Thanks to Donald Trump, many at the right-wing fringe of the Republican party peddle fear about immigration. To hear them tell it, we are in jeopardy of being overrun by benefit-stealing, swarthy criminals from south of the border. But this is a false narrative designed only to reap political advantage among an older, conservative political base. Scratch the surface of this anti-immigration narrative and you will find racism.
Fortunately, this nativism is not broadly shared in America — surveys by the Pew Research Center found that 59% of Americans believe that immigrants make our country stronger. And the pro-immigration sentiment is even higher in communities where immigrants live. To understand why we need only consider the facts. Immigration is not only helpful to the nation in the short run, it will be essential for our economic future. We need more immigration.
Today, the U.S. population is roughly 330 million, although the rate of increase has declined. New data from the Census Bureau show that our population has basically flatlined, growing only .12% in the year ending July 1, 2021. Eighteen states showed actual population losses during the same period. West Virginia has either tread water or lost population for decades running. The U.S. has been below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman since 1970.
Our population is growing older. Among six age groups — 0 to 4, 5 to 19, 20 to 34, 35 to 49, 50 to 64, and 65 and older — the 65+ group was the fastest growing between 2010 and 2021 with its population increasing 38%. The 0 to 4 age group declined the most, dropping 6.7% between 2010 and 2021.
The harm from these population trends is real. As older workers age out of the workforce, there will be too few younger workers to replace them. This will disrupt the labor market, reduce economic activity and wealth in general, and reduce income tax revenues. And here is a dirty secret about social security. Your benefits aren’t paid for by your own contributions, they are paid for by the contributions of workers who come after you. If there are fewer of them, the insolvency date for the social security system looms closer.
So maybe we should stop being afraid of immigration and begin seeing it as a tool to solve some of our problems. Adding immigrants can quickly improve the ratio of working to nonworking people. Immigration also helps with fertility rates. Foreign born people make up 13% of the U.S. population, but account for 23% of the births. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that without immigration and births to foreign-born mothers, the U.S. population would decline about 6 million between 2014 and 2060. With them it is forecast to grow by 98 million.
Increasing immigration doesn’t mean opening the borders to undocumented multitudes. We have an immigration system and it needs to be reformed so that it advances all our goals — border security as well as greater immigration of the right kind.
Trump’s absurd policy sought to reduce immigration of all kinds, even lawful immigration by highly skilled people. This runs counter to the approach of the smarter developed countries like Canada and New Zealand, whose policies promote immigration of skilled workers and will allow them to compete economically for decades to come.
But even the immigration of unskilled workers can help us. Despite increased automation, our farm economy needs farm workers. And unskilled immigrants fill positions throughout the economy that native workers can’t or won’t.
As for all these people lined up at our southern border? They want to work. Finding a fair way to accommodate that would not snatch jobs from native Americans or reduce wages. We are at full employment of native workers as it is. Ask any business owner how difficult it is to find people willing to work these days.
Recently a comprehensive bill addressing immigration was introduced in the House of Representatives by a bi-partisan group. The bill offers a solution for the asylum crisis at the southern border, funding several U.S. asylum campuses where hundreds of new asylum officers would rule on applications within a short time. Those whose applications are denied would be removed from the country.
The bill also involves increased funding for border security and the creation of regional processing centers in key Latin American countries to deal with asylum seekers and economic migrants before they arrive at our border.
But significantly, the bill addresses our need for additional workers. It creates “dignity status” for undocumented people already in the U.S. with no criminal record, allowing them to work anywhere and have a path to citizenship after ten years. It would also create a renewable legal status for undocumented farm workers and increase the visas available for skilled workers. The bill is called The Dignity Act of 2023. I encourage you to read the summary online. There is a lot to like.