically named giant Fort Bliss there, prepping guys to be shipped out to Iraq and Afghanistan, and El Paso is just another city, with Toyota dealerships and strip malls and all the rest. And just across what passes for a river, in Mexico proper, there’s Juarez, the drug-murder capital of the western world. So there’s no cultural mixing in any cantina, like in the Marty Robbins song. Everyone is hiding, or on this side of the Rio Grande, at the multiplex watching that new Thor movie. If you’ve been to El Paso you know it has a sort of shut-down nowhere feel to it. And it looks like the end of the earth – the White Sands area stretches far out to the north, hundreds of miles of scorching bleak emptiness, all the way out to Alamogordo, where we set off the very first atomic bomb, to see if it worked. It did. This is end-of-the-world apocalypse country.
And of course on Tuesday, May 10, President Obama went to El Paso and gave a speech on immigration reform – he called for legalizing the millions of undocumented but otherwise hardworking and law-abiding folks already here, not calling for amnesty, but suggesting newly legalized workers could pay fines and taxes, learn English, and submit to background checks and wait their turn to apply for permanent status. The border is more secure than ever, and more people, who want to be here, and want to work, and actually want to pay taxes, might be good for the country. And he made a case for the DREAM Act – allow conditional permanent residency to undocumented students who did nothing wrong but follow their parents across the border when they were minors. That legislation would legalize those students who have been in the country for five years or more, and who are really enmeshed in English and American culture and not much else, and who go to college or serve in the military. You don’t punish them for what their parents did. These are good people who are good for the country.
Of course no one was buying any of this. No immigration reform will ever pass now. The Republican Party, to a man and always finding the Real Enemies of America, has made all Hispanics the enemy now – they don’t want their votes and they don’t want any more of them here. America is for angry English-speaking older white folks – the Real Americans. And Obama, like the hapless cowboy in the Marty Robbins song, just can’t seem to quit the Mexicans – fool that he is. But of course Obama was probably doing no more than reminding the fast-growing Hispanic population of America how things stand with the two parties. Or, to be more charitable, he was reminding us all that dumping people who want to be here, and want to work, and actually want to pay taxes – and even start businesses – is, along with being inhumane, really quite dumb.
You see, there is some logic to sustaining and growing a core of useful citizens. And, in an odd way, Annie Lowrey covers that logic in this item in Slate – where she argues that the best way to improve our economy, fast is “to poach entrepreneurs from the rest of the world.” She wonders why we make it so difficult for them to immigrate. The whole idea is that it’s kind of nuts to turn down people who want to be here and do well.
And she begins by referencing George Mason economist Tyler Cowen and his book The Great Stagnation – that one about how the United States has exhausted all its easy sources of growth. It seems there are no more low-hanging fruit, as they say. There’s no more of that cheap frontier land to farm, and no more places to build new interstates, no rural homes to electrify, no more girls to send to school and then add to the workforce. As she notes, from now on, Cowen says, growth will be slower, and transformative innovations like toilets and telephones will be rarer.
She finds what Cowen lays out “alarmingly convincing” – and she has more to say about the book here – but she does think “there remains one last shiny, fat apple hanging right in front of our faces, one last endeavor that would bring us fast, costless, and easy growth.” And that would be immigration reform. And the concept is simple – “The United States can grow faster by stealing the rest of the world’s smart people.”
That’s a pretty cool idea, but of course if you’re a rock-ribbed Republican of the sort we have these days, you cannot accept the underlying premise, that there are smart people in the world who are not Americans. You believe in American Exceptionalism – everyone else in the world is a fool, and none of us are. We don’t do what they do, we don’t think what they think, and we do everything better. It’s a point of pride and that ends the argument there, dead in its tracks. And Marty Robbins’ cowboy, if he was a real cowboy, could never fall for any fetching Mexican lass. That’s inconceivable.
But Lowrey argues that Obama is actually thinking others in the world might be smart, and useful to us, and that’s what is really behind this push for immigration reform:
In the past year, the government has ramped up enforcement checks and deportations, in the hope of winning Republican support for a comprehensive immigration-reform bill. (The logic is this: If the government appears to be serious about keeping undocumented immigrants out, then Republicans will give them leeway to manage those already here.) In the past few weeks, President Obama has held meetings with business leaders and advocacy groups to raise awareness of the issue.
So the speech in El Paso was to push Congress to consider reform legislation as soon as possible, for everyone’s good:
The low-hanging fruit of immigration is not simply an open-door policy, but rather letting in – or, really, rolling out the red carpet for – highly skilled and educated workers and entrepreneurs. Back in 1999, Berkeley scholar AnnaLee Saxenian published one of the first comprehensive studies of the economic contributions of highly skilled immigrants, such as computer programmers, in California. Her paper found that foreign-born entrepreneurs were at the helm of a full quarter of Silicon Valley start-ups founded between 1980 and 1998 – start-ups like, say, Google. In 1998 alone, those companies created $17 billion in sales and accounted for 58,000 jobs.
