Immigration Becoming Part of the Solution

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By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 8, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- With Sen. John McCain now in a clear lead for the Republican nomination, it is safe to say that the days of "deport them all" rhetoric regarding immigration are likely over in the presidential contest.

Yet, the anti-illegal immigrant sentiment will continue to loom large in this year's political contests at the state and local level. What's more, immigration will remain so contentious around the country that Republican and Democratic insiders predict that comprehensive reform of the kind President Bush pursued but failed to pass will be a non-starter for at least the next four years.

But even if comprehensive immigration reform is off the political table, the time for a sober -- and realistic -- assessment of immigrants and their impact on the United States has already arrived. According to some demographers and urban planners, a serious discussion about immigration is taking place and in a different context: the unprecedented economic and societal demands caused by retiring baby boomers, the first of whom began drawing their Social Security checks this year.

Dowell Myers, author of "Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America," argues that policymakers will have to think of immigrants as part of a solution rather than a threat to America, as posited by many in recent years. A demographer at the University of Southern California who directs the Population Dynamics Research Group, Myers believes immigrants and their children will have to help the U.S. meet the huge costs of boomer retirement.

A significant shift will begin two years from now in what's called the "old age dependency ratio" -- the ratio of those economically dependent seniors to the productive segment of the population. Myers calculates that the dependency will climb sharply in the United States from 246 elderly per 1,000 working age residents in 2010 to 318 in 2020, on up to 411 in 2030 -- a 67 percent increase in 20 years.

In other words, there will be fewer and fewer workers to cover the government's growing obligations concerning the elderly. To finance programs such as Social Security and Medicare, "you are going to need every worker you can get," said Myers. He estimates that immigrants can meet up to one-fourth of the challenge.

But workers will also need greater skills to earn more money and thus more efficiently offset the costs of caring for the elderly. Some of those workers will continue to be the coveted skilled immigrants heading to Silicon Valley or the like. But a larger pool of them will be the children of immigrants, those coming of age in this country over the next 20 years.

Education then will play a key role. Donald J. Hernandez, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Albany who studies the well-being of racial and ethnic minority children in this country, put it simply: "To the extent we invest in children the better jobs they will have, the more money they will earn and the better it will be for the baby boomers."

Take housing, for instance. Over the next few years, many boomers will put their homes on the market as they move to the Sun Belt or away from busy urban centers. In states such as Connecticut, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, there are already more home sellers than buyers.

Immigrants and their children could have a big impact on the housing market, just as they have in recent years. According to census figures assessed by Myers, immigrants represented 40 percent of the growth in homebuyers nationwide between 2000 and 2006. In California, Illinois and New Jersey, they exceeded by far the share of new buyers who were native-born. In New Jersey, in fact, all of the growth over that period was due to immigrant buyers.

Many other industrialized nations have much the same problem with aging populations. Canada, for instance, has begun significant overtures to attract new workers from abroad. The government in Ottawa is investing more than $1.4 billion over five years to provide newcomers with orientation, counseling, language training and work referrals.

Myers is convinced that during the next president's watch "this will be a bigger, a more dominant concern ... than the Iraq War is today." Policymakers already are reconsidering many attitudes about retirement age, Social Security benefits and taxes. But nowhere will the thinking need to be more different than when it comes to immigration.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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