The New Melting Pot How Immigration Helps Keep the US Competitive and Financially Strong

Sunday Business (London, England), September 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

The New Melting Pot How Immigration Helps Keep the US Competitive and Financially Strong


The massive influx of immigrants that began in the late 1960s happened only because it was totally unexpected.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Immigration Act of 1965 in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the symbolism of the gesture mattered far more than the substance. The act abolished all legal discrimination against immigrants from Asia, but no one anticipated the result -- least of all a government fighting a war in the Vietnam.

So Congress and country didn't question Robert Kennedy's odd prediction that migration from the "Asia-Pacific triangle" would rise to about 5,000 at first, and then subside to a bare trickle. It also acknowledged with a yawn Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach's testimony that "there is not much pressure to come to the United States" from Latin America.

If the nation had even dimly imagined that over the next 35 years the door would swing wide to more than 20 million immigrants -- about a third from Asia, and more than half from Latin America -- the '65 act would probably have died in committee.

Today Americans are smarter and more tolerant than that. Their sitting president courts the Hispanic vote and appoints minorities to high places in government. But another demographic sea-change islooming that might be just as unexpected as the first -- and perhaps even more threatening.

The Statue of Liberty has been sending its siren call not so much to the "tired ... huddled masses yearning to breath free," but to the tough and tenacious yearning to write code; the smart and persistent willing to master hard disciplines such as engineering and computer science; and those tender and tolerant enough to be able to care for that ever-growing huddle of sick, elderly natives.

In 1970, about 5% of the labor force was foreign-born. By 1990, their share had risen to 10%, and last year it reached 13%. This immigrant labor force now numbers 18.4 million, of which nearly eight million are in skilled professions of one kind or another.

Over the next 30 years, immigrants are bound to claim an even bigger share of the labor force. For one thing, the mix will shift in favor of skilled jobs that the foreign-born have already been filling in large numbers, as the chart on the following page demonstrates. For another, the burgeoning number of elderly will bring a vast expansion in the care-giving professions that also attract the foreign-born. And the baby boomers will be exiting the labor force, leaving the ranks in sore need of new recruits.

So despite the apprehensions created by 9/11, the current wave of immigration is in mid-passage. Expect the share of immigrants in the U.S. labor force to rise from its current 13% to about 20% by 2030.

If that happens, then the share of U.S. residents who are foreign-born would increase from 10% in 2001 to more than 14% by 2030, matching the peaks achieved during the last great wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But as impressive as these numbers are, they don't begin to reflect the overall impact of such immigration inflows. The Census Bureau uses the term "foreign stock" to describe both immigrants and their offspring. Estimates show that for every 100 foreign-born residents, there are another 97 residents of the second generation. By that measure, the share of foreign stock will rise from 19.5% currently to more than 28% by 2030.

Could all this occur despite the xenophobia that always lurks in the recesses of both right-wing and left-wing politics? Well, if immigrant laborwas able to establish such a huge beachhead over the past 30 years, while the native-born variety was still plentiful, think of what could occur when the natives become scarce.

The era of scarce labor will begin around 2010, when the baby boomers start to retire in significant numbers. From 2010 to 2030, the labor force is expected to increase by less than 8%, even assuming some increase in the share of foreign-born residents, while the number of folks 65 and older will double. …

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