The Truth Is That We Need Immigrants

By Matthew Rooney

First, our immigration “problem” isn’t about Mexico. The truth is, Mexicans don’t come to the U.S. in meaningful numbers anymore — in fact, over the past five or so years, net migration between the two countries has been southbound.

This is partly because NAFTA helped create an industrial sector in Mexico that has produced job opportunities there. It is tempting to think that these are good jobs that Americans lost. But the truth is that most of those jobs are lower-paid jobs requiring minimal skills. They are a step up for people from Mexico’s hardscrabble rural areas, but Americans’ skill levels are higher than that. We can and should aspire to better for ourselves and our children.

More importantly, Mexicans don’t come to the U.S. anymore because Mexico’s demographic curve has converged with that of the U.S., so Mexico doesn’t have large numbers of unemployed and unemployable young people, as it did 50 years ago. Today’s illegal immigrants come from further south or further afield. Most of them come through Mexico, of course, so one approach would be to encourage Mexico to do a better job of policing its southern border.

Second, our immigration “problem” isn’t about growth — at least, not in the way one might think. Because immigration doesn’t hinder growth, immigration supports growth.

There are, of course, numerous factors that affect the pace of economic growth, including the level and incidence of taxes, the volume of government borrowing and cost burdens imposed by regulations. But the long-term, fundamental growth potential of an economy boils down to two factors: population growth and productivity growth. In short, you either need more people, or your people need to be able to produce more stuff — or both.

In the United States, labor productivity — itself a complex phenomenon with links to education, infrastructure, innovation, and mobility — has been stuck at just over one percent for the past decade or so. Meanwhile, with fertility hovering around the replacement rate, natural population growth is at or just above zero and the average age of our population is creeping upward. As a result, the key to growing our economy is more people — immigration — with skills that upgrade our labor force.


The ugly truth is that we need immigrants. We need them so that we can continue to innovate and prosper. We need them to keep our retirement systems solvent. We need them so that we can remain the youthful, optimistic society we have always been. It may seem ironic, but the truth is, immigrants made America and will make it again in the future.

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