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Immigration in the 21st Century
W.E.B. DuBois Lecture, Humboldt University
Speech by Ambassador William R. Timken, Jr.
Berlin, July 10, 2006



President Markschies,
Professor Kaschuba,
Professor Lenz,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honor to participate in the W. E. B. DuBois lecture series. Like many of America’s civil rights heroes, DuBois forced America to confront some of the injustices in our society. His determination and eloquence spearheaded a grassroots movement to fight racial discrimination and prejudice in America. As one of his biographers said, DuBois was always one step ahead of himself -- troubled by America’s failings, but still committed to the idea of an American democracy true to itself. He never stopped asking difficult questions.

Just over one hundred years ago, W.E.B. DuBois published "The Souls of Black Folk,” a series of essays that examined America's struggle with race. One of the most well known passages from that book is where he describes what he calls a dual reality. “We ever feel our ‘two-ness’” he said, “two souls, two thoughts, two strivings, African and American, always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, measuring ourselves against a world that doesn't consider us”. By this double consciousness, I think DuBois was talking about the tension in American society as people assimilated to become one as Americans. He was, of course, referring to African Americans, but when he wrote this passage in 1903, it was at a time when immigration was at an all-time high. There were misgivings about “new” immigrants. Some citizens feared that their culture was being threatened or that they would lose their jobs to newcomers willing to accept low wages. For many new Euro-American immigrants, the question of how to be an Italian, a Jew, or an Irish person in America was very real.

The challenge of assimilation is a thread that runs through the fabric of American history. America has welcomed more immigrants than any other country in the world. The common culture of the United States has been shaped, reshaped, and often heavily debated by waves of newcomers of different origins. No one phrase captures the idea of the United States of America better than the words printed on the front of our Great Seal: “E Pluribus Unum” Out of many, one. This does not mean that we strive to all speak, worship, behave or look the same. America's multicultural society is certainly not perfect. There have been dark moments in American history that can be traced back to intolerance, and prejudices still challenge us today. But there are a vast number of American achievements which can be credited to our multicultural society and its reliance on law, justice and openness. America has become adept at drawing talent from the most diverse nationalities and backgrounds.

In America’s early days, Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s first statesmen, complained that Germans arriving in Philadelphia would, and I quote: “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them… They will never adopt our Language or Customs.” Unquote. He was wrong. The Germans did not “Germanize” anybody and were not “Anglified.” Immigrant integration means that both newcomers and established residents change. British immigrants became Americans; just as German immigrants also became Americans. Today, in fact, more Americans claim German ancestry – including myself – than any other group. These numbers are, however, in a state of flux. The rate and diversity of contemporary immigration are rapidly changing America's racial and ethnic mixture.

We have not seen such levels of immigration for the last hundred years. Millions of new immigrants have entered the United States over the past decade -- some one million people per year. Today, one in nine people living in America is an immigrant, born in some other nation. As a percentage of our total population, the highest number since 1910.

This new wave of immigration has again sparked an intense debate in the United States. Some embrace today's relatively open-door policy as the continuation of a long-standing tradition in the United States of laying out the welcome mat to newcomers who seek the American promise of freedom and economic opportunity. Some point out that an illegal immigrant’s first act is to break American law. Others question the wisdom of allowing so many new immigrants into the country, fearing, again, that cherished traditions and values will be eroded, especially since there has been a significant shift in immigrant countries of origins. According to the 2000 Census, America is ethnically, racially, culturally, and linguistically more diverse than ever before in its history.

Immigrants in the first two decades of the 20th century came mainly from southern and eastern European countries. The immigrants, who have arrived in the last two decades, come from Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa. Hispanics have increased to nearly 14 percent of the entire American population. By mid-century, it is projected that Hispanics will constitute 24 percent of the nation’s total population.

The America to which today’s new immigrants come is a very different society than that which greeted the Irish, Italians, Poles, Russians, and Greeks who came in the 1800s and early 1900s. The demand for strong immigrant backs to build new industries and cities is past, replaced by the need for technological expertise and the skills required to compete for new, more demanding jobs. Today education is even more crucial in the assimilation process. That is another parallel to DuBois. He believed that the most potent weapon against racism was education and supplying people with the life training they need -- not only to gain good careers, but to build a strong economic force within their communities. Incidently, I am convinced that greater educational attainment combined with life-long learning capability is absolutely essential to deal with another great issue - globalization.

Educational attainment is another benchmark to measure the diversity of immigrants. Many of today's immigrants came illegally and have taken low-skill, low-paying jobs. Others have come to join family members or as refugees. Still others, highly educated, entered the U.S. labor market as skilled, well-paid professionals in the fields of technology, science, and medicine. Perhaps you remember the Vietnamese boat people granted refuge in the U.S. after the turmoil in Indo-China. The mothers and fathers were totally illiterate. An amazing number of their children graduated from high schools at the top of their class. They got scholarships to our leading universities, today they are among our American leaders as doctors, scientists etc., raising their American families.

DuBois’s concept of double consciousness, formulated at the start of the 20th century, indeed has new meaning at the start of the 21st.

So, what does this new immigration mean for America in the 21st century? Clearly, Europeans and Americans have a major challenge that must be addressed. There is no way to avoid it.

The direct economic costs and benefits to the United States in absorbing millions of new immigrants, especially poorly educated ones, are a subject of intense debate among scholars of immigration. I side with those who maintain that the pace of recent U.S. economic growth owes much to immigrant labor. Since 1990, immigrants have contributed to job growth in three main ways: They fill an increasing share of jobs overall. They take jobs in labor-scarce regions. And, they fill the types of jobs native workers often shun. The foreign-born make up only 11.3 percent of the U.S. population yet 14 percent of the labor force. Half the net increase in the total number of persons in the labor force came from immigrants. They are keeping our Nation young and productive.

