The Looming Immigration Battle. Not That One! The More Important One

  • Published on February 15th, 2010

Lady Liberty


Eventually, Congress will get around to “Immigration Reform.”  The process will be all too predictable.  There will be a lot of huffing and puffing from angry old white men trying to conflate the issue with “National Security” and using “invasion” imagery and thinly veiled racism.  There will be lots of posturing about “getting control of our borders.”  Anyone who puts forward reasonable ideas will be subject to attack from the Right and Left. What will probably be missing from the discussion will be the perspective that in the not too distant future, we will need to be actively competing for immigrants.  We will need to shift from talking about how to limit immigration to how finding ways to encourage it.

The Good and Bad Features of Falling Fertility Rates

Trends in Global Fertility RatesAs I have written earlier, the “good news” is that human population growth is slowing.  It takes a fertility rate of 2.1 or (2.2 for a developing country) to be at “replacement rate” for a given society.  Fertility rates in many countries are already well below that number and the rates are falling elsewhere.  The “bad news” is that there is a long transition period where the average age of the population increases, and this is going to create some major social and economic challenges.  One of the best ways to protect a society during that period is through immigration.

Why We Are Going to Need More Immigrants

Growing Dependency

There is a statistic called the “Dependency Ratio” which is the sum of the people below age twenty and above age 60 divided by the number of people in the 20-60 year-old range.  The idea is that the 20-60 year-olds represent the prime work force and tax base and the young and old are dependent on that group for the role they play in the society.  If you look at the chart above you will see that over the next decade or two many regions, including ours, cross the line where there are more young and old “dependents” than 20-60 year-olds.  The only reason that our line is not projected to keep rising like those for Japan and Russia is that the modelers have assumed substantial immigration for us and continued low immigration for them.  Western Europe is in between.  China simply faces this challenge later.

How Immigrants Can Help An Aging Society

When a society faces a relative shortage of young people, that leads to the following problems which can be minimized through immigration:

  • A shortage of people to do physically demanding work (construction, farm labor…)
  • A shrinking tax-base to cover the medical costs and Social Security needs of the older people
  • A shortage of women of child-bearing age to begin to stabilize the future age distribution
  • A shortage of young people to train in new technology areas

As these problems become more pronounced in the future, it is likely that nations will begin to compete for young immigrants. The US has always enjoyed a strong reputation as a desirable destination, and we have been able to attract immigrants in spite of our highly frustrating bureaucracy.  That advantage could definitely diminish.  The days will end when people from Mexico and Central America are willing to take the risk of undocumented status to come do jobs that we definitely need.  Our ability to attract the most talented and well-educated people from other nations could definitely be challenged by other motivated countries.  

We cannot just assume that we will do even as well as shown in the graph above unless we fundamentally re-think our attitudes towards immigration and family size.  Once this recession is past we should start a serious dialog about our future and who is going to be in it.

Statue of Liberty Image from David Paul Ohmer’s Photostream

Graphs by Steve Savage based on data from the IIASA website

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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)
  • Richard M

    The replacement rate appears to be based on old data.

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  • David Wallace

    overpopulation is a world wide problem. Allowing more people to come here creates long term problems that has no easy solution. The people who want to come here need to fix the problems where they live and stay there.

  • Sandra H,

    The US Economy tanked because of the artificially generated real estate bubble and the unregulated and non-transparent risk markets like "credit default swaps." This was something that came down because of the greed and recklessness of Wall Street and the failure of our elected officials to practice oversight. None of that can be blamed on immigrants. Also, I'm talking about a future increasing need for immigrants unless we get our own birth rates up.

  • Sandra H

    If immigration is so good for the economy, then why is the US economy tanking?

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  • MaryJ

    This is not a green blog if it promotes mass immigration into the US, period. California has suffered massive environmental degradation in the past 30 years and most of it has been due to out-of-control population growth.

  • MaryJ

    Steve: If you can’t see that we’re importing poverty by the bushelfull from Third World countries, you obviously don’t live in a border state, or you live in an upper middle class gated community far from the Third World chaos we lesser beings must contend with every day.

    I agree with Jack: Third World uneducated immigrants ae not generally a boon to a First World economy. They will not support us in our dotage: more likely, we will be forced to work into our 70s to support THEM. This is already happening in some countries in Europe where they pay lavish welfare benefits to newly come,unskilled and uneducated immigrants and their children, while at the same time, they are increasing the minimum retirement age for the native.Holland had a huge bitter debate about this only very recently.

