How much effort should be devoted to tracking down the undocumented, and how much to punishing companies that hire them?
What should we do about the millions of immigrants who came here illegally a decade or more ago and have become established members of their communities?
And — what is the right number of legal immigrants every year from now on?
Big, complicated questions — which is why Congress shouldn't try to solve them all between now and Feb. 8, its self-imposed deadline for resolving the issue of the "dreamers." In the few days that remain, the best it could do would be to, well, resolve the issue of the dreamers — the undocumented immigrants who were brought here as young children through no fault of their own, who obey the law and who go to school or work or serve in the military.
They are American in all but legal status. Give them a path to citizenship, as President Trump has proposed. Give Trump the money for his wall (until he gets that check from Mexico). Punt on the big, complicated questions, something Congress certainly knows how to do. Everyone declares victory, and the government doesn't shut down.
Of course, that would leave us still facing the big questions. Ideally, Congress would schedule a serious debate on them for the spring. Ideally, it would be conducted in a constructive spirit — acknowledging, for example, that reasonable people can disagree on skills vs. family.
But ideally, also, it would also be conducted with an understanding that those who favor a drastic, absolute drop in the level of immigration, as many Republicans do, would be making a choice about America's future.
They would be turning us into Japan.
Now, to be clear, Japan is a wondrous nation, with an ancient, complex culture, welcoming people, innovative industry — a great deal to teach the world.
But Japan also is a country that admits few immigrants — and, as a result, it is an aging, shrinking nation. By 2030, more than half the country will be over age 50. By 2050 there will be more than three times as many old people (65 and over) as children (14 and under). Already, deaths substantially outnumber births. Its population of 127 million is forecast to shrink by a third over the next half-century.
Japan is a pioneer and an extreme version of where much of the First World is headed as longevity increases and fertility declines. The likely consequences are slower economic growth, reduced innovation, labor shortages and huge pressure on pensions. If you think our entitlement politics are fraught, think about this: In Japan in 2050, the old-age dependency ratio — the number of people 65 and over as a percentage of the number who are 15 to 64 — is projected to be 71.2 percent.
The comparable figure for the United States is 36.4 percent, up from 25.7 percent in 2020. Still high, but if it proves manageable, we will have immigration to thank. America still attracts dynamic, hard-working people from around the world, and they and their offspring help keep our population and our economy growing, as recent Pew Research Center and International Monetary Fund papers explain.
The wave of immigration over the past half-century also has changed the face of the nation, reducing the share of the white population from what it would have been and increasing the share of Asians and Hispanics. It's not surprising that some people find this disorienting.
But as so often with such debates, perceptions lag reality. Nearly half (48 percent) of immigrants these days have college degrees, as a fact sheet from the Migration Policy Institute last year showed. A quarter of technology company start-ups between 2008 and 2012 included at least one foreign-born founder. As incomes and education levels rise around the world, in other words, the skills mix of U.S. immigration is already changing, without any changes in our laws.
Here's the bottom line: I think we should remain open to immigrants because it's part of who we are as a nation, because every generation of newcomers — even, or maybe especially, the ones who come with nothing but moxie and a tolerance for risk — has enriched and improved us.
But you don't have to buy into any of that Statue of Liberty stuff to favor immigration, because naked self- interest leads to the very same conclusion. A vote to choke off immigration is a vote for stagnation and decline.
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