George Boardman: How we deal with legal immigration will decide the future of our nation
July 1, 2018
The current three-ring circus enveloping the treatment of people who enter this country illegally is obscuring a much more important and fundamental decision we're facing: How many — and what kind — of legal immigrants will we admit to the country?
How we answer that question will determine to a large extent the future of the United States — our prowess as an economic powerhouse, our standing as a world power, and even what we look like, important subjects to ponder as we prepare to celebrate the 242nd anniversary of our declaration of independence.
The decision is developing some urgency because the basic demographics of this country are changing in a way that will put additional strain on Social Security, Medicare and other safety net programs, impede economic growth, and sharpen the debate over the role of immigration in our work force.
Our impending dilemma can best be expressed in what demographers call the old-age dependency ratio — the ratio of retiree-aged adults to those of working age. The ratio has taken a dramatic swing since 2010, when the baby boomers started to retire in large numbers.
The ratio barely budged for 30 years. In 1980, there were 19 U.S. adults age 65 and over for every 100 Americans between 18 and 64. In 2010, it was barely 21 retirees for every 100 working-age Americans. The retiree number climbed to 25 in 2017 and is projected to hit 35 by 2030, according to census figures.
This trend directly threatens the stability of Social Security and Medicare, which are slowly going broke. In 1970, there were 3.7 workers supporting every person collecting Social Security. That number dropped to 2.9 in 2010 and is expected to decline to 2.3 workers supporting every recipient by 2030. Since three workers per recipient are required to stabilize the Social Security system, it is no surprise there won't be enough money to pay all benefits by 2034.
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The decline of the working age population directly impacts the economic vitality of a country, as Japan has demonstrated in recent decades. Some 28 percent of Japanese are over 65, and the country has a persistently low fertility rate of 1.43 (maintenance is 2.1). The population is down 250,000 from last year, and the country is projected to lose 15 percent of its population by 2050.
Japan has one of the least diverse populations in the world and has a long history of being unfriendly to foreigners. But the worker situation has become so desperate that the country's conservative, nationalist prime minister has decided to admit 500,000 blue-collar guest workers by 2025. As The Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial: "Public attitudes are slowly shifting as Japanese realize that barriers to immigration pose a greater threat to their way of life than accepting foreign workers."
The U.S. will be facing the same dilemma as Japan, and like Japan, the solution will come from workers who don't look like the majority of Americans — a majority that's trending in the wrong direction anyway.
For the first time in the country's history, our non-Hispanic white population declined from 2016 to 2017, according to census figures. Analysis of the numbers by the Applied Population Lab at the University of Wisconsin showed that white deaths outnumbered white births in 26 states. Two reasons have been advanced for what demographers refer to as "white natural decline":
A big decline in the U.S. fertility rate: 500,000 fewer babies are being born now than would have been expected, and the number of babies born last year dropped to a 30-year low;
An increase in the mortality rate among whites from 30 to 50, so-called "deaths of despair" from suicide, accidental drug overdose, and alcohol.
Meanwhile, the nation's minorities continue to maintain a high fertility rate. As a Brookings Institute report notes: "…the new numbers show that for the first time there are more children who are minorities than who are white, at every age from zero to nine. This means we are on the cusp of seeing the first minority white generation born in 2007 and later, which perhaps we can dub Generation Z-plus."
Like California, whites will become a minority in the rest of the nation, and the trend will be accelerated by migrants who don't come from western Europe. That leads to the biggest question of all: Who exactly are we going to let into the country legally?
Whites are still the dominant group in this country and control the levers of power. Many of them don't like the idea their children and grandchildren will become a minority in this country. Some people reject the idea of multiculturalism and view the issue as a struggle for the survival of western civilization.
Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan is probably the loudest public proponent of this view.
"This is the great issue of our time," he recently told Fox News talking head Laura Ingraham. "And, the real question is whether Europe has the will and the capacity, and America has the capacity to halt the invasion of the countries until they change the character — political, social, racial, ethnic — character of the country entirely."
On his blog, Buchanan wrote: "Trump may be on the wrong side politically and emotionally of this issue of separating migrant kids from parents. But on the mega-issue — the Third World invasion of the West — he is riding the great wave of the future, if the West is to have a future."
These are strong words, but they represent the feelings of many Americans who support Donald Trump. Are we going to close the borders, or open them to the people we need to keep this country thriving? No more important decision faces the United States today.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.