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Immigration and the Graying of America
by Gary Endelman

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP Amoco Corporation. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP Amoco Corporation in any way.

February 08, 2000 -- As the massive baby boomer generation slouches towards retirement, an aging population needs the fountain of youth. Immigration may be the magic elixir. The US Census Bureau estimates that the number of elderly people over age 65 could rise from 34.6 million today to 82 million by the year 2050. This trend will be most evident between 2011 and 2030 when those baby boomers born from the late 1940's to the early 1960's hit retirement age. Census experts predict that the number of senior citizens over this period will soar from 13% to 20% of the population. During the same time, the number of foreign-born people living in the United States should dramatically increase, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the general population. Their number should grow from 26 million today to 53.8 million by the year 2050, an increase from 10 to 13% of the population. If these census statistics are correct, continued high levels of immigration will be necessary to provide a large enough workforce to support a rapidly aging America. A recent Census Bureau report predicts the immigrants will become a majority in Texas within the next 14 years; five states will have a majority of non-White residents by 2025 and, in the course of the next half-century, Latinos may comprise about 25% of the entire US population. That's a lot of folks and they will no longer be concentrated in a select number of states, such as California, New York, Texas, or Florida, but will be distributed throughout the nation. They will be the deciding votes in elections on all levels and their voice will be a strong and powerful one in setting the political agenda.

There is a critical labor shortage in America. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that the unemployment rate fell to 4% in January, the lowest it has been in 30 years; the economy created 50% more new jobs than economists had expected. The experts had predicted non-farm jobs to grow by 255,000, while 387,000 new workers cashed a paycheck. Paul Kasriel, chief economist at Northern Trust Bank in Chicago, spoke of retailers actually "hoarding" labor and told the New York Times that the nation seemed on the verge of a total labor shortage.  In testimony before the House Banking Committee, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the high priest of our sustained national boom, told legislators in no uncertain terms that expanding legal immigration to this country was the answer to the labor crunch in both the agricultural and high tech sectors:

"Not only in high-tech and in the farm area but throughout the country, aggregate demand is putting pressure on an ever decreasing supply of unemployed labor. One obvious means one can use to offset that is expanding the number of people we allow in either generally or in focused areas. I think an appraisal of our immigration policies in this regard is on the table...So I think that reviewing our immigration laws in the context of the type of economy that we will be enjoying in the decade ahead is clearly on the table."

In 1998, the National Immigration Forum joined with the Cato Institute to publish a study by Stephen Moore on the fiscal impact of immigration. What he found was startling and directly relevant to the problem so much on the mind of Chairman Greenspan. Most immigrants arrive in the United States in the floodtide of their working years; more than 70% of them are over age 18 when they get here. Stephen Moore estimated that there were roughly 17.5 million immigrants now in America whose education was paid for by their home countries, not US taxpayers. He concluded that this represented an infusion of unearned human capital worth some $1.43 trillion into the US economy .At a time when fewer and fewer wage earners will have to be paying for growing retirement benefits enjoyed by more and more elderly, it is worth remembering that the total net benefit to the Social Security system from keeping our current immigration levels right where they are now would be nearly $500 billion for the 1998-2022 period and almost an astonishing $2 trillion through the year 2072! Immigration is an essential strategy that responsible policy makers must use in a robust way to solve the systemic problem of financing Social Security. Immigrants add some $10 billion every year to our national coffers and, in 1997 alone, paid an estimated $133 billion in direct taxes to all levels of government. A 1998 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the average skill level of legal immigrants from 1975-1995 actually rose faster than that of native-born Americans. While much press and political attention has been directed towards the very real, and growing, high tech shortage, not enough concern has been registered on the need for more employees in the hospitality and consumer service sectors of our economy. In a recent speech in Nashville, Tennessee, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the US Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donahue, predicted that the economy would need 52 million new workers over the coming decade and that 30 million of these would have to come from outside the existing workforce.

At a time when the economy needs more immigrants, the INS is giving it less. Out of a commendable desire to turn out more citizens, the Service has lengthened the average waiting period for a green card application from 21 months in August 1998 to about 33 months now, according to Eileen Schmitt, an INS spokesperson in Washington, DC. This, of course, is only the final stage known as "adjustment of status"; add in the labor certification and immigrant visa petition processes, and you are nudging close to 5-6 years, during which no promotions are allowed in many cases, so that the careers of the alien beneficiaries are put on hold and intelligent business planning becomes impossible. The INS simply cannot keep up, thus serving as a drag on the very economic expansion that has created the demand for more immigration in the first place. From 1995-1999, according to Donna Coultice, Director of the INS California Service Center, while the number of employment-based immigrant petitions jumped by 80%, she could only hire 25% more INS adjudicators to handle the avalanche of new filings. The will to clear out the backlog is there, but not the bodies. The larger point is not that Service gridlock makes life difficult for the immigrant, but fails to serve the legitimate interests of American workers and employers by tightening the choke hold on the supply of qualified labor that the nation so desperately needs to breathe.

In a recent poll conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Group for USA Today and Public Television, despite all of the furor over immigration in recent years, public support for it remains strong and steady. Only 36% of those polled said that immigration should be reduced as compared to 65% in 1993. When the nativist Federation for American Immigration Reform ran a series of immigrant-bashing television advertisements during the recent Iowa caucuses, it backfired badly. Texas Governor Bush, Vice President Gore and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack joined to denounce them, perhaps the only time that they agreed on anything. While the embers of xenophobia smolder in many communities, and especially on the House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee, it seems that most Americans not only need, but accept, the need for legal immigration. If only their government did.