February 26, 2021
U.S. population growth is slowing and immigration experts and economists agree that increasing the long-term flow of legal immigrants is needed to drive economic progress and maintain the balance between the number of working-age people paying taxes and retired Americans drawing benefits through Social Security and Medicare. This is a real problem. Recent census data reveal that the nation's population may have grown more slowly from 2010 to 2020 than in any other 10-year period in U.S. history.
After Trump sought to slash legal immigration through legislative and administrative action, the legislative proposals introduced in February 2021 by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats would boost the number of arrivals. His proposal would significantly increase the legal immigration level and have a positive demographic impact.
All this year's legislative calculations about immigration are overshadowed by the failures of 2006 and 2013. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both tried, and failed, to pass comprehensive immigration bills during their terms. In 2006 and 2013, the Senate passed bills with bipartisan majorities, but the legislation died when the Republicans who controlled the Senate majority at the time refused to consider the bills.
Those failures explain why there is extraordinarily little enthusiasm among Democrats now for bipartisan negotiations that characterized the 2006 and 2013 efforts.
Immigrant advocacy groups are downplaying any effort by Biden and Senate Democrats to find possible areas of agreement with Republicans, considering any such effort doomed to fail. As a result, the primary motivation among immigration advocates is to convince Democrats to legalize as many undocumented immigrants as they can through the reconciliation process, which requires only a simple majority of the Senate to pass.
Through this partisan approach, advocates hope to legalize undocumented farmworkers and workers in occupations that are considered essential during the pandemic, as well as immigrants under Temporary Protected Status.
Legalizing undocumented immigrants has always been a high priority and the moral center of the immigration debate for Democrats. But because the undocumented, by definition, are already living within the US and therefore the overwhelming majority are already participating within the workforce, they will not address the population squeeze that is tightening on American society.
A recent paper by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program indicates that from 2019 to 2020 the nation's population grew more slowly than in any year since 1900. With immigration contracting during the Trump years, the nation's increase rate from 2010 through 2020 might be the lowest in any decade since the first census was conducted in 1790.
While the working-age population is declining, the senior population is growing. The U.S. will need more people in its labor pool.
Today there are about 3.5 working-age adults for every senior; by 2060, that number will fall to 2.7. This kind of decline will up the pressure for cuts in federal retirement programs, tax increases on working-age people to fund those programs, or a combination of both.
Despite this looming demographic squeeze, Trump and congressional Republicans repeatedly tried to slash the amount of legal immigration. Trump instituted a dizzying array of administrative actions to scale back legal immigration. His actions reflected the hostility to all immigration, illegal and legal, that now characterizes most of the GOP.
Democrats argue that the U.S. should set legal immigration levels with the goal of maintaining the dependency ratio at about its current level of 3.5 working-age adults for every retiree. Because the senior population will grow over the coming decades, that might require a 40% increase in legal immigration, about 370,000 more people a year than the roughly 1 million to 1.2 million annually the U.S. has been admitting.
Biden’s bill does not fundamentally restructure the legal immigration system, which now admits migrants primarily through two principal streams: family reunification and employment. But key changes include allowing all foreign students who earn Ph.D.’s within the U.S. to receive green cards and increasing the number of visas available to countries whose small immigration flows make them eligible for the Diversity Visa Lottery.
But there will not be a comprehensive package if 10 Senate Republicans are not willing to vote for one. Given Trump's continuing influence, such a prospect seems dubious, despite strong business support for such a deal.
With many Americans still unemployed because of the pandemic, this is also not the perfect time to speak about the addition of more people to the workforce through immigration.
The most optimistic scenario is that there will be some legislative success in legalizing some portion of the undocumented population through the special reconciliation process that will, in turn, generate momentum for more action on expanding legal immigration later.
There is mounting demographic evidence the U.S. will pay an important economic price within the next few decades if it does not break the immigration stalemate to alleviate its population squeeze. Without legal immigration, the country cannot sustain economic advancement.
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