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A nation of immigrants

Warren Coats Contributor
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I have had to remind myself of late that there is much to be proud of as an American. And I have not been prouder for a long time than I was Tuesday night listening to this year’s recipients of the Merage Foundation for the American Dream’s National Leadership Awards. Paul Merage family’s foundation is dedicated to “Helping Immigrants Join Mainstream America.” Mr. Merage is himself an immigrant from Iran, which he left in 1979 by necessity. But his choice to settle in the United States was his, and the Merage Foundation is one of his ways of expressing thanks for the opportunities that opened up to him here and to give something back to help keep America the dynamic, innovative home to immigrants that has been such an important component of our success as a nation.

America is the wealthiest nation on earth because it is the most productive. Many other countries provide us with first class competition these days. We will retain our markets and our edge only through remaining productive and innovative. We will be the best only as long as our workers and entrepreneurs are the best trained, best equipped, and best incentivized to continually perfect processes and innovate.

America is exceptional among nations in that it is almost totally a nation of immigrants – self selected immigrants who chose to come to our environment in which they were free to work hard and experiment. Mr. Merage noted that immigrants must change to adapt to their new homes and that a culture of change is good for innovation. In our globalized, highly competitive market, innovation is our competitive edge. Mr. Merage stated that those who say that America’s best days are behind her are wrong. They are wrong because of the continual infusion of enthusiasm and innovation from a never-ending inflow of eager new immigrants.

Mr. Merage also noted that no nation can receive new immigrants without some trepidation and worry about how they will fit in and adapt to its culture and ways. Fear is a powerful emotion. Mr. Merage noted that we can all understand the fears of Arizonans and others over whether our relatively open borders are letting in the wrong people. Fear can cloud good judgment, for example, about who are criminals and where they come from. But America remains the most welcoming of all countries to our great benefit. Its can do spirit and the general decency of its people are magnets for the world’s best and brightest and most hard working. The Merage Foundation is dedicated to helping them assimilate successfully.

This years winners of the National Leadership Awards where: Eric Benhamou (Algeria), Chairman and CEO of Benhamou Global Ventures, cofounder of Bridge Communications, and CEO of 3Com and Palm; Amador S. Bustos (Mexico), Chairman and CEO of Bustos Media in California; Roger Cohen (England), Columnist for the New York Times; Gloria Estefan (Cuba), singer, composer and author; Dikembe Mutombo (Congo), Former NBA star; Arnold Schwarzenegger (Austria), Governor of California and former Terminator; and Ahmed H. Zewail (Egypt), Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1999. The event was cosponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and I am grateful to my friend Steve Meeter for inviting me.

Each winner addressed us with touching stories of how and why they came to America and how they flourished here financially and spiritually. The Terminator spoke to us by video because of the elections in California that day. Most of them expressed understanding but sadness that fear had pushed Arizona to trample on some cherished American qualities of openness to immigrants. Sorting out a proper balance and policy toward immigration is not and will not be easy but it is a critical, pressing need.

The most dramatic address was by Dr. Halel Esfandiari, Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Middle East Program. At last years awards dinner, Ms. Esfandiari was in prison in Tehran, where she had been since May 8, 2007. She had returned to her native Iran in December 2006 to visit her 93-year-old mother. The blood curdling story of her arrest and imprisonment can be found on the Woodrow Wilson center website.  She told us that those at last year’s awards dinner had prayed for her release and here she was. Keep those prayers coming, she said, there is so much more to do.

Paul Merage summed up the spirit of the evening by noting that the symbol of America must remain the welcoming Statue of Liberty, not The Wall (pick your favorite).

Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003, where he led technical assistance missions to central banks in more than twenty countries. He is a Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Banks of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kenya for the IMF and is a Director of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority. His most recent book, “One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” was published in November 2007. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago and lives in Bethesda, Md.