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[Daniel Moss] US can live up to ideals that draw immigrants

For all the angst about America falling behind China, Dallas Fed Chairman Robert Kaplan offers a powerful and timely reminder of an American competitive advantage.

One of the biggest things the US has going for it is immigration. Try making a case for that in, say, China or Japan, and you will quickly run into a brick wall. Japan’s demographic challenges have been well documented. And far from being a bottomless pool of cheap labor, China’s workforce is starting to shrink -- and become more expensive. Both would benefit from immigration if they could attract talent like the US does.

“You don’t like to screw up your distinctive competencies,” Kaplan told a breakfast audience, my colleague Jeanna Smialek included, at a Dallas community college event on Aug. 18.

True enough. And Kaplan’s point can’t be made too many times. But let’s take a step back and ask: Amid all the rancor in America about the pros and cons of immigration -- legal or otherwise -- why are people trying to come to the US?

The headlines certainly don’t paint the US as a paradise. Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio’s observations about the depth of divisions in this great land are sobering because they resonate.

As an immigrant to the US -- and as a student of and admirer of the nation -- I have shuddered at the coarsening of our national conversation. That certainly didn’t start with last year’s election, but it has been amplified since.

Most anecdotes about immigration focus on the archetypal service industry worker, construction hand or farm laborer wanting a better life for their children, or those fleeing tyranny or persecution in their homeland. Those are powerful stories and, rightly, woven into the fabric of American identity. For many of these people, America looms in the imagination as a promised land. Many came with nothing and became something.

But that sepia-framed vision doesn’t account for everyone taking the oath of allegiance or receiving a green card. There’s a whole professional class here because it’s long been the world’s largest economy, and American companies have historically tended to be leaders in their field.

Like me, they are here for aspiration. They came not because they were desperate, but because they wanted to take a crack at performing in the world’s most dynamic and competitive marketplace.

Many skilled immigrants to the US came from democracies, with rule of law and civil rights. We already had the right to live our lives and raise our families in safety and security. We weren’t huddled and weren’t yearning to be free. Coming here was about trying to be your best.

This reality is lost on at least one side in America’s screaming match about immigration. Do Americans still aspire to be the best, to attract the best talent in the world to the most competitive market? It seems more often that Americans want to make sure the guys on the other side of the argument don’t win. Whatever the cost. Whatever the topic.

The judge who swore me and about 100 other people in that spring morning in a New York courtroom last year shared a personal story with us. Her parents were just like us, she said. They brought her to America as a child -- in this case from Taiwan -- because she could have opportunities here that would never present themselves in the place of her birth. I remember thinking at the time that perhaps the judge had missed the news that Taiwan had elected its first female president.

Maybe the contrast between America and the rest of the world was never as stark as the folklore suggested. But I sincerely hope that America is still a place where people of great aspiration can prosper. A place capable of trying big things, capable of making big mistakes, capable of greatness.

The world is still watching. America can still live up to its reputation.

By Daniel Moss

Daniel Moss writes and edits articles on economics for Bloomberg View. -- Ed.