Population and Immigration Reform

Perhaps the hardest question facing Congress, as it wades into the turbulent waters of immigration reform, is what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants who entered or remained in the United States without legal authorization. The scale of the problem is daunting, and all but a dwindling faction of holdouts will readily concede that mass deportations are not a workable solution. Nonetheless, a number of House GOP members are not yet ready to embrace a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and hope to split the difference, somehow. [See Immigration and the Middle Ground, New York Times editorial, 06.Feb.2013.]

In past immigration fights, dating back to the early years of the republic, opposition to immigration often has been driven by the conviction that “the boat is full” – that any addition to our numbers surely will swamp the boat. At least some of the opposition to CIR seems to arise from a fear of scarcity, the notion that more people means a smaller slice of the pie for everyone – never mind the welter of studies that project significant economic gains if CIR is passed and provides a pathway to citizenship. [See, e.g., Immigration Reform Would Bring Massive Economic Benefits, Study Says, MurthyBlog, 22.Jan.2010.]

Instead of fretting about overpopulation and impending scarcity, though, we should consider the fate of Western European countries, where birthrates have been in decline for years. If current trends continue, demographers project that the population of Western Europe will shrink from 460 million to 350 million by century’s end. [See About That Overpopulation Problem, by Jeff Wise, Slate.com, 09.Jan.2013.] As the Slate article points out:

“American media have largely ignored the issue of population decline for the simple reason that it hasn’t happened here yet. Unlike Europe, the United States has long been the beneficiary of robust immigration. This has helped us not only by directly bolstering the number of people calling the United States home but also by propping up the birthrate, since immigrant women tend to produce far more children than the native-born do. But both those advantages look to diminish in years to come. A report issued last month by the Pew Research Center found that immigrant births fell from 102 per 1,000 women in 2007 to 87.8 per 1,000 in 2012. That helped bring the overall U.S. birthrate to a mere 64 per 1,000 women – not enough to sustain our current population.”

We’ve already seen where that scenario leads, the article suggests, in countries like Japan, where declining population leaves more and more retirees dependent on fewer and fewer workers for their pensions and health care. In the past, immigration has saved us from this fate; whether it continues to do so, in the future, is up to Congress. Let us hope the skeptics will begin to understand immigration not as a cause of scarcity, but as a clever and deliberate hedge against it.

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