We also want to be able to interest highly trained workers and students. Our country increasingly competes with other countries to recruit and retain the best most highly skilled minds. This is not a zero-sum game. People will start their innovative businesses in the United States – or return to the countries we compete with. Recruiting the world's most talented people to the United States increases our entrepreneurship, our international competitiveness, and -- according to every major study of this issue -- will net many high-paying jobs for all Americans. We value diversity.

Another issue is national security and preventing terrorists from entering the United States, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. This is an added element in the immigration issue. We are also concerned about illegal immigration. Attempting to enter the U.S. illegally makes migrants vulnerable to abuse by traffickers and smugglers. These criminals are causing deaths amongst poor people. President Bush is addressing these and other issues in his immigration reform initiative. There are two cornerstones to his program: first, to make sure that we have an immigration system that works and is fair and orderly; secondly, to encourage people to assimilate. We expect newcomers to develop an appreciation of our history and to write and speak the English language. English is the key to unlocking opportunity.

It does not mean that the federal government will start to recognize immigrants as a category of persons with an entitlement, because of their status, to language classes, job-training programs, housing, or subsistence payments. We expect that immigrants will find their way with the assistance of family and friends; that they will find jobs in America’s dynamic and elastic labor market; and that as they settle in, they will create integrating ties for themselves. This takes place through participation in the community activities of houses of worship, the school activities of their children, night-school English classes for themselves, community associations, local sports, and building friendships with their neighbors and co-workers. We hope that they will find it easy to become new Americans as older Americans show respect for them as human beings, taking an interest in their customs; they must be greeted with tolerance and acceptance. Our society must give them a fair chance to get ahead by working hard.

Assimilation of immigrants is, however, not a one-way street. As we have seen time and time again, immigrants change, but they also change America. The National Association of Manufacturers, an organization I used to be associated with, has a regular feature on their website. Every week, they profile one immigrant in their Passport to Prosperity series to highlight the contributions that immigrants have made to virtually every aspect of American society.

These concerns over immigration now affect a much wider number of nations than was the case one hundred years ago. The United Nations estimates that some 175-200 million persons currently reside outside the country of their birth. This represents about 3% of the world’s population. This figure is approximately double what it was in 1975, and the trend continues upward, particularly in Europe.

Large numbers of people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa lack the opportunities for self-improvement, for example, that most Europeans take for granted. They see Europe as a land of opportunity – just as the potential of the New World once attracted tens of millions of enterprising Europeans. By the same token, European societies need immigrants. Europeans are living longer and having fewer children. The combined population of the member states of the European Union is projected to drop, from about 450 million to 400 million in 2050. Other countries face similar possible futures – where jobs would go unfilled and services undelivered as economies shrink and societies stagnate. Immigration alone will not solve these problems, but it is an essential part of any solution.

Managing immigration will, however, require countries to come up with strategies for integrating immigrants to ensure that they can become part of the civil society in their new country.

We don’t know all the answers, but we do think that we have some interesting models. For most Americans, an America without immigrants is inconceivable.

Confidence and optimism in the attractions of the American way of life have been a constant in our history. Immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families renew our faith in the American Dream.

That is why one of my priorities as Ambassador is to expand the opportunities for dialogue about some of these American models.

We are working with teachers, librarians and social workers to discuss best practices in creating opportunities for assimilation.

We are also working with German schools. For example one project is a high school business plan competition run by Berlin’s American-German Business Club. We want to involve schools that might also be good partners for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a U.S.-based organization which helps low income youth build entrepreneurial skills.

As we speak, our Consul General in Duesseldorf, George Knowles, is hosting a barbecue for a group of 10 minority students from a Duesseldorf Hauptschule that has just returned from a two week visit to the United States. This is a new program called “Windows on America.” It is a public-private initiative -- meaning that the Embassy arranges the program and corporate and private donations pay the expenses. We had a great response to Windows on America, and more groups of kids will be going.

Last week we had a reverse visit. Some American Muslims came to speak with Berlin high schoolers, again mostly from minority backgrounds. The kids were very articulate about their “twoness” – to quote W.E.B. DuBois. They brought up, for example, the World Cup matches and how soccer gave them a way to feel German. By the way, I would like to congratulate Germany and the German people for truly living up to the motto, “A Time to Make Friends.” What better example of how diversity can make a society more creative, more interesting, more stimulating, and more fun than Germany’s experience during the last 4 weeks with the World Cup.

There are many ways – perhaps not all as much fun as the World Cup – to approach the historical opportunities offered by globalization. The rewards are there for any country that can draw upon the talents of peoples from around the world. We believe that a nation built upon tolerance and respect for individual beliefs is a nation that is built to last. We also believe that America’s good fortune is in no small measure tied to the genius of those who have come to our shores from somewhere else. Diverse societies -- when they are open and free -- are breeding grounds for creativity. And perhaps even more rewarding is the benefit diversity brings to the quality of all our lives.

Sometimes we are reminded how fortunate we really are today. Several days ago the International Herald Tribune ran a very interesting article on immigration. The American reporter interviewed a former illegal Guatemalan immigrant who has struggled for 25 years to be a successful legal American immigrant. His final words to the reporter were: “This country is tough, you have to work really hard, but you have a chance to make it. To be honest, maybe I love this country more than you do.” Now that is a statement to think about.

Vielen Dank. Thank you.

(As prepared for delivery)


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Updated: August 2006