The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The 2020 Census offers a powerful argument for immigration

Leon Small, originally from Jamaica, holds a U.S. flag in a naturalization ceremony on Wednesday in New York.
Leon Small, originally from Jamaica, holds a U.S. flag in a naturalization ceremony on Wednesday in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

THE 2020 CENSUS offers a powerful argument for immigration. The United States in the past 10 years saw the slowest population growth rate in eight decades, owing both to plummeting fertility and dwindling immigration. Demographic stagnation, and the resulting possibility of anemic economic growth, threaten American vitality.

The census numbers give the lie, again, to the idea that this country is “full,” as President Donald Trump said, by way of justifying his assault on legal and illegal immigration, or that it has somehow reached the limits of its absorptive capacity. In fact, without robust population growth, and a steady supply of working-age strivers, there is no prospect of repairing the fraying social safety net that supports an aging population of retired Americans.

Simply, lagging births and slowing immigration mean fewer workers, less production and the specter of languid economic growth, or none.

There is little countries can do to lift their native-born birthrates; nor is it even clear why the U.S. fertility rate, which now stands substantially below the replacement rate of 2.1 babies per woman, is so low. By contrast, there is plenty the country can and should do to quicken the admission of refugees, asylum seekers and other legal immigrants. Their arrivals have slowed in recent years, at first because of the economic crisis arising from the Great Recession and later as a result of Mr. Trump’s campaign to demonize migrants, and a related cascade of bureaucratic measures designed by his administration to slash the number of newcomers.

This nation’s prosperity, pluck, ambition and effervescent character are the products of more than 100 million immigrants who have sought better lives in the United States since its founding. More than 70 million of them arrived in the half-century between 1965 and 2015, an era of astounding economic expansion. The foreign-born portion of our population, roughly 13.7 percent, is high by historical standards, but not as high as it was shortly after the turn of the 20th century.

Those skeptical at the proposition that immigration is a bulwark against falling birthrates should mull the counterexample of Japan, where a dwindling population has contributed to a listless average annual gross domestic product growth of 1.3 percent in the decade ending in 2019. (The U.S. average over the same period was nearly 2.3 percent.) Faced with a critical labor shortage, Japan, traditionally resistant to immigrants, finally enacted a measure in 2018 to expand the number of semiskilled workers it admits each year.

Judging by his campaign platform and rhetoric, President Biden is mindful that immigration is central to the American story, and vital to its prospects. One of his first acts upon taking office was to propose legislation that would establish a path to citizenship for some 11 million unauthorized migrants, increase annual per-country visa caps and clear impediments for employment-based green cards. In office, however, he has wavered on a promise to sharply increase the number of annual refugee admissions, which Mr. Trump had driven to record lows.

The truth is that the United States can absorb plenty more immigration — and must, if it is to compete and thrive in the 21st century.

Read more:

Read letters in response to this piece: The value of immigrants

Greg Sargent: Some bad news about our future gives Biden a big opening. Will he seize it?

Hugh Hewitt: Can two former presidents unravel the immigration knot?

George W. Bush: Immigration is a defining asset of the United States. Here’s how to restore confidence in our system.

Henry Olsen: The anti-immigrant sentiments of the America First Caucus should have no place in the GOP