Opinion — March 7, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Falling on the Sword

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America’s demographics are changing. The shift towards an older, more ethnically diverse population is well underway, and many of its implications for public policy are well documented. Often, the retirement of the Baby Boomers is used as a catchall reference to the broader shifts taking place and the challenges they will present. As the largest generation of Americans ages, they will, on the whole, be every bit as profligate and disruptive as they have been throughout their lives—they will cause the cost of entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security to skyrocket, and they will drive the continued growth of health care costs for as far as the eye can see.

One other important demographic change accompanying the Boomers’ retirement is that the birthrate in the United States, like birthrates everywhere else in the developed world (especially those of Western Europe and Japan), is falling. The consequences of this trend are straightforward. The United States will face a labor shortage in its near future. Robotics and automation will be insufficient, at least in the short term, to augment the productivity of the existing labor force and make up for the shortfall, and so we will have to import additional labor – through immigration.

Of course, the current immigration process is too convoluted and restrictive to provide even remotely enough workers for the economy to function properly. Attempts at comprehensive immigration reform are presently tantamount to political suicide (though President Obama says he’ll give it a shot in a second term), but as the United States begins to feel the effects of its coming labor shortage, lawmakers will be impelled to act. A guest worker program will be a key component of such legislation; it will permit large-scale importation of workers without a lengthy process of naturalization. As an essential concession to politicians who are more skeptical of immigration, such a program will probably be tied to mandatory use of the E-Verify system, an online government resource that allows employers to check the legal status of their workers. This will represent a considerable intrusion of the federal government into the workings of the economy, and it will not be without controversy.

The overall response to the immigration legislation will be mixed. Some on the left will charge that the guest worker program creates and codifies a permanent underclass; many on the right will call it amnesty under another name. Both sides may be right, but neither will be able to resist the economic necessity of replacing aging, expensive Baby Boomers with young, lower-cost workers that can keep America competitive with developing nations. Immigration will play a much larger role in forming economic policy than ever before, with all the attending interest group politics and echo chamber hysterics.

The principal concern with the coming explosion in immigration will not be economic, but cultural. As with every other period of mass immigration in American history, the ability of the United States to absorb and assimilate new arrivals and their children will be a central concern. But this particular wave of immigrants will be different, and handling it smoothly may be more difficult than most are now willing to imagine.

By its very nature, a guest worker program is meant to provide temporary labor, not citizens. There will be less of an incentive for these migrants to drop their old allegiances and become fully American in national identity, and inevitable failures to enforce the program at various levels (border security, verification of legal status by employers, workers who overstay their visas, etc.) will mean that the United States will probably still have a large and growing illegal immigrant population. The pace and scale of this immigration will be unmatched in recent American history, and it will carry unintended consequences.

The vast majority of unskilled workers brought into the United States (particularly in the border region) through this future guest worker program will be from Mexico. By itself, the process of immigration is the same for Mexicans as it is for the Irish, the Poles, and the Chinese. The process of assimilation, however, is different for Mexicans, not because of some inherent cultural difference, but because of geography. Other groups of immigrants, separated from their homeland by vast oceans, follow a predictable pattern of cultural adaptation. The first generation, having been born into another nation, retains strong ties to and identification with that nation, but being far from home and immersed in a new environment, have difficulty passing on their intact national identity to their children. Those children grow up going to American schools, speaking English, and identifying primarily as Americans. In a border region, this kind of immersive assimilation is more difficult.

It does not take a genius-level IQ to understand that it is far easier to retain cultural, economic, and personal ties across a nearby land border than to do so over an ocean. The free movement of people, goods, services, and money between the United States and Mexico means that in many cases, people who identify themselves as Mexican spend much of their time and even raise families north of the border. The children of the future wave of guest workers may not assimilate as a whole into the mainstream of American society, but will perhaps see themselves as either having a dual national identity or just a Mexican one. In the coming decades, as the retirement of the Baby Boomers pushes the United States to increase its supply of young, low-cost labor, the demographic balance in the border region will shift dramatically.

Our inability in the present to solve the twin problems of immigration and productivity will have a steep cost in the future—the longer we wait to address these challenges, the greater the economic necessity of large-scale importation of guest workers will be in the future. Particularly in the border region, the pace of this future immigration will make assimilation more and more difficult. In such an environment, nativist sentiment would undoubtedly grow on the right, and the siren song of multiculturalism would drift in from the left. Neither is acceptable, and neither can be a part of our future.

It is one thing to welcome immigration and ethnic diversity; immigration is fundamental to the American way of life, and any attempt to frame this issue in terms of race or ethnicity is intolerable. But national identity is a different matter altogether – it is neither intolerant nor unreasonable to expect that those who immigrate must adopt one nation as their own, with all the responsibilities and customs that go along with it. The United States is one nation today, not two, and not 50. Conflicting national loyalties cause problems – the history of American statehood, the Articles of Confederation, and the history of the South all illustrate the difficulties and conflicts that arise from an inability or unwillingness to adhere to a single American national identity.

The way we handle immigration policy in the present will have an outsized impact on our ability to absorb immigrants in the future. By taking steps to reform  and increase immigration today, we can gradually assimilate new arrivals and help prepare our educational, cultural, and national security institutions for the challenges that the coming demographic shifts will present. Recent bills to streamline the immigration process for highly-skilled workers and to give visas to those who invest in American real estate are positive (and bipartisan) examples of constructive reform. Such efforts also offer to help attract those with the skills, education, and capital needed to create the labor-saving technologies that will be so crucial to replacing the retiring Boomers. In the end, we must embrace a comprehensive strategy that encompasses a whole range of issues—improving border security, resolving the status of illegal immigrants, attracting those immigrants with valuable skills, and so on. If we fail to act now, we will later have to choose between a massive labor shortage that threatens the foundations of our economy, or a large, destabilizing wave of immigration that threatens the unity of American national identity.

This is a difficult, volatile issue in a time of small minds and big egos — good luck finding enough members of Congress willing to fall on the sword and make immigration reform a reality. But if any issue demands bipartisan care and attention, it is this one — we must find a way forward.

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