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As America gets older, immigration could be key

In 2021, more than 1.5 million people came to the United States from more than 200 countries, including nearly 640,000 people who came looking for a job.

It was an unusually big year, immigration-wise. The pandemic was starting to ease up. Some (though not all) of the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies had just been rescinded.  And inflation, violence and environmental catastrophes were prompting a lot of people around the world to view the United States as a place to make a fresh start, an idea that’s been popular for much of the past two centuries.

The big immigration year of 2021 also was part of an immigration boom that’s been underway in the United States for three generations. Between 1965 and 2015, immigrants accounted for about 55% of America’s total population growth, according to a study by Pew Research. About 13.6% of the country’s current population was born in another country, a level last seen in 1920.

And Southern California is one of the most immigrant-friendly regions in an immigrant-friendly country. Almost 1 in 3 people who live in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties – nearly 5.2 million of the four-county population of 17.54 million – is foreign-born.

But what if they weren’t? What if, over the next few decades, the number of new arrivals to the United States was a lot smaller, or even close to zero?

It’s a question that’s taking on new urgency as America’s aging boom kicks into high gear. While immigration policy has been a topic of political debate for a long time, and is likely to grow loud in the 2024 elections, ideas about whether we should welcome more or fewer new arrivals are only now starting to be viewed in the context of a second factor – age.

America, it turns out, is getting old. Fast.

Today, about 1 in 6 Americans is 65 or older, but by 2050 it’ll be nearly 1 in 4. Today, we have more children than retirees, but in the early 2030s, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections, that will flip. Today, the median age in the United States is about 39; by 2050 it’s expected to be nearly 44.

Bottom line: The U.S. population soon will resemble countries that currently are the world’s oldest – places like Japan, Italy and Finland. All are experiencing age-related economic problems, to varying degrees, and all are struggling to boost everything from economic productivity to birth rates.

And immigration.

Canada has launched a guest worker program, aimed at luring tech minds, among others. Finland has had a “Future of Migration” policy since 2020. Even Japan – which has a long history of rejecting most immigration – is now wooing foreign-born talent, which it labels “Specified Skilled Workers.” The program was launched after Japan’s economy struggled over the past three decades as its median age climbed to 49 and its retiree population has exploded.

Experts say in all those places, as well as in the United States, the need for younger workers – from anywhere in the world – is already dire and likely to grow as those populations grow older.

“Immigration has been keeping our country younger already. If it weren’t for our high level of immigration, we would already look like some of the older populations in Asia and Europe,” said Julia Gelatt, associate director of the Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

Going forward, Gelatt said, immigration could be essential to staving off the most dire issues that might happen when a huge swath of the country slips into retirement.

“The thing that most immigration scholars agree on – even the ones who aren’t necessarily pro-immigration – is that while it’s not a silver bullet, immigration can help offset some of what’s going to happen,” she said.

“We’re facing a particularly acute situation, and immigration could be part of the solution to that.”


America’s projected demography isn’t all bad. It means a lot of people are living a lot longer. It also means, going forward, experience and wisdom will be on tap. It might even mean less ageism and more respect for people of all ages.

But the new demography also figures to create problems that could affect everybody’s wallets and lives.

Who’ll fill an already barren job market? Who’ll pay for age-related entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare that stave off poverty for tens of millions of people? In a nation of the elderly, who’ll take care of the very old?

A partial answer – at least for now – is immigrants.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t work with older people,” said Ligaya Ortiz, a 47-year-old nurse who lives in Pomona and was born in the Philippines.

Ortiz, a geriatrics specialist who currently works with an older client in Anaheim, has worked in houses and nursing homes throughout Southern California since moving to this country in 2005. Often, she said, her co-workers have been people from her homeland or from countries in South America.

“I couldn’t tell you what the overall numbers are, but in every nursing home I’ve worked, either as a full-time worker or a temp, I’ve met other people from the Philippines.

“I mean, I wound up working with a girl I went to grade school with,” she added, laughing. “And the school we went to was tiny.

“My experience – studying nursing (in the Philippines) and then using that degree in the United States – is very, very common.”

She’s right. Though political debate about immigration often uses the term border “encounters,” and focuses on migrants coming from Mexico and lower-income countries in Latin America, that skips over some basic facts about recent immigration.

For example, about 40% of the immigrants who landed in the United States in 2021 came from Asia, while about 35% came from North America, mostly from Mexico and Canada. About 12% of migrants came from Europe, while about 6% each came from Africa and South America. The most common specific countries of origin were Mexico, India and China.

