Immigration and Aging: The Nexus of Complexity and Promise

By Torres-Gil, Fernando; Treas, Judith | Generations, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Immigration and Aging: The Nexus of Complexity and Promise


Torres-Gil, Fernando, Treas, Judith, Generations


The United States is in the midst of a remark- able demographic transi- tion. Largely as a result of immigration, it is becom- ing increasingly diverse. At the same time, it is aging rapidly. These trends will dramatically transform the nation by the year 2030, when we will look, speak, and feel differently. The arrival of foreign individuals from across the globe is a crucial component of these changes. In the absence of dramatic and effective immigration reform, we can expect the United States to face continued immigration- legal and undocumented- for many decades. What does this mean for a nation that is also aging? What are the connections between demographic changes, continued immigration, and increased diversity?

Heretofore, the fields of gerontology and geriatrics have generally ignored discussions of immigration and, with rare exceptions, have made few sustained intellectual and theoretical contributions to our understanding of the nexus of aging and immigration. Although immigra- tion reforms proposed in 2007 targeted older immigrants in calling for caps on the admission of aging parents, advocates for older adults were virtually silent in the debate. Issues of immi- gration are inherently visceral, complex, and divisive. Whether the issue is affirmative action, bilingual education, dri- ver's licenses for undocu- mented immigrants, or the sudden influx of young, non-English- speakers into rural com- munities of older, white, English-speaking residents, the debates are often emotional. With few exceptions, age-based advocacy groups and professional societies on aging have avoided becoming entangled in these divisive issues by sidestepping the opportunities for research and policy analysis on immigration. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the enormous literature on immigration has neglected aging, most likely because immigration scholars have understandably been preoccupied with the needs of working-age immigrants and their children.

This issue of Generations proceeds on the assumption that demographic realities now require that the fields of gerontology and geriatrics, as well as individual practitioners, researchers, and policy analysts, delve into these twin phenomena to explore the intersection of aging and immigration. With growing numbers of older people living in communities with growing numbers of immigrants, it is imperative to begin the conversations that can lead to constructive programmatic interventions, proactive policy prescriptions, and a movement toward coalitions that are more intergenerational, interracial, and interethnic.

Moving toward these lofty goals is not easy. Moving forward forces a more in-depth and determined investigation of the myriad and complex factors, myths and realities, associated with immigration, diversity, and race, as well as the robust array of aging-related issues and concerns. For those of us interested in aging, finding our feet in the immigration debate is complicated by the lack of consensus, not only in the general public, but among researchers. The empirical support on various points of debate is strong. For instance, immigrants assimilate in American society, not only becoming competent in English but often speaking no other language by the second or third generation. Yet, there exist enclaves of immigrants who can spend their entire lives in the U.S. speaking only their native language. The impact of immigrants on the wages of U.S.-born workers is still a matter of scholarly dispute, with data supporting both views. Sorting through conflicting claims, some strategically presented for political purposes, is a challenge. Thus, this issue of Generations mobilizes experts in the issues of immigration and aging to set the record straight on what is known.

A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK

As an introduction to what follows, we offer a conceptual framework to clarify how various elements of aging and immigration are linked. As Figure ? shows, we view the nexus of aging and immigration as posing a dynamic challenge to the U. …

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