No, Joe the Plumber didn’t start Google. And since that Saxenian paper things have accelerated:
Since then, the contributions of highly skilled immigrants – let’s call them super-immigrants – have only grown. A comprehensive study published by the Kauffman Foundation found that 25.3 percent of engineering and technology start-ups opened between 1995 and 2005 had a foreign-born founder. In California, the proportion was 39 percent. Immigrant-founded companies across the country produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers.
The pro-super-immigrant data abounds. According to the Hamilton Project, immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than U.S.-born citizens. Immigrants with college degrees are three times as likely to file patents as the domestically born. And all that entrepreneurial gusto really adds up. Economist Jennifer Hunt of McGill estimates that the contributions of immigrants with college degrees increased the U.S.’s GDP per capita by between 1.4 and 2.4 percent in the 1990s.
That’s impressive, but the United States still discourages foreign-born entrepreneurs:
The H1-B visa program allows employers to bring in highly skilled workers but grants only 85,000 new temporary visas per year. Many recipients need to leave the country when their contracts end, giving them no incentive to put down roots and start businesses. The student visa program also allows in tens of thousands of the most talented, driven students from overseas – only to push most of them out again once their education is finished.
What are we thinking? We don’t want resources? Think of a political party who said they didn’t want the votes of the fastest growing minority in the country, or the votes of any minority, or the votes of gay folks, or anyone who lives in or near a city, or on the coasts, or who didn’t much care for NASCAR. You don’t throw away resources. No political party would be that foolish. No, wait…
But we do throw away resources:
There are paths to permanent residency for many highly skilled immigrants and their families. But here too the United States has far too tight restrictions. The country does not cap the number of “family-based” green cards, available to relatives of U.S. residents. But it does cap the number of “employment-based” green cards – the ones often needed by entrepreneurial super-immigrants – at 140,000 per year. Wait times get very, very long. The think tank Third Way estimates that a tech entrepreneur from India looking to stay in the United States and found a business needs to wait until 2020 to get the OK to do so. There are about one million highly skilled immigrants waiting in limbo for green cards. Increasingly often, they just give up and go home, taking their know-how and business ideas with them, a phenomenon known as the “reverse brain drain.”
That’s nuts, even if some folks fight against this madness:
Every once and a while, Congress decides to change the system to keep these motivated, educated, and valuable people around. This spring, for instance, Sens. John Kerry and Dick Lugar reintroduced the Startup Visa Act, designed to welcome in and keep foreign-born entrepreneurs.
The legislation provides a few new paths to permanent residency for entrepreneurs. For instance, a prospective immigrant could win a temporary visa if she raises at least $100,000 from a qualified investor for a new business. Her visa would become permanent if, within two years, her business created five jobs and raised $500,000 in additional investment, or had sales of $500,000. The bill also encourages entrepreneurs on temporary and education visas to stay, and foreign business owners to move and expand operations here.
Lowrey says this is a good idea, but still too restrictive:
For one, the Startup Visa has inflexible rules about sales, capital investment, and job creation. What if a foreign-born computer scientist created the next Google in her garage, but by the end of two years only had a few thousand dollars in investment and one other worker? Second, the bill does not recognize the importance of failure. Most new businesses don’t make it off the ground. But many entrepreneurs try again, and some succeed the second or third or 20th time around. Better to keep those aspirational workers on our shores. Third, and most important, the bill does not actually expand the number of available visas, just 9,940 in the relevant program. It just makes them easier for entrepreneurs to get.
And she wonders if Obama’s immigration reform bill will be smarter:
The White House is pushing the benefits of keeping highly skilled and educated immigrants in the United States. In a call with reporters yesterday, a White House senior official stressed the point. “Immigrants are major job creators,” he said. “It makes little if any economic sense for us to train and educate the top entrepreneurs and job creators of the next generation or this generation, and then force them to leave to compete against us and create jobs elsewhere.”
But of course the prospects of a comprehensive bill passing are not good, and the White House knows it:
On the call with reporters, senior administration officials talked about trying to “elevate the debate,” “lean into the issue,” and “raise the dialogue.” “Passing a bill” did not really figure into the conversation. Other politicians are more honest about it. “I’m not going to be disingenuous with the public,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez told the Journal. “It’s not going to happen.”
The term is cutting off your nose to spite your face. But Lowrey suggests something might be salvaged:
Even if comprehensive reform does not pass, though, expanding programs for super-immigrants should. Traditionally, because giving highly skilled workers a way to stay in the United States is the least controversial part of immigration reform Democratic politicians have refused to decouple the priorities. If you want the high-skill immigrants, you need to figure out how to deal with the millions of less-skilled and undocumented workers, mostly from Latin America.
It is good political logic, perhaps, but awful economic logic. The country needs about ten million jobs, and the rest of the world has hundreds of thousands of educated, motivated, smart workers who want to come to our shores, use our capital, and hire our workers.
Why not pick the low-hanging fruit?
And if you do that maybe the next step is to understand that if you want a thriving economy and more jobs, well, you also do your best to deal with the millions of less-skilled and undocumented workers, mostly from Latin America, who want to work here and chip in. If you want the economy to thrive you don’t throw away resources.
And who knows? Maybe that Marty Robbins song will return to the airwaves.