Demographic argument for immigration reform

By Mary Sanchez

It’s no secret that Americans are in denial when it comes to aging. Sales of Botox are booming, tummy tucks and eyelid lifts are common, and anti-aging creams and gels are multibillion-dollar businesses.

So it should come as no surprise that Americans find it difficult to grasp that our population as a whole is maturing, that the median age is slowly climbing upward. This has serious consequences for our economy and our culture, and it also bears on the immigration issue now being debated.

To understand the demographic challenge before us, consider the baby boomers, that massive generation born roughly between 1946 and 1964. They are celebrated for

revolutionizing every aspect of American life — how we learn, how we work, how we raise and educate children, how we regard sex and drugs. So get ready, the eldest of the boomers are beginning to retire. They are beginning to turn 60.


And guess what? We don’t have enough people to replace them in the labor force among native-born succeeding generations. Nor do we have enough low-wage workers to serve all their needs in retirement — and boomers are anticipated to be a highly active set of retirees, living both longer and with more demands on the economy than their parents ever called for.

In other words, we need workers, especially low-wage ones, and we have not bred enough of them in-house, so to speak. Immigrants — yes, legally brought into the country — can fill these needs now and in the future.

But first Congress will have to quit waxing about the difficulties of devising an immigration package that will please everyone. They need to put immigration reform back on the table.

Far from the glib rhetoric that doomed the recent immigration reform bill on Capitol Hill, saner economists have argued that importing more workers is vitally necessary. In fact, in congressional hearings they talked themselves red, white and blue in the face about it.

Granted, these arguments can be dry and abstruse, not nearly as thrilling as, say, the gloom-and-doom oratory of a Lou Dobbs or your average Minuteman. But what’s really more important to the nation, "cultural" purity or economic well-being?

The U.S. is in a race to stay competitive with foreign countries, especially emerging powerhouses such as India and China. Our strength and competitiveness in the future depend in part on our ability to maintain a high ratio of workers to retirees.

Despite much commentary to the contrary, the U.S. economy is healthy. We continue to add jobs. And the unemployment rate is about 4.4 percent — far below the 5.7 percent average unemployment rate in the 1990s. So, despite all the angst about immigrants "taking" jobs, the truth seems to be that they are merely filling jobs.

Some have tried to argue that illegal immigration has damaged the prospects of black job seekers, but this is not true. The unemployment rate of blacks has declined from 10.5 percent in 1996 to 8.3 percent today, according to congressional testimony of the U.S. Department of Labor. So immigration, even illegal immigration, has not hurt them as a group.


There are, of course, sectors that have been unfairly hurt by illegal immigration — the construction industry is a prime example in which wages have been somewhat undercut and U.S. workers have been displaced.

But that merely demonstrates why we need immigration reform — to control wages and the imported laborers’ impact on U.S.-born workers. I’m always amazed, when talking about immigration, that so many well-educated people are oblivious to the various levels within our labor force. They are grooming and educating their children to hold professional, well-paying positions. Which is fine — the U.S.-born public should strive to be highly educated, and we are more so than past generations. But these same folks seem blind to the idea that we will always need many, many low-wage workers — that the economy as a whole does not turn on the labor of doctors and nurses and the highly skilled alone. Someone has to take out the trash, mow the lawns, wash the dishes, pick the crops, paint the houses, cut up the pork loins and gut the chickens.

In the end, all the huffing and puffing about non-existent "illegal alien invasions" won’t alter the facts of birth and death. Baby boomers, you are aging. And how you spend your golden years depends in no small part on how we deal with immigration today.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Her e-mail at

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