The other issue that political debate about immigration focuses on is legal versus illegal immigration. Though undocumented migrants remain part of the overall immigration picture, the vast majority of foreign-born people living in the United States (88%) are here legally. And the number of undocumented people in the country has held steady or decreased since the recession of 2008.

Another misconception is about education. About 34% of foreign-born U.S. residents who are 25 or older hold a bachelor’s degree, roughly the same as native-born Americans. And newer immigrants tend to be higher educated than the native-born population, with about 47% of the people who came to the United States from 2017 through 2021 holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.

In some high-education industries, foreign-born professionals hold a disproportionate number of jobs, including as physicians and nurses. And foreign-born students are more likely to attend medical school and nursing school than are native-born students.

All of those factors, according to Gelatt and others, suggest immigrants could be key when it comes to paying taxes that will help stabilize Social Security and Medicare, two programs that figure to be strained as the population ages.

But other misconceptions suggest new arrivals might have a minimal, possibly even a detrimental effect, on the aging boom.

Migrants, for example, aren’t necessarily young. The median age of a new arrival two years ago was 47, roughly 10 years older than the nation’s overall median age. The data is skewed by the fact that relatively few new arrivals are children, meaning the population of people used to arrive at a median age skews older, but it also illustrates a basic point: The aging boom is everywhere.

“Migrants get older, just like everybody else,” Gelatt said.

“They have children, of course, but the birthrate for migrants tends to become about the same (as native-born birthrates) fairly quickly,” she added.

Still, at any given time, about 8 in 10 migrants who are between 16 and 64 hold a job, compared with a labor participation rate of about 6 in 10 for native-born Americans. In a country where labor shortages are becoming a big issue – last month, the Labor Department reported there were 9.6 million open jobs in the United States and 5.4 million job seekers – a group of people eager to hold down jobs could keep national productivity from falling off a cliff.

“Again, migration isn’t a silver bullet. It’s not perfect. But it’s part of the bigger picture,” Gelatt said.

Immigration also is expected to continue – for now.

The Census Bureau’s age and demographic projections are based on assumptions that immigration rates will remain roughly where they are today, with about 1.1 million net newcomers projected to arrive each year. By the mid-2060s, the Census Bureau projects that about 18% of Americans will be people from other countries. Without those newcomers, or without an unexpected jump in new births, the U.S. population could shift from very slow growth (about 0.3% a year) to actual decline, probably in the early 2040s.

Still, an immigration downturn in the near future isn’t out of the question.

Though most Americans continue to view newcomers as a net positive for the country, and favor current or even expanded levels of immigration, a growing number of people disagree.

In June, a Gallup poll found that 41% of Americans want fewer new arrivals, a big jump from the 28% who said that three years earlier. The same poll found that 68% of Americans believe immigration is good for the country, down from 77% in June 2020.

What’s more, the current leader in the field to be Republican candidate for president in 2024 – former President Donald Trump – has built his political base, in part, with hard-line ideas about immigration. And Trump’s views on immigration – including building a wall at the Mexican border and stepping up deportation of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants and ending birthright citizenship – are now widely accepted in the GOP.

Whether such ideas could be translated into policy in a country that broadly favors immigration – and relies on it economically – is debatable.

“I’d want it, a downturn (in immigration), even if it means some people from this country have to do a little more work,” said Edward Cunningham, 74, a retired aerospace engineer and GOP volunteer who lives in Los Angeles.

“I think it needs to slow the (heck) down. I don’t see how having so many migrants is good for the country. America has to mean something. And as it stands, it’s losing its meaning.”

But Cunningham laughed when asked who takes care of his wife, who suffers from advanced dementia.

“She’s from Ecuador,” he said. “And she’s brilliant.”

“But that’s my point,” he added. “I’m not saying people from other places are bad, or I don’t like them, or anything like that. I’m saying our culture is changing because we’re letting in so many people. I don’t know how come that’s hard to understand.”

People who study immigration counter by saying American culture has always been shaped by immigration, particularly in places like California, Texas and Florida.

They also suggest the political debate about immigration should include economics and what immigration will mean as America ages up.

“For now, this is a conversation that people in academic and policy wonk circles are having among themselves, but it’s not something that Congress or the American public is talking about except in the most barebones ways,” Gelatt said.

“I imagine the pressure is going to build that could change that,” she added. “Things are changing pretty quickly.”

Source: Orange County Register

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