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Perspective on Immigration : Diversity Is Key to Staying Ahead : Immigration: Tapping into the skills of immigrants can help the United States retain its premier spot in the global marketplace.

<i> Gareth C. C. Chang is corporate senior vice president of Hughes Electronics Corp., Los Angeles</i>

The melting pot is getting stirred up again. Since 1965, the yearly number of immigrants to the United States has quadrupled. At the same time, the percentage of arrivals from Europe has decreased significantly, while the proportion from Asia and Latin America has soared.

Although 94% of Americans are native-born, the tide of newcomers is changing our makeup. Asian Americans, for instance, will rise from 3% to 5% of the population by 2000.

Understandably, some Americans have difficulty with such changes. We see it in the insensitive jokes and remarks of public figures, in the call by one presidential candidate for a halt in immigration, in the fears about “Balkanization” of the United States.

What gets lost in these reactions is that a continuous influx of qualified and legal immigrants is critical for our future. Without it, our economic progress will be stalled. And even with it, we impede our potential by not getting beyond our racial and ethnic differences. Our diversity offers a rich source of creativity and business opportunity, if only we would tap into it.

Immigrants have been one of the major engines for enterprise in the United States. Cast into a strange land where they had to interact with other cultures, many immigrants were stimulated to develop an entrepreneurial spirit. Their efforts helped push our economy and culture to the leadership position it holds today.

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Immigrants are also a key link to capturing foreign markets. Emerging markets such as China, India, Indonesia and Turkey are expected to account for three-fourths of world trade growth in the next 20 years. Firms that wish to thrive, or even survive, must compete in these markets. But the competition is fierce. Liberalized global trading rules and the end of the Cold War have opened these markets to all comers.

Immigrants give us a ready source of knowledge of these markets. And the more recent the immigrant, the better the knowledge. For instance, such insider information would have prevented the costly mistake of an American telecommunications company that shipped off-the-shelf phone switching equipment to China. The switches, designed for American use, were quickly overwhelmed by the much higher number of calls per phone and the longer duration of each call in China. Chinese users often could not get a dial tone.

We can no longer simply export our products and expect them to find ready customers. If we are to beat our foreign competitors, we must tailor our products and services for individual nations and cultures.

A world economy that requires inter-cultural input for success plays right into the hands of a “nation of immigrants” like the United States. But to fully tap into this human wealth, we have to learn to be more inclusive. One can only wonder how much stronger we would be if we had assimilated the creativity and entrepreneurship of “non-mainstream” groups, like Asian Americans, Latin Americans and African Americans, as we have that of Swedes, Germans, Irish and British.

As the world comes closer together as a single marketplace, our differences of origin will ultimately fade and seem more like different approaches to common goals. But we have it in us now to speed up the process, to see beyond our current ethnic and racial tensions to the wealth of potential we have in our diverse makeup. I’ve seen it happen on a small scale, among top executives of various origins. Put together people who have matured to where they can see the minds beyond the facial differences, and it’s amazing what a caldron of ideas can be created.

Good business sense, as well as social insight, would urge us to do this sooner rather than later.


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