Illegal immigrants: problem or solution?

In these uncertain times, there are so many targets of collective hostility: elected officials, same-sex couples advocating  for the right to marry,  and illegal (or undocumented) immigrants to name a few.

The latter group provokes particular outrage. This is the case even for those illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as infants or toddlers, who can’t remember life in their native countries, and who are working hard and doing well in school. To the outraged, these realities don’t seem to matter.  As they see it,“Illegal is illegal.”

The case of Juan Gomez

Juan was born in Columbia and brought to the US by his parents (who had tourist visas) when he was two years old. Now a senior at Georgetown University in Washington, DC—from which he will graduate magna cum laude on May 21—he’s been offered a job at J.P. Morgan Chase in New York. But he may not be able to stay in this country because he faces deportation to Columbia.

Juan’s situation seems particularly unfair when compared to that of a classmate who’s also the child of immigrants. Her parents came to the US before she was born which confers birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. (Some anti-immigrant forces are pushing hard for amending this provision.)

But what’s this got to do with aging?

You’re probably thinking that Juan’s situation is unfortunate or unfair, but what does it have to do with aging.

Q: What’s the connection between immigration, legal or illegal, and aging?
A: Demographics.

The chart shown, produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, was published in a recent article in the New York Times. It shows the number of people of working age (specified as 20 to 64 years old) relative to the number of people of retirement age (over 65).

As explained in the article,

One reason for America’s fiscal problems is that the population is aging, meaning that there are relatively many old people to care for and relatively few workers to support them.

The chart above shows that as of 2008, there were 4.7 working-age Americans for each retirement-age American, a figure projected to fall to 2.6 by 2050. Compare that to Japan, where the number was 2.8 in 2008, and will fall to about 1.2 by 2050.

In an parenthetical aside, the article notes that immigrants are helping with the problem of too few working-age people and too many retirement-age people. So immigrants are recognized as a solution—at least in part—to our demographic imbalance.

But what if they’re illegal immigrants? Should we just send them back where they came from, as some hard-liners argue? Or should we see them as also part of the solution to the imbalance?

If these young illegal immigrants graduate from high school and want to continue their educations, shouldn’t we encourage them and help make that possible? Which brings us to a subject of so much recent debate.

Should we allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges?

This is a hugely contentious issue. According to “The Washington Post,” in the current legislative session, eight states were considering extending in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, and eight were considering denying it. Some states whose laws now provide for in-state tuition are considering repeal of those laws

Said Carl Wimmer, a Republican state legislator in Utah,

I think it’s bad public policy, and I think it’s a terrible use of tax dollars to subsidize an illegal behavior.

Presumably, he means even behavior by those babies and toddlers who allowed themselves to be carried to the U.S. by their parents years ago.

What do you think? Doesn’t it make sense to make sure that young people who are technically “illegal immigrants” can pay the far-more-affordable “in-state” tuition, so that they can get good educations and contribute significantly to the national economy? Isn’t this a win-win situation?

How are we better off by punishing them? “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” so to speak? If we do that, aren’t we also punishing ourselves?

Given our demographic imbalance, isn’t it true that the more working-age people in the U.S., the better? And that the more education they have and the more money they make, the better for them? And, thus, for all of us?

image by hackny

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Madeleine Kolb 06/14/2011, 7:56 am

    The question of demographic imbalance is complex and controversial. It’s also a crucial matter, given the implications for the U.S. and many other countries over the next 40 years or more.

    The birthrate in the U.S. and most countries is dropping. At the same time, the population is aging which means fewer people of working age in relation to those 65 or older. (There are assumptions built in to this analysis, such as that people aged 65 or over do not work. In fact, most probably don’t, some do, and perhaps many more would like to but can’t find work for a variety of reasons.)

    In terms of the age of the immigrants to the U.S., the article below states that they are younger than the rest of the population and thus a resource, as my post suggests.
    http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/03/why-old-people-should-love-immigrants/

    In any event, it seems ridiculous to have even considered deporting a young man like Juan Gomez. (I don’t know whether the matter has yet been resolved.) To suggest that we deport him and to rationalize it on the grounds that “illegal is illegal” is bizarre. The expression that comes to mind is “throwing the baby out with the bath-water.”

  • Ali 06/13/2011, 2:07 pm

    The US is above replacement level on births even without immigration. Furthermore:
    —immigrants tend to be about the same age as Americans so do little to nothing in regard to our aging population
    —Immigrant and illegal alien sending countries such as China and Mexico are actually AGING FASTER than the United States and lack social safety nets for their aging populations.
    —-The Dream Act was NOT narrowly written but would have given 10-year green cards to literally anyone who applied for them (and was willing and able to lie to get them). Most Dreamers would NOT have met even the very minimal two-year college classes or military service requirement, meaning most would have been low-wage workers who would never pay enough in taxes to cover the services they use and who would be NET recipients of SS. They’d also displace AMERICAN workers from jobs and from paying taxes and into SS.