Comment: Immigration reform will become an economic necessity

The working age population is shrinking. Immigrants won’t replace Americans; we need them to work.

By Eduardo Porter / Bloomberg Opinion

The midterms are over. Democrats survived the chaos at the southwestern border. Some pro-immigrant groups are daring to hope political space may open in the next Congress for bipartisan immigration reform.

It won’t. Republicans’ attempt to weaponize images of immigrants massing at the border failed to deliver a landslide. But that doesn’t mean the politics of immigration have become non-toxic.

Rational reform — of the kind that might relieve the nation’s overwhelmed border and turn immigration into some legal, humane process — remains as far beyond the reach of the American political system as when Donald Trump came down the golden escalator and launched himself into the presidency by calling Mexicans thugs and promising a border wall to cut them off.

Across MAGA America, immigration has brought to the fore passions that will not be contained by appeals to economic logic. It will be met first and foremost with mistrust, anger, fear. Rather than focus on the benefits that immigrants bring to rich aging societies, millions of Americans choose to believe that the foreigners come to replace them.

Even President Biden, who promised to end Trump’s covid-era deportation policy, deployed it to stop Venezuelans from seeking asylum in the U.S. Rather than tear down Trump’s border wall, he is filling in some particularly trafficked gaps in it.

MAGA America’s fear of immigrants will not only stand in the way of sensible policy on immigration. It can still steer Americans into a very dark place.

What would become MAGA America was a more contented place the last time the political system delivered “comprehensive immigration reform.” The nation was held together by the threat posed by a common Soviet enemy. China was poor and rural. Globalization wasn’t yet a thing. Critically, non-whites amounted to only 20 percent of the population. The most famous living Latino was Desi Arnaz.

Ronald Reagan botched it. His Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which legalized millions living illegally in the U.S., promised to stop future unauthorized immigration by punishing employers who hired undocumented workers and offering a path to hire foreigners legally.

It failed. By 1990 the undocumented population had bounced back to 3.5 million. A decade after IRCA, the share of Americans who wanted less immigration reached its highest on record. And shots at reform by presidents George W. Bush in 2007 and Barack Obama in 2013 never made it out of Congress. The U.S. had pivoted to building walls instead.

The first fencing was built along the San Diego-Tijuana border during the administration of Bill Clinton. By the end of the Trump administration, the wall spanned some 700 miles of the 1,954-mile southwestern border. Given the direction of American politics, Trump’s additions are unlikely to be the last.

President Biden used his first day in office to send Congress another comprehensive immigration reform bill. But this is no longer Reagan’s America. Globalization and automation have deprived rural America of economic opportunity and decimated much of the industrial heartland. Immigration has more than doubled the non-white share of the population.

The secure white majorities that held uncontested power in the 1980s feel much more insecure today. While they may not have given Republicans the landslides they hoped for in the midterms, they retain substantial political power. And they don’t want America to get any browner.

This posture is hardly unique to America. Immigration is also roiling white majorities across much of Europe. Italy and France have been playing hot-potato with ships carrying migrants from North Africa. Britons, whose desperation to “take back control of our borders” led them to leave the European Union, are paying France to keep tens of thousands of migrants from launching in dinghies across the English channel.

Immigration is reshaping the politics of the so-called liberal democracies of the West. From Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, the hostility of aging white natives toward the change immigrants represent is propelling authoritarian regimes that promise to protect natives from outsiders.

This presents a critical challenge for liberalism in the U.S. and beyond. Forty-two million people in Latin America say they would like to migrate to the U.S., according to Gallup. A set of interlocking challenges, from conflict to climate change, is pushing millions out of Africa in search of a more secure, dignified life elsewhere. Migration pressures will not let up.

The midterm elections, however, do offer a glimmer of hope. Further immigration may exacerbate the racial and ethnic paranoia shaping the politics of MAGA America. But on Nov. 8 voters presented an image of a nation that can evaluate its self-interest and check its darker passions.

In terms of economic well being, Americans’ self-interest calls for more immigrants, not fewer.

Foreign-born residents make up more than 18 percent of the non-farm labor force, up from less than 15 percent in 2005.

Without new immigrants, the Pew Research Center forecast, the working age population will shrink to 166 million in 2035 from 173 million in 2015.

Aging, ailing Americans will have a hard time finding the nurses and home health aides they need.

They already do.

There are many many immigrants who would love to come do the job and help the U.S. — including MAGA America — become a more prosperous place. Sooner or later, a majority of American voters, and the politicians who represent them, will have no choice but to support legislation embracing that reality.

Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, U.S. economic policy and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost.”

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