Immigration Reform for the Long Run

07/09/2014 01:20 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2014

The chaos on the border screams the nation's urgent need for immigration reform. Hopefully, Washington will act, for humanitarian as well as security reasons, and perhaps also to satisfy the country's understandable yearning for coherent law. But however today's debate goes, the nation, not too long from now, will need a second take on immigration reform. Aging demographics will force such reconsideration and this one, contrary to today's highly emotional exchanges, will have more economic underpinnings.

The demographics behind this inevitability are clear. The products of the great baby boom of the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s are approaching retirement age. Even if, as is likely, people seek longer careers, most of this large population cohort will cease active production within the next 10-15 years. At the same time, the remarkably low birth rates of the last forty years have slowed the flow of young people into the workforce. Taken together, these two trends, according to Census Bureau, will create a relative shortage of workers. The nation's working population will fall from 5.2 available to support each retire today to barely 3.0 by 2030.

It is this developing need to supplement this country's relative lack of productive, tax-paying, pension contributing people that will guide this next round of immigration reform. Policy will have to find a way to secure the greatest number of productive newcomers with a minimum of social tension. This last point is crucial, for social discord, even much less intense than the fiasco now at the border, can undermine any economic benefit offered by an additional flow of workers. To cope, policy will have to deal with the reality of human nature. It is all well and good to argue, as many earnestly do these days, that newcomers and natives should neither fear nor suspect each other, that people should reach across ethnic and language divides. They should, but the reality of friction is evident. The country already faces considerable discord. The strain would grow exponentially should immigrant numbers swell enough to meet the relative labor shortfall implicit in aging demographics. Policy, to deal with both the danger and the need, will have to draw on immigration experiences from around the world, both the successes and the failures.

Europe's experience offers instruction mostly on what not to do. Immigrant communities there, some many generations old, have largely failed to integrate into the economy, much less the larger culture. By comparison, North America has met with some success. Europe is beginning to recognize this fact. Germany, for instance, has acknowledged the value of bilingual education. It has turned the American practice upside down, offering instruction in German rather than classes in each student's native tongue. Even so, officials there stress that the language chosen means less than the effort to ease newcomers' transitions. France for the first time is considering mild forms of affirmative action on the American model. Europe could also benefit from offering its version of a high-school equivalency diploma. In the United States, it has served as an aid to immigrant job searches, especially for those who arrive after school age but otherwise without demonstrable skills. These are just some of the more important differences that offer guidance to others and on which the United States can build.

But if U.S. practice has much to teach Europe, Canada seems to offer the most effective guidance for this next, more economic phase of immigration reform. The Canadians have managed to combine a remarkably welcoming approach to immigrants with a system that assures the country's economic needs. Ottawa pays much less attention to ethnic considerations than most other nations. It also gives a lot less weight to family connections. Instead, it uses what could be described as a point system. Prospective immigrants get points for fluency in either English or French, the country's two official languages. They get points for years of education or job skills that the government believes the Canadian economy needs. Once a candidate earns enough points, he or she gains entry and a work permit. Canada then goes a step further. It connects these new residents to their respective national or ethnic advocacy groups. Aside from the humanitarian value of such a step, the connection, Canadian officials argue, tends to guard against the anti-social behavior that can easily grow from a feeling of isolation. It also shortens the time in which the new immigrant can find employment, where he or she can contribute to the economy, to tax revenue, and to public as well as private pension schemes.

As the demographic imperative forces such a new look at immigration, practical limits, even with the best conceived policy, will likely prevent newcomers from fully answering the entire challenge. Nations will then have to look to additional solutions, extending careers, for instance, increasing the number of women in the workplace, and relying more thoroughly on international trade and globalization. Immigration can do much to ease the strain, if, that is, the nation can adopt the next round at economically based reforms.