    Plus, Third World immigrants are people with their own interests, just like we are. Do you really think that millions of Third Worlders are going to want to support old white First World people in their dotage? No, they won’t. Once they get voting power they will simply vote to deprive all the old white people of their Social Security and Medicare so they can spend more money on their own children. That’s just human nature. We already see this happening with the Latino organizations supporting Obamacare for illegal Latino immigrants, at the expense of cutting 500 billion dollars from Medicare that benefits mostly old white people. This trend will continue — it’s just human nature. No culture on earth wants to work a good part of their lives to support another culture’s old folks, especially when it would come at the expense of their own children.

    Secondly, with family reunification, younger immigrants can import their own old people and put them directly on our social security. A good example is Obama’s illegal immigrant Aunt Zeituni who lives in public housing, receives welfare, is 57 years old, and does not work. How is Aunt Zeituni contributing to a “younger” workforce? How are the parents, uncles and aunts, and grandparents of today’s illegal immigrants going to contribute to a “younger” workforce once they are imported by their younger legalized relatives? They won’t at all.

    Lastly I think it is very odd to see pro-immigration, open borders shilling on a blog supposedly devoted to environmental issues. The environmental degradation due to overpopulation that I have seen occur in California over just the past 30 years has been breathtaking.

  • Californian

    In California we've led the nation in this disastrous experiment. We've created communities where the reason the rape and murder rates are low is because people don't leave their homes after dark except to quickly get in their cars. "GATED COMMUNITIES" are the all the new rage in southern California. I dare the author to live in one of our "great" sprawl communities.

    This author is dubious and the article is straight propaganda. THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF PEOPLE IN CALIFORNIA. Everything here is over-crowded, our environment, freeways, schools, clean air, water resources are stretched to the maximum. We do not need more people, and specifically we do not need more unskilled immigrants. We have enough cheep young labor (that are having children like they're human copy machines) to last the next 100 years.

  • Bettybb

    We do need to revise our immigration system.

    1. We must enforce our laws, and uphold our values. We stand for the rule of law and no one is above it. We will not give preferential immigration treatment to lawbreakers over law abiding people coming here legally. Therefore, illegal aliens must be forced to leave.

    2. We must mandate E Verify for every employer for current and future employees.

    3. We must abolish family reunfication as a basis for immigration and go after the most educated immigrants.

  • Estoban,

    Most of the models don't have "healthy replacement rates" I know there is concern about Muslim majorities in Europe, but not enough to get people to have kids even with government incentives. Most of the gloom and doom projections about Muslims assume no conversion or secularization in subsequent generations. That isn't realistic.

    Throughout our more than two hundred years as a nation we have actually benefited from both skilled and unskilled immigration.

  • Estoban

    I have seen charts showing that the U.S., with its' million new immigrants each year is showing a healthy replacement rate. Western Europe also shows the same, except the added population is Muslim. In a matter of a couple of decades some European countries will have projected Muslim majorities. This is a great concern for the native populations of those countries. Our immigration laws should be changed to allow only educated and skilled immigrants based strictly on what America needs. We certainly don't need any more low skilled, uneducated peons.

  • Bradwhg

    So you believe anyone wanting to secure the border or anyone who believes in the rule of law is an angry old white man. That suggests your views on immigration are more then just economical/practical. So how many people do you believe the USA should have and how many do you believe it can support?

    The idea that we need huge numbers of immigrants to sustain our aging population is one right out of the cheap labor/La Raza handbook. As indicated by your charts and graphs the US population replacement growth is actually where it should be. As most industrialized nations we should be wanting to see a decrease and stabilization of numbers. Now what you are suggesting is we should continue to grow our population for economic reasons.

    Your assumption is that we will need to continue SS into perpetuity over a different program and that there will not be enough people to do the work or learn new technology.

    Economics 101 – less labor increases wages, and technology. More labor means stagnation of wages and a decrease of innovation.

    Education is burdened under the weight of population increases. As our population has increased, the illiteracy rate has climbed dramatically and out of proportion with the increase. To have a functional democratic free society, the population has to be educated and have a cohesive language. Learning new technology requires an education. Accepting uneducated immigrants to bolster birth rates is a no gainer.

    If population stabilizes, the demand for new services and infrastructure will also decrease.There is a limit to how much a country can grow and it is set by the resources available.

