Immigration, emigration and retromigration

In recent years, Americans of all political stripes have become deeply concerned with immigration policy. Like most issues of our times, immigration seems to generate intense emotion, but little rational thought.

And, as with most issues in our times, the elephant in the room is the influence of big corporate interests. The present immigration mess exists because, for decades, it has suited large corporations to have tough-sounding laws that are not enforced. This guarantees agribusiness, big developers and road builders, among others, an endless supply of cheap workers unable to demand the same wages and benefits as American citizens, and unlikely to complain about violations of laws protecting worker safety, public health and the environment.

But immigration to the United States, important as it is, pales in significance compared with the impending crisis of lower rates of immigration, together with growing rates of retromigration among highly-educated and skilled individuals.

This problem first attracted my attention thanks to a 2005 op-ed column in the New York Times. In this piece, author Suketu Mehta, who immigrated to the United States from India with his parents when he was 14, explained why he insists that his American-born children study Hindi. It’s a fascinating article, which is why it has stuck with me all this time. I’ve included a link at the end of this piece.

In brief, Mehta’s argument was that American-born children in certain, highly-successful immigrant communities may soon begin making their way back to the countries their parents or grandparents left, and for the same reason: Opportunity.

In today’s global economy, countries such as India, Taiwan, South Korea and Brazil can offer professional and business opportunities competitive with those available in the United States. Their schools and universities, for those with the wealth or talent to get into them, are often more challenging and effective than America’s educational institutions.

Thus, it makes perfect sense for Mehta to have his children study Hindi – in case they someday wish to apply to an Indian university and/or pursue a career in the “old country.”

Thus far, retromigration has not become a significant trend. Kids who have grown up in the United States are naturally reluctant to pull up their roots and emigrate to a society with unfamiliar laws and customs and, often, a very different climate. This is especially true if, in the case of young people educated in the United States and returning to India, the ability to compete will require considerable remedial study.

But if we’re a decade of two away from seeing a serious trend toward retromigration, we can expect to see another trend much earlier: A decline in the willingness of highly-educated and highly-qualified foreigners to immigrate to our country in the first place. And in many key fields – including science, technology and medicine – a drop-off in immigration would be an enormous shock to our way of life.

Yet if America does not take decisive steps toward reviving its economy and reforming its educational system, we’re likely to see three increasingly devastating phases of this demographic shift: First, a drop-off in the immigration of highly-educated and skilled talent; second, retromigration of first- and second-generation Americans with roots in rising economic powers; and third, the emigration of young Americans from long-established communities in pursuit of opportunities abroad.

Nor should anyone doubt the possibility of such trends developing. With the exception of African-Americans, almost everyone now living in this country came here, or is descended from people who came here, seeking economic opportunity. Our immigrant forebears chose to pay the price of leaving behind the societies in which they had grown up. Often, they faced the challenges of learning a new language, dealing with discrimination and beginning over at the bottom of the economic and social ladder.

Still, they came, and it’s naïve to imagine that the rising generation of young Americans will consider itself chained to this country if it sees greener pastures abroad.

This possibility should be of greatest concern to Americans of my generation and to the Gen-Xers now raising and educating their children. We have, by our complacency, allowed our schools to stagnate. We have failed to join the advanced nations of the world in establishing an adequate health care system that covers every citizen while attempting to curb costs.

Most of all, we have, by demanding ever more from our government while refusing to pay for it, burdened future generations of Americans with enormous levels of debt.

Why should be we surprised if, at some date in the near future, the best and brightest of the rising generation – newly-arrived or long-established – elect to leave us to deal with the problems we have created for ourselves?

Why should we doubt that many young Americans would prefer to start their own careers and families in some country with a booming economy, better schools, universal health care and a manageable public debt?

Suketu Mehta’s piece is at

More of ‘Rick’s writing is available at


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