The Other Side of Our Immigration Debate

(A child in Pasto, Nariño, Colombia/Photo by Miguel Salazar)

Thursday’s “Day Without Immigrants” protest broke a cycle of weeks filled with negative news coverage on immigration in the United States. After enduring months of talks about slashing trade deals, building walls and immigration bans, migrants across the country protested Donald Trump’s hateful policies by staying home from work and school, shutting down local businesses and boycotting stores.

The movement, dubbed #DayWithoutImmigrants on social media, is a powerful and necessary reminder to the U.S. that we are an enormous cultural and economic potential in the country. This wasn’t the first time such a protest has taken place, and likely won’t be the last. But while the boycott has provided a glimpse of what life in the U.S. could be like without immigrants, for other countries it is a daily reality.

I was born in Colombia before moving to the U.S. when I was four years old. I arrived at the height of a war that has torn my country apart in so many ways, and that will condition its political and economic development for generations to come. In 2015, Colombia had the highest number of internally displaced people (seven million) in the world. Death threats and kidnappings forced many people to migrate from one end of the country to another. Farmers ended up in major cities with little support. Others fled to Venezuela, or Ecuador. Many came to the U.S.

Millions of migrants have left Latin American countries to escape violence, poverty or simply to seek a better quality of life, and are justified in doing so. Once we are here, however, we proudly embrace our identities as immigrants (as we should) while forgetting that we were (and are) emigrants first.

Immigration reform is a double-edged sword. Some Republicans, and Trump especially, have embraced backwards, shortsighted policies that do more to hurt than help. But even Democrats and liberals advocating in favor of easing immigration restrictions limit their scope to its effects on one country: the U.S.

And it has been going on for decades:

The level of social consciousness among immigrants and immigration advocates is sometimes lost when it comes to our identities as emigrants. We rally together, stay home from work and school, and close local shops—all in a justified rebuke of hateful and harmful immigration policies. But why has there never been a #DayWithoutEmigrants, so to speak, where we go to work or school and send our earnings or daily budget to families, communities, governments or other initiatives in our native countries?

In its 2016 Migration and Remittances Factbook, the World Bank estimated that 32% (about one-third) of Hondurans that emigrate are tertiary (college) educated. The World Bank’s DataBank shows that college enrollment rate for Honduras in 2014 was only 21%. It’s worse in other countries. In Guyana, enrollment in college was at 12.5% in 2012, but a whopping 93% of its emigrants are college-educated. Our highly educated populations in Latin American countries —many countries with struggling education systems— are leaving in droves. Most are coming to the States.

The economic impact of immigration in the U.S. has been studied extensively, and despite claims by politicians that migrants hurt the economy, data suggests otherwise. The Penn Wharton Budget Model, a nonpartisan research initiative by the University of Pennsylvania, points out that immigration leads to “more innovation, a better educated workforce,” and, overall, a stronger economy.

But what about the other side of this coin? In 2002, The Economist published a piece on the “brain drain” in South America, where there was an exodus of highly educated migrants coming to the United States. As a result, companies and factories in the region lowered hiring requirements and raised wages to attract workers, which opened positions to a wider labor force, but also limited budgets, innovation, and, ultimately, growth. These companies thus find it more difficult to compete with larger foreign corporations, and can expect lose more of the highly skilled work force over time.

The cycle continues.

Many point to remittances, the money sent from one country to another, as part of a solution. Remittances have eclipsed the value of foreign aid sent to developing countries, and in Mexico, they have surpassed the oil industry as the country’s main source of foreign income. But since most of this money is sent to families, who need to spend it on basic necessities rather than investing directly into their countries. And as years and generations go by, migrants send less money back home.

I am also not advocating against emigration. Nor am I advocating against protests like yesterday’s. Trump’s wall, ICE deportation raids, and the hateful rhetoric permeating politics should all be rejected in favor of a more inclusive society.

What I am advocating against is a stale immigration debate, on both sides of the political spectrum and within the Latino community as well, that seeks nothing more than to benefit one country—the U.S. We need a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a migrant, in this country, but also within a global context. It will help us push for more comprehensive, and equitable reforms.

Ultimately, this comes down to us. The sheer economic power of remittances is testament alone to the potential individual migrants hold around the world. For financial, labor, or legal reasons, many migrants can’t invest or return to their countries of origin. For those of us who can, who are privileged enough to take advantage of the opportunities available to us in the U.S., we must ensure that individuals like us in Latin America can enjoy the same opportunities without having to leave their own countries.

Many politicians argue that immigrants already make the U.S. great, and contribute to making it even stronger every day—and they are right, we do. But, even if it is only on a personal level, it is still worthwhile to ask ourselves: when we come to study, work, and spend our lives here, the U.S. wins, but who loses?

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Miguel Salazar is a journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow him on Twitter at @miguels93.

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