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Legal Immigration

The US Needs a Clearer Path to Legal Immigration

May 17, 2023
Congress has a propensity for kicking cans down the road, but this is one challenge that needs resolving.

With the official end to the pandemic-era federal policy allowing quick deportation of migrants, all eyes are fixed on our nation’s border security. Regrettably, because so much focus has been on illegal immigrants crossing into the country, efforts to expand legal immigration – policies that would allow American manufacturers and other businesses to tap into global talent to address a significant workforce shortage – have been stalled for years.

Congress has a propensity for kicking cans down the road, but this is one challenge that needs resolving before America becomes another society too aged to maintain economic growth.

The border crisis has fed a renewed surge of “nativism” in America. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observes, citizens define nationhood “not by values or laws but in racial, ethnic, and religious terms.”

Anti-immigration sentiment, of course, is nothing new in the U.S. As a New York University report stated, we are “a nation of immigrants – but hardly a pro-immigration nation.” The original English settlers disdained the Scottish immigrants of the mid-1700s. Those immigrants from Britain, in turn, scorned the Irish and German wave of the 1840s and 1850s. The new melting pot of British, German and Irish legacy ridiculed and excluded the Italians and European Jews who started arriving en masse in the latter decades of the 19th century. Since their initial arrival in the mid-1800s, Asians immigrants have struggled to be accepted – and I won’t even mention the challenges of those whose ancestors were brought here in bondage.

Now it’s the turn of people from Central and South America, a situation made even more vitriolic because so many are crossing the border illegally.

Yet despite the contempt against those ethnic groups that have disembarked on this continent over the centuries, the steady arrival of new immigrants has been a key factor in America’s long-time economic success. Contrary to popular rhetoric, the Council of Economic Advisers recently made the case that immigrants actually increase potential economic output by increasing the size of the labor force, as well as contributing to increased productivity. 

There’s another critical reason, closely tied to the labor rationale, for revisiting our legal immigration policies: our aging population. The U.S. birthrate is 1.66 at present, a far cry from the 3.58 as recently as 1960 and below the rate a population can sustain itself. In 2022, 16.8% of the population was 65 or older, compared to 22.2% being under the age of 18. In 15 years, this will flip: those under 18 will account for 20.6% of the population, while those 65 and older will account for 21.7%. This means a steadily diminishing supply of workers, including those who can cover the payments to retired Social Security beneficiaries.

The U.S. manufacturing sector is already experiencing job open rates and skilled worker shortages unlike any seen before. The choice is clear: either this country takes action to offset our aging population and increase the number of eligible workers entering the country (with more emphasis on trade, technical and skilled-service training), or we will witness an economic demise such as those faced by Japan and Italy – and soon, countries like Korean, Spain and Poland.

And yet, while legal immigration is the fastest way to rejuvenate our aging population, the number of immigrants the government allows in each year has fallen as a percentage of the population over the past few decades. The number of noncitizens issued immigrant visas in 2022 was just under 500,000, or about 1.5 for every 1,000 U.S. citizens. That compares to 1.9 immigrants for every 1,000 citizens in 1970, and almost 6 immigrants for every 1,000 citizens back in 1900. 

For those who worry we’re being flooded by foreigners, the roughly 13.7% of the total U.S. population who are immigrants today is not a historic high. That occurred in 1885-1895, at the height of Eastern and Southern European immigration, when 14.8% of the populace was not born here. The percentage again approached that peak in 1910. Then, in the half century following World War I, the proportion declined dramatically to 4.7%. It’s risen steadily back to pre-World War I levels since 1970 – but there is still room for expansion, as well as a solid rationale.

Rather than emulate those countries that don’t have a history of smart immigration policy, we need to look to immigrants to bring new talent to our shores and companies. The need for a smart, practical, and more welcoming immigration policy doesn’t disregard the legitimate concern about the levels of unauthorized immigration into the United States. But let’s not cut our nose to spite our face. We need a steady stream of young educated and skilled immigrants, looking for economic and entrepreneurial opportunities, to choose the United States as their home in the coming decades.  

Stephen Gold is president and CEO, Manufacturers Alliance.]

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