In praise of Latin American immigrants

By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON (Reuters) The United States owes Latin American immigrants a debt of gratitude. And Latin American immigrants owe a debt of gratitude to lawmakers in Arizona. How so?

Thanks largely to immigration from Latin America (both legal and illegal) and the higher birth rates of Latin immigrants, the population of the US has kept growing, a demographic trend that sets it apart from the rest of the industrialized world, where numbers are shrinking.

That threatens economic growth and in the case of Russia (UN projections see a decline from 143 million now to 112 million by 2050) undermines Moscow’s claim to Great Power status.

A country’s population starts shrinking when fertility falls below the “replacement rate” of 2.1. births over the lifetime of a woman. For white American women, that rate is around 1.8 now. For Latin American immigrants, the rate is 2.8. According to the US census bureau, nearly one in six people living in the US are Hispanics. By 2050, they are projected to make up almost a third of the population.

That translates into the biggest minority group of consumers. Their spending is expected to exceed $1 trillion by next year despite the recession. A point worth noting but rarely mentioned in the often overheated debate about immigration: illegal immigrants in effect subsidize social security payments to Americans over 62.

This is because people working with false papers have their social security taxes withheld from wages but are not entitled to receive benefits. The sums involved are substantial — the Social Security administration has an “earnings suspense file” of payments under names that do not match social security numbers. The file has been growing by around $7 billion a year which goes to pay benefits to legal workers.

And the benefit to immigrants of the Arizona law?

“It may finally wake up the whole country to the consequences of the current approach to illegal immigration in which ever tougher border enforcement is seen as the only solution to the problem,” says Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. “That approach is gravely flawed.”

So is the argument that the federal government has done so little to secure the US-Mexican border that states need to take things into their own hands? The number of Border Patrol agents along the 2,000-mile frontier has doubled in the past five years, to 20,000. Arrests of border crossers have dropped 60 percent since 2000, evidence that tighter controls are discouraging illegal crossings (as does a shortage of jobs at a time of high US unemployment).

A mess that needs fixing

Under the law, the toughest of its kind in the country, state and local police are required to “determine the immigration status” of anyone “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is illegally present in the United States.” Failure to carry identification documents at all times would be grounds for arrest. Critics say “reasonable suspicion” opens the door to racial profiling.

Despite the acrimonious debate sparked by the Arizona law — which faces legal challenges and might never take effect — there is common ground on the issue between a good number of politicians on both sides of the aisle: the present system is a mess that needs fixing.

The last serious attempt to fix it was in 2006, when the US Senate failed to agree on a bill that would have paved the way to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants — the most widely used estimate is around 11 million, most of them Mexicans — and introduce a guest worker programme to meet demand for unskilled and low-skilled workers.

At the time, the late Senator Edward Kennedy, the Democrats’ most vocal champion of immigration reform, asked its opponents what they were planning to do with the millions already in the country. “Send them back …? Develop a kind of Gestapo here to seek out these people that are in the shadows?” Critics of the Arizona bill think that prediction has come true.

Much of the immigration argument has glossed over the fact that for decades both the authorities and employers turned a blind eye to illegal immigration because the country has been deeply dependent on cheap labor — in effect one of America’s ways of competing with the low-paid workers of the Third World.

The link between demographics and economic growth has rarely featured in the discussion but this week former president Bill Clinton took it up and added a frank interpretation of the anti-immigrant anger reflected by a nationwide poll that showed 60 percent of voters nation-wide favouring Arizona-type laws.

The real reason for anti-immigrant sentiment, he said, was the fact that the economic downturn in the last few years disproportionally fell on white males without college degrees, such as factory workers. “But they’ll get more jobs if the economy grows. Their taxes will be lower if we’ve got more taxpayers. The pressures on Social Security … will be less if we have more people contributing to the system.

“So I don’t think there’s any alternative but for us to increase immigration,” he said, adding that bringing in more immigrants must be part of the overall strategy.

So far it is not. (Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. You can contact the author at

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