Are immigrants good for America?

There is a huge movement for comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship – and a right-wing backlash against it. There are hunger strikers and marchers demanding justice, but a majority of Arizona voters supported one of the most draconian anti-immigrantion laws in history.

What’s best for America as a whole?

According to demographers, city planners and others, the answer is simple: in order to replace a generation aging out of the workforce, the U.S. desperately needs more immigrants, and it’s in our best interest to do what we can to get them a quality education. To better understand why, we spoke with Dowell Myers, a professor of policy planning and development at the University of Southern California.

“We need to look at what I call the ‘senior ratio’,” Myers said. The formula compares the number of people over 65, those of retirement age, to people ages 25 through 64, those who are of working age.

“For the past 50 years,” Myers said, “the number has been about constant, 24 seniors for every 100 people of working age.” But over the next 20 years, as the boomer generation retires, that number is set to surge to 41 retirees for every 100 workers.

In an article in the Federal Reserve’s Communities and Banking publication, Myers notes that there will not be a state in the country where the increase in retirees relative to active workers will be less than 50 percent.

Social Security, Medicare and other “entitlement” benefits have been paid for, at least in part, by the current generation of workers. As that generation ages out, the next generation pays for them. However, as the number of retirees surges, this system will be thrown out of whack. As the boomers retire, there won’t be enough people paying into the funds to guarantee benefits.

The demographic imbalance will express itself in other ways. “When these retirees want to sell their houses, who will they sell them to?” Myers asked by way of an example.

That 20-year period roughly corresponds to the time span over which the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a labor shortage to develop in the United States. While it may seem far-fetched now, with sky-high unemployment, businesses are growing worried that, as the crisis ends and more and more workers retire, there will be too few skilled people to operate a competitive economy in the 21st century.

Even the Bush administration acknowledged this problem. The 2007 Economic Report of the President stated that the population imbalance will exert a downward pressure on potential growth of the gross domestic product, which is based on growth of the labor market.

A slow GDP is particularly troubling given the deficit. “You can’t grow your way out of a deficit,” Myers said, “if you can’t keep your GDP up.” Also exacerbating the deficit would be the smaller number of people paying income taxes, he said.

Given these long-term challenges facing the economy, he said, “The DREAM Act kids look like a windfall. Why would you not want to harness their energy and talents? They represent a valuable and precious resource.”

Myers notes that, given the types of jobs available, education is highly important. Recently, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick made headlines – and sparked controversy – when he announced that he would push to give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition at the University of Massachusetts system and state colleges.

“Why do you have in-state tuition at all?” Myers asked. Partially, he said, it’s because “you want to grow the labor force. It’s an investment in Massachusetts’ labor force. You want to give money to people who are going to stay there.” And, according to the Census, in-state students are far more likely to stay to work in the state where they go to school than out-of-state students.

Accordingly, allowing undocumented students to go to school, via in-state tuition, the DREAM Act or whatever other method, is necessary.

Or, as Myers asks the opponents of immigration reform, “What is your solution for the senior ratio? Are you going to kill off the elderly?”

“At a minimum,” he says, “you want to get every ounce of bang for your buck out of these kids that are here today.”

Photo: Immigrants and their allies in Chicago demand equal rights and immigration reform. What is often overlooked is the fact that the U.S. needs to increase the flow of immigrants to keep its economy afloat. (jvoves CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)