Cracking open the door

Pop Rocket, May 2013

It's starting to look like Republicans, at least at the national level, are losing enthusiasm for their anti-immigrant strategy andcracking open the door to positive reform for our immigration system. This may be happening largely out of fresh respect for the expanding power of the nonwhite vote — there's nothing like an electoral spanking to get a pol's attention — but beyond the fairness issues, a host of factors make this kind of reform important to both our economy and each of us personally.
     Sure, it's all the rage to think that we already have too many foreigners knocking around for the number of jobs we have available. But big changes are near at hand that will dump that idea into the bin with economic isolationism and doubleknit bell-bottoms.
     Last year the Labor Department released a projection that labor-force growth will fall by 7% between 2010 and 2020against the previous decade. Currently more than 200,000 baby-boomers are leaving the labor force every month, and that exodus will continue for a couple of decades. The Defense Department projects, "Over the next several years, the Federal Government will experience the largest unplanned exodus of middle and senior management talent in the history of our nation as significant numbers of older workers currently in federal service become retirement-eligible. … eventually the need to replace outgoing expertise, and to fill newly created jobs, will result in a significant demand for talent within the labor market."
     It may be difficult to imagine a surplus of jobs with unemployment nationwide still drifting down from eight percent, but the demographics are inevitable and this is just around the corner in economic terms.
     The aging-workforce problem is not new. Germany and Japan are already deep into it, and it's coming on for the rest of Europe and developed Asia just as it is here. It scares economists because when a population has too few workers, the tax base shrinks and capital, which can only do so much to increase productivity, has to seek resources elsewhere. This further hollows out the industrial base, potentially leading to a cascade effect that makes us all steadily poorer, making recovery that much harder.
     Things are looking up for educated and connected workers, who can look forward to a seller's market for skilled talent as the boomers hit their deck chairs. But younger Americans are generally neither aspiring to nor training for the manufacturing, service and craft jobs that other boomers are leaving as well. Beyond the obvious need for construction and agricultural workers, business will be looking to fill a lot of middle-class jobs over the first half of this century.
     Where business can't find talent and can't export the job, the invisible hand says it has to pay more for the work, certainly at least encouraging inflation. This may not be so bad for well-off retirees relying on asset values for income, but it's clear that will describe a minority of boomers. Only a productive, moderately expansive economy can keep the costs of maintaining a large elder population from impoverishing us all.
     As columnist Christopher Matthews wrote recently in Time Business, "Steady population growth is a good thing for the economy. New entrants to the workforce don't just supply labor, they also demand it," creating more vibrant economic activity. But higher rates of education and higher average incomes typically depress the birth rate, so where will we get those new entrants? From outside the country, that's where.
     The immigration bill currently under consideration in Congress is designed primarily to address the status of the roughly 11 million undocumented already living and working here. That's good as far as it goes, and it will help in terms of regularizing tax contributions, wage levels and legal compliance in all sorts of ways. But in looking at new visas, the bill only opens a few tens of thousand slots. This approach will be woefully inadequate to meeting demand for millions more skilled and assimilated workers between 2020 and 2050. Despite high-ish unemployment and underemployment right now, we're already falling behind for the future.     People cross our borders illegally to work because we've set arbitrary limits on legal immigration that do not meet the real demand for workers. It's only practical to look ahead at our needs, open the door a little wider, and make it easier for immigrants to live and work here legally, learn the ropes and build the experience and training necessary to work their way up.
     We have to get past the idea that "immigrant" necessarily means "wants to be a citizen." The "path-to-citizenship" centerpiece of the legislation is a comfort feature, implying that the foreign-born will become more like us, but for the foreign-born it's not a core interest. Speaking as a former illegal worker myself, what matters to them first is a prosperous life free of official harassment and employer exploitation, like everybody else.
     Meeting those needs isn't hard. We use the systems we already have in place, change the target numbers and give more immigrants legal working status. The result will be a richer, healthier economy for the long term.
     The baby-boom bubble is passing. It's time to look more closely at returning to our heritage as a nation of immigrants. We're gonna need them.

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