Recently I visited the Tenement Museum in New York City and learned something new about immigrants to this country.

Eager to become like other Americans even before they could speak much English, they would purchase new clothes as soon as they had a few spare dollars. By dressing like other Americans, they believed they would be taken for people who had integrated into the national culture.

“They became Americans through consumerism,” said our guide.

That remark struck a familiar note. As the United States struggles to emerge from the Great Recession, economists focus much attention on the need to revive consumer spending. They estimate that about 70 percent of the American economy is driven by what people buy for their own use.

If the hallmark of the American economy is consumer spending, what we need is more consumption. One good way to achieve more consumption is to have more consumers.

The story told at the museum showed that after the first generation established an economic foothold in America, their children found better jobs and prospered. The immigrants, through their hard work and their children, through their drive for a higher standard of living, became the engines of the incredible growth of the American economy.


From personal experience, I know that is true. More than 100 years ago, my grandparents were immigrants with almost no money, and I have realized their dream of life in America, including being a consumer.

We won’t have full recovery until people start buying at full strength again. And with better controls on some of the reckless lending practices that led to the economic downturn, people will have to work and spend their own hard-earned dollars more and borrowed money less.

We have experienced a new wave of immigrants, most of whom entered the country without the proper documents and without permission. They have become the object of one of the major political battles now facing the country. These immigrants, estimated at more than 10 million people, are here, and many are work the lowest-paying but essential jobs, just as immigrants have done for generations.

Instead of viewing them as a problem, they and their children could be seen as an opportunity. They are consumers as well as workers. If we settled their status, deporting those who are dodging their criminal past or seeking merely to draw benefits from the system, the rest would increasingly help with the recovery and long-term growth of the economy.

Of course, some people oppose accepting the illegal immigrants because they are different from other Americans and because if they stay they will change the country.

There is nothing new about this sentiment. The anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party of 160 years ago argued that “America should be run by Americans.” By Americans, they meant to include only those born here.


The Know Nothings never won a major election, and the country did pretty well by admitting tens of millions of new Americans who helped change the country.

The United States became a wealthier, more diverse and stronger country. Perhaps we could work on solving two major issues — the economy and immigration — by viewing the problem of illegal immigrants as an economic more than a political issue.

A few weeks ago, the two issues met head-on. Arizona had enacted a controversial law, assigning its law enforcement officers to track down illegal immigrants, because it believed the federal government was not doing the job well enough. The state received a lot of publicity, some favorable, for this law, so it began to consider even tougher legislation.

The business community, however, opposed the new proposals. Groups were canceling plans for meetings, and families were avoiding vacations in Arizona because they did not like the new law. So business leaders prevailed on the Legislature to hold off. The anti-immigrant bills were shelved.

The message could not be missed. Issues cannot be viewed in isolation from one another. Arizona found one-way immigration and the economy are linked. Consumer spending is another.

Immigrants, illegal or otherwise, are not the only solution to the problems of the American economy. The United States has to sell more, not only to people within its borders, but also to those elsewhere.

We face tough competition from China, a country where both the economy and immigration are under government control. Instead of bickering about immigration, we probably would do better to focus our efforts on promoting consumption and innovation and showing that our open system, based on a partnership between the private and public sectors, is better able to create prosperity.

Gordon L. Weil, a weekly columnist for this newspaper, is an author, publisher, consultant and former international organization, U.S. and Maine government official.

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