The Residential Library

The sometimes demented, frequently irreverent, and occasionally stupid musings of Ron Hargrove

Some bad news about our future gives Biden a big opening. Will he seize it?

By Greg Sargent [April 27, 2021]

It is a dispiriting fact about this moment that these two things are both true at the same time:

  1. New data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that the U.S. population grew more slowly in the last decade than at any other time except the 1930s. This means we may be headed for a period of demographic stagnation that ensures our population continues to age, with negative consequences for economic growth and our ability to fund our welfare state.
  2. Tens of thousands of people each month are pounding at our doors, begging us to let them in, most harboring nothing more than a desire to participate constructively in our largely successful political and economic order. And we go to extraordinary lengths to turn them away.

The first batch of 2020 Census data finds that the population grew by just 7.4 percent in the last decade, the second-slowest population growth in our history. The Post sums up the big picture:Unlike the slowdown of the Great Depression, which was a blip followed by a boom, the slowdown this time is part of a longer-term trend, tied to the aging of the country’s White population, decreased fertility rates and lagging immigration.

Putting aside the impact of this news on the partisan balance of power, it should give President Biden and Democrats an opening to reset the immigration debate, by stating clearly and forcefully that over the long term, we will need more people, which means (at a minimum) that we must think seriously about ways to make it easier to legally enter the country.

An analysis of the census news by demographer William Frey shows why. As Frey notes, the stagnation in population growth is the result of declining births, increasing deaths, and cuts to immigration levels during the 2010s.

Meanwhile, the population is continuing to age, Frey notes, which will result in lower levels of natural population increase over time. Which leads to one conclusion:This suggests that the nation will need to increase immigration to keep future growth rates from falling even more starkly.

As a review of demographic literature by Ronald Brownstein shows, the workforce will continue to decline in size relative to our aging population, increasing the burden on working America to shore up the social programs relied upon by aging America. Meanwhile, other reviews of the literature show demographic stagnation could hamper future economic growth.

In an interview, Frey noted that increasing social support programs for childbearing might help get birthrates up a bit, but this can’t be counted on, and Republicans oppose such efforts, even the expanded child tax credit championed by GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.

“Modest increases in the birthrate, which is the most we can expect, won’t solve the demographic problem,” Frey told me. “We have an aging population and proportionately fewer women in their childbearing ages. That’s going to continue.”

One answer is to increase legal immigration. The pragmatic case for this has been made in many other places, so here’s a related but more abstract point: We need to reorient our whole debate toward the general guiding idea of more migration as a solution, as a good outcome that could supplant much worse outcomes.

Think about the debate over the border, where over 170,000 migrants are expected to be apprehended this month. The administration is fending off the tremendous challenge of speeding up processing and building out more space to temporarily hold migrant kids.

In the interim, Democrats are stuck in a defensive crouch: Biden has apparently decided it’s politically untenable to raise the cap on refugees by as much as promised or to lift a health ban on asylum-seeking adults and families.

Both are unconscionable. But beyond that, it’s striking that the idea of mitigating the migrant influx problem by making it easier for these people to immigrate legally simply isn’t part of the debate. Shouldn’t that change with the census news?

“These new census numbers should reset the debate about what immigration means for this country,” Frey told me.

We could be thinking about expanding guest worker programs to Central Americans (with protections against labor exploitation), while opening up more avenues for guest workers to apply for permanent residence. We could vastly speed up the process for uniting kids in Central America with permanent resident family members here.

We could expand refugee resettlement beyond what Biden has proposed. We could couple this with reforms speeding up hearings for asylum seekers to further rationalize the system.

Let’s also consider dropping the term “economic migrant,” which is ordinarily applied to those seeking protection for the “bad” reason that they face severe material deprivation, as opposed to fear of persecution.

The rise in single adults migrating suggests this is a horrible humanitarian problem, not just something that can be hand-waved away as an effort to scam our system. What’s more, terrible civil and environmental conditions in Central America, including violence and corruption and hurricanes, are also spurring migrations, and have only worsened of late.

The administration is moving to address root causes in the region and to make it easier to apply for protection from afar. That’s great, but it won’t be enough. And cruelty as deterrence has simply failed: Indeed, choked-off legal migration channels have arguably incentivized illegal border crossing.

That means opening up more channels for legal migration is a critical way for us to be part of an actual regional solution. Not doing this falls short of offering an answer to the broader regional problem here. We need to lean into being a bigger part of that answer.

That this basic notion isn’t part of the discussion at exactly the moment when we are confronting new signs of long-term demographic stagnation seems like utter madness.

Greg Sargent is an opinion columnist covering national politics for the Washington Post.

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