    An increase in need for resources causes confrontation, wars and death. Think about this country’s need for oil. Now ask yourself how the situation would be different if we had 150 million less people and the associated need?

    Currently it takes 12 acres of undeveloped land for every new person added to this country. Those are just infrastructure figures. There is also the increase and size of energy usage, water and social services. Government also increases in size.

    Population growth or sustainability thru immigration may seem a simple solution to some very complex problems. It is really not the answer. At current immigration rates and practices the population of this country could add another 100 million in just 40 years.

    The idea of selling out the future for my children and those of other Americans for short term solutions does not set well with me. Are you sure your not a politician?

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  • Andrews,

    I agree, immigration just helps us with our transition and does little to help poor countries. What is encouraging is that fertility rates drop in the developing world with even a modicum of economic development. In not that many years the only part of the world that will even be above replacement rate will be sub-Saharan Africa. The best thing that could be done would be to accelerate that process in Africa by building infrastructure and by encouraging modern farming methods (in a scale-appropriate way).

  • Bradwhg,

    You can't have "rule of law" when your law is hopelessly out of sync with market forces. We might as well have a law against gravity. If you eat fruits and vegetables it is only because someone had to break the law to tend them for you. How many people's yard care and house cleaning and nannies are hired with no questions asked about documentation? But actually my point is that in the future that will not continue to be the case because birth rates in the countries that have sent most immigrants will also drop.

    I'm not saying that we grow our population to any great extent via immigration, but that we make the transition easier. Just watch Japanese and Russian societies over the next few years and see if that is really the path you would like.

    Delaware Bob,

    As with most of the others in this stream you miss my point that the world is changing. We have not had a rational immigration system for some time, partially because people on the extremes such as yourself demonize anyone who tries.


    Finally, a little practical perspective in this stream! I am convinced that in 10-20 years the others here will look like they were engaged in the wrong argument. If they prevail again and our nation swings to the Right on this issue, we can plan on being a very old nation by the time my kids are old and grandchild is in Middle Age.

  • Andrews

    Do not be blinded by the Race Warriors on these posts!

    Third World Poverty and Overpopulation can NOT be

    solved here in the First World through

    Immigration Anarchy and ultimately Balkanization

    of First World Countries, it has to be solved there in the Third World from where it emanates and where 2/3 of

    the World's population lives in ignominy!

  • Dillion Rosenthal

    Good morning, it's great to see the debate about immigration heating up. It's going to be an exciting one. For those against a sensible debate which answers one simple question, what do we do with the undocumented immigrants here. The 12 or so million that contribute to our society everyday and are we forgetting the other 8-12 million that are legal family members? If those 12 million were to boycott our economy for a week as of today, we will be back in 1929 or worst. I laughed when I saw the 'support' for Haiti when right here in America we have 12 million people struggling for an opportunity. What are we so afraid of? There is only two solutions, we deport each and every immigrant along with their legal family members or make them legal.

  • Delaware Bob

    Illegal aliens are destroying this Country, and one would have to be near blind not to see this.

    Illegal aliens have made America the dumping ground for all their illegal alien children, then we have to school them and give them free medical care.

    I for one, am sick and tired of these illegal aliens snubbing their nose at our immigration laws and the many other laws of this Country. If our Federal Government can not ENFORCE our immigration laws, and get these illegal aliens out of this Country, then let the States do it! One way or another, an end has to come to this illegal immigration, and not with AMNESTY! Amnesty will only encourage more illegal aliens to invade our Country and reward those who broke our laws and raped the American taxpayer in many ways…depressing our wages, taking our jobs, overwhelming our schools with their illegal alien children, driving without a license or car insurance, all the crime from stolen identities to rape, drugs and everything else.

    It's time for ZERO TOLERENCE with these illegal aliens. It's time for them get out of this Country and back in their own Country where they belong. When we get rid of the illegal aliens, we will get rid of all the problems that go with them. THAT IS A FACT!

    I'm from Delaware, and we are pressing to get the Oklahoma State Illegal Immigration Law, HB 1804. passed here in Delaware. Three years ago we had about 32,000 illegal aliens here. Today we have about 68,000 illegal aliens here. We have had it! We want our State back!

  • jackbenimble

    First, the premise of this post is essentially a ponzi scheme. Essentially the idea is that we need to have an ever expanding population. It begs the question: How many immigrants will we need to import in the future to support the current round of immigrants who we are importing to support us? These immigrants will eventually get old too. The problem with ponzi schemes is that the bigger they get, the bigger the disaster they are when they eventually fail.

