You wouldn’t know it from this year’s overheated campaign rhetoric, but immigration is the only thing keeping the U.S. from facing a Japan-style demographic cliff. At a time when aging and other factors mean that fewer Americans are working, immigrants — who tend to come to the U.S. during their working years and have a higher rate of labor-force participation than native-born Americans — play an increasingly important role in the U.S. workforce. Foreign-born U.S. residents made up 13.1 percent of the population in 2014 but 16.4 percent of the labor force, up from 10 percent two decades earlier.1 Immigrants help the economy in other ways too: They are more likely than native-born Americans to start businesses, and because they pay into Social Security but only receive benefits if they stay in the country permanently, they help ease the U.S.’s long-run fiscal burden.
Perhaps just as importantly, immigrants are the reason the U.S. has a relatively high birth rate compared to other rich countries. Americans, like their counterparts in Japan and western Europe, are having fewer children. But that decline has been partly offset by the comparatively high fertility rate among foreign-born residents. A report from the Pew Research Center last week showed just how big that effect is: Immigrants account for the entirety of the increase in the number of annual U.S. births since 1970. Without them, the annual number of births would have declined.These positive attributes of immigration counterbalance the challenges. Some immigrants really do take jobs that U.S.-born workers might have, because they may be willing to work for less money and/or live in unpopular places doing crummy jobs. Immigrants may create problems if they don't adapt fairly quickly or if they are too different for too long. These are not new problems in the U.S. and they happen all over the globe whenever people migrate. So, we need to acknowledge the problems that immigration creates while recognizing that we are better off with immigrants than we would be without them. No one said this was easy, but the success of the U.S. over the years proves that it's worth it.