Immigrants can help overcome declines in U.S. population

Throughout our nation’s history, the world’s biggest risk-takers, boldest thinkers and hardest worke

WASHINGTON — Throughout our nation’s history, the world’s biggest risk-takers, boldest thinkers and hardest workers have flocked to America’s shores in pursuit of greater freedom and opportunity.

Their contributions to our society and economy are no less important today than they were 200 years ago.

In the face of changing demographics, shifts in the labor market and an increasingly global workforce, immigrants are essential to our economic strength and competitive standing in the world. And that’s good for all Americans.

U.S. demographic trends are on a troubling trajectory. Our population is projected to grow more slowly over the next several decades as birthrates fall. Meanwhile, our senior population is expected to more than double by 2060. By 2056 — for the first time ever — there will be more Americans over 65 than under 18. We need a steady flow of working-age citizens to replace retiring seniors, sustain vital programs for the elderly and less fortunate and grow our economy and tax base. And it must include immigrants.

Our nation also faces workforce shortages due to shifts in the labor market. When U.S. workers aren’t available or willing to fill the gap, immigrant workers should be able to step in.

Filling the gaps

As more native-born students pursue higher education and advanced training, many lesser-skilled positions sit vacant. Job growth between now and 2020 is expected to be highest in low- and moderate-skill jobs that cannot be mechanized or outsourced.

In addition to seasonal or agricultural work, immigrants are becoming increasingly vital to industries like home health care, nursing and hospitality services.

If we don’t welcome workers here to fill those jobs, we will watch companies take jobs elsewhere or find that some services are no longer broadly available in our country. And that hurts everyone.

On the other end of the spectrum, many other fast-growing industries will require high-skilled workers and more education. Immigrants should also be part of the talent pipeline to make sure we’re filling those needs.

Immigrants already represent one in four doctors, two in five biomedical scientists and one in three computer software engineers. More than half of the master’s and doctoral students in high-tech disciplines at top U.S. universities are foreign.

We need to make sure they have the opportunity to stay in the United States and contribute their skills and innovations to our economy. Otherwise, we’re sending them home to compete against us.

Global competition

Some warn immigrant workers will supplant Americans, but that’s not what we’ve seen. The work of immigrants is complementary, not competitive. Immigrants increase the overall economic productivity of the country — and a rising tide lifts all boats.

The competition is not within our own borders — it’s with the world. We must foster a modern and diverse workforce so we can keep our edge among the world’s leading economies. We won’t grow and prosper in the 21st century if we’re shutting out the great talent and hard workers who want to invest their ideas and sweat equity in the U.S. economy.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been leading efforts to overhaul our broken immigration system. We are working with labor unions, law enforcement, civil rights groups, religious organizations and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for reform.

We’re working to advance legislation that will increase border security, expand temporary worker program for higher and lesser skills, establish a workable employee verification program and provide a pathway out of the shadows for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America today.

As the debate unfolds, let’s not forget who we are and where we came from. Without the intrepid spirit and tireless efforts of earlier generations of immigrants, there would be no debate — because there would be no America.

Immigrants built our country and its economy from the ground up. We need them as much today as we did in the beginning.

Thomas J. Donohue is the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington D.C.

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