    A better solution to perpetuating our failed ponzi schemes like Medicaid and Social Security rather than importing ever increasing numbers of immigrants would be to restructure our retirement and social welfare systems so that they are sustainable with a stabilized population.

    A second problem with this post is that it tries to pretend like all workers are equal. The “Dependency Ratio” is a joke of a statistic because it fails to recognize the difference in quality between highly compensated skilled workers and ignorant immigrant peasants who barely earn minimum wage. The former contribute huge amounts to the Treasury both in the form of payroll taxes and also income taxes. The latter contribute a tiny amount in the form of payroll taxes but then turn around and consume even more from the Treasury then they contribute in the form of welfare and other transfers. These types of immigrants drain the Treasury and do nothing to sustain the elderly. They are a strain on the Treasury. Numerous studies have shown that the overall net contribution of immigrants to the Treasury is insignificant.

    We don’t need more immigrants. We need better quality immigrants and less of them. We absolutely need to quit importing poverty and we don’t need any more of the sort of immigrants who lack the skills to survive in our economy without welfare. It is no accident or surprise that almost all of the States facing budget crisis are also the high immigration states. They are also the states with the worst schools. I wonder why?

  • Brittancus and M. Limberg,
    I think you are missing the whole point of this post.We have never handled immigration well, but in the future we need a decent system that actually encourages people to come legally and back-fill our shrinking worker-base

  • PT

    I'm glad that your line of thinking is not more widespread. There is no information that backs up your rather outrageous assertions. The Russians and the Japanese have the kind of immigration selectivity you suggest and its not going very well for them. Racism never made sense, but in the future it will only result in societal suicide.

  • PT Barnum

    BTW, I would much prefer we encourage less educated hard working white immigrants than well-educated white immigrants. I concede we do need a small number of well educated immigrants. But, whites who are well-educated and rich tend to have disproportionately lazy and spoiled kids (the Chinese also) so the less of these lazy, spoiled brats we have the better.

  • PT Barnum

    Whites are smarter than blacks and latinos, more creative than asians, and also have far more empathy than blacks or latinos and especially asians. Unfortunately, because whites are so nice we changed our immigration laws in 1965 (1965 Immigration Act) to encourage more immigration from non-western cultures. Previously, we had used the "National Origins" immigration laws which favored whites from Western Cultures.

    It's not simply about "replacement." It's about who the replacement is. An homogeneous white nation is simply more effective and successful than a diverse nation nothwithstanding the current brain washing campaigns about "diversity" by the MSM, Universities, liberals, neocons, etc.

    In the long-run to be a successful nation again we need to do the following 5 things:

    (1) Repeal the 1965 Immigration Act

    (2) End the H-1B and L1 Visa Programs

    (3) Repeal the Community Reinvestment Act

    (4) Deport all illegal immigrants except those that are white

    (5) Go back to the pre-1965 National Origins system of legal immigration

  • Jack

    I'm saying that we will need some immigrants to ease the transition partially because we have never been able to muster the political will to stop the Ponzi scheme even though we have known that the Baby Boom would be a big problem. I agree that we need to compete for the best immigrants, but we also have a long history of seeing immigrants even with limited skills come, work hard and become prosperous. I think you misrepresent the majority of immigrants when you talk about "importing poverty"

  • Brittancus

    California will never rise from the ashes, without removing honed Liberal oriented politicians from any public office. California is strangled with its worst economy since the Great Depression, illegal immigrants are becoming part of the discussion on every Americans lips. California lawmakers in July 2009 struggled with a budget gap that has now grown to $26.3 billion, one of the hottest topics for many taxpayers is the cost to the state of illegal immigrants and the ever increasing costs. Not speculating that either Democrats, Republicans or Independents are without blame in what they address as their issues, but Liberals have brought most border states to paupers situation, by allowing the easy flow of illegal immigrants into California, Texas, Texas, New Mexico. Governor Richardson, unlike most states issued drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. Only hard core, Liberal extremists have resented any kind of restrictions on illegal alien benefits, starting with Proposition 187 passed by true California residents and blocked from reaching the Supreme court.

    The once Golden State is saturated with millions of illegal families, that have worn away public services. Schools are inundated with illegal children in the millions, with English as a second language. Schools are especially hit hard, because their has been a definite reduction in academic performance owing to overcrowded classrooms. A very depressive situation has evolved, as many hospitals and clinics as the schools have been unable to handle the influx of Anchor babies and desperate illegal settlers from South of international Southern fence. I saw this first hand before I departed California, as my sons school was all but English as a second language. Very few Angelo’s are aware of Title 1 schools that offer free breakfast and free lunch programs. Saying free breakfast, Its not talking a glass of milk and roll — but a full breakfast and cereal bar with fruits and juices of which the dumpster becomes full. Free medical, free education, free food, day care and a whole host of programs that most American taxpayers remain ignorant about?

    Huge outlays of funds have been distributed to foreign national families, even through our own citizens and legal residents have been declined. Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich said, “such situations are, unfortunately, all too typical. “It is catastrophic,” Antonovich says. “We cannot be the HMO to the world.” Another voice Legislative Analyst Dan Carson says California now spends about $4.6 billion yearly to provide services for — or to incarcerate — illegal immigrants.” This has been a never ending problem for taxpayers and now Sen. Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Sen Diane Feinstein and all those who pander to the illegal alien occupancy–MUST BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE IN FUTURE ELECTIONS

    EVERY LAW TO DO WITH IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT INCLUDING THE 1986 SIMPSON-MAZZOLI BILL HAS BEEN UNDERMINED BY MANY POLITICIANS AND THEIR OPEN BORDER LOBBYISTS. The time has come for all American taxpayers to demand from your reluctant legislators to make Permanent E-Verify, with no exceptions to every business, to remove illegal workers from American jobs. To fund federally train every law officer across the country–as with SANCTUARY CITIES AND STATES–to be empowered to–without prejudice to question any person at their discretion, under the blanket of 287 (g) immigration enforcement law as with the right of Federal agents to audit any business using illegal foreign workers. The-NO MATCH-LAW, should never have been rescinded, when Social Security numbers have irregularities. And all ITIN (alternative to a Social Security number) issued by the IRS, should also be scrutinized as this is way illegal aliens have found an unlawful pathway into seemingly being a legal resident. Not even the original border fence as designed as two layer barrier. MOST BORDER STATES HAVE COMPARABLE FINANCIAL CRISIS AND TODAYS PAYOUTS FOR ILLEGAL ALIEN FAMILIES, HAS ACCELERATED OUT-OF-CONTROL.

    The tax and spend mentality has specifically caused a terrible crisis in California by Sacramento Liberal apologists in the assembly. In Los Angeles city the indifferent indifferent elected officials have a nerve to try and pass a $100 dollar tax on Angeleno property owners to bolster the wilting school funds. In my way of thinking, Angeleno’s should place the whole city officials in contempt and propose a class action lawsuit in front of the courts. California’s nearly 3 million illegal immigrants cost taxpayers in 2004 nearly $9 billion each year, according to a report released by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes stricter immigration policies.The study looks specifically at the costs of educating illegal immigrants’ children, providing medical treatment to illegal immigrants and jailing those convicted of committing crimes.

    The report estimates the total cost at $10.5 billion each year, but that is offset by about $1.7 billion in taxes that illegal immigrants pay. also added an estimate of 597,000 U.S.-born children whose parents are illegal immigrants arriving at a total of 1,022,000 children. Multiplying the number of children by the estimated $7,577 the state spends on average per pupil, the study arrived at the $7.7 billion figure. FAIR defended the report, saying that the children (Anchor Babies) were born in the United States as a result of their parents’ illegal entry into the country. A similar study conducted by the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., and released in August 2004, said that illegal immigrants cost the federal government $10 billion more than they pay in taxes. “State costs are much higher on a per capita basis because of the fact that the largest expenses are medical care and education and those are borne at the local level, not the federal,”

    THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT DO NOT PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE, WHICH THEREFORE IS BORNE BY STATE TAXPAYERS. In conclusion we cannot afford another AMNESTY, because the millions of illegal immigrant families will have access to Senior Citizens pensions, SSI, and many other entitlements for US born and legal residents. Learn what you can do at NUMBERSUSA & JUDICIALWATCH or call your federal representative at 202-224-3121. A good example of state politicians ignoring their commitment to their legal residents, is the near bankrupt state of the–SANCTUARY STATE of California.

  • mlimberg

    Basicly California, you screwed yourself. All your support for criminals called illegal immigrants has bleed you dry. The rest of America is not going to bail you out.

    I'd suggest chasing down Nancy Pelosi and take all her personal and family assets to start.

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