America risks losing its immigration advantage
By Fareed Zakaria, CNNLately, I've been thinking about how the United States is different from Greece. One of the biggest differences that sets the United States apart from every other rich country in the world is that America is demographically vibrant.
Almost every rich country in the world faces problems of the welfare state which are technically fixable by reducing entitlements, raising retirement ages and working healthcare costs. But the one thing you can’t change is demographics.
Almost every rich country in the world is going to get older and older and older.
All these older people are going to have to draw benefits and pensions. Even more importantly, this means fewer young workers will be on hand to pay taxes.
At the end of the day, this is why the Japanese system has found it so difficult to get growth back. It is the first major country in the world that is experiencing actual population decline. Italy is next on that list. Germany is not far behind. Even China is going to face a demographic challenge.
The United Nations just released a report, which said that in the next 30 to 40 years, China is going to lose 100 million people. No country has ever been able to be a vibrant, great power without being demographically vibrant.
The United States is the huge exception to the rule of rich countries shrinking. The U.S. is going to be growing in population for the foreseeable future. By 2050, the U.S. will have 400 million people.
American demographics remain very healthy. While all the other countries go through this ageing cycle when they grow rich, America is the exception.
It’s entirely because of immigration.
There are two things that set the U.S. apart:
One is we still take in more immigrants legally than the rest of the world put together.
Two is that our immigrant population tends to reproduce at a slightly higher rate (they are still somewhat old-fashioned, if you will).
So those two things mean that our country is going to be demographically vibrant.
That has huge implications. Business people will tell you that one of the reasons they still look at the U.S. as a very attractive market for the future is it will have lots of young worker, producers, consumers, investors and spenders.
We have this huge strength in immigration. But are we managing it well?
Here, once again (alas), you have a case where American society is very dynamic and American politics is completely paralyzed.
We have been unable to enact sensible immigration reform forever because we have been hung up on a kind of theoretical debate - an almost theological debate.
No matter what people say, at the end of the day there is no solution to the undocumented workers issue that is going to involve mass deportation. The U.S. is not going to do that. We are not a police state. We are talking about an illegal immigrant population that is larger than the state of Illinois.
If it’s 12 million now, and we kick the can down the road for another 5 years, we are going to have 20 million undocumented immigrants at some point.
How does that make things better for people who want to deal with illegal immigration more harshly? If we can’t bring ourselves to deport 12 million people, are we really going to deport 20 million?
So it is in everybody’s interest that this problem gets solved sooner rather than later.
It seemed as though Washington had finally found a way to get its act together and come up with the only solution that could work - which would be a compromise. That is why the Dream Act was sponsored by Republican John McCain and the late Democratic senator Teddy Kennedy.
The Dream Act gave something to every side. It was a great compromise bill in the grand tradition of bipartisan bills that Congress once passed to deal with big issues on which people in our country of 300 million disagreed.
So what happened to the bill?
It got eaten up on both sides.
Labor unions destroyed it from one end. The people who oppose any kind of immigration reform on the hard right destroyed it on the other end.
The result was that the Dream Act collapsed even though George Bush supported it. Now President Obama is trying to revive the Dream Act in a different form and he can’t find 10 Republicans who will support it. Not even John McCain, the bill’s original supporter, will get behind it now. McCain is now backing away from his own creation!
We think we have all the time in the world to play around with this issue because we are so far ahead of the rest of the world. We think we are so enlightened and that we do immigration so much better than the rest of the world. And it’s true, but only as a backward-looking statement.
Look at what the Canadians are doing today. The Canadians have created a set of smart immigration laws that are much more welcoming to new immigrants and that focus on skill-based immigration. They allow people to self-apply for immigration so you don’t even need a company to sponsor you. The result is Canada is getting much more ethnically diverse and vibrant.
Look at Australia. Fifteen years ago, Australia was convulsed by a huge anti-immigrant tide. There was a serious political movement that was talking about deportation. Now about a quarter of Australia’s population is foreign-born. This is one of the highest percentages in the world and as a result Australia is booming.
Look at what Singapore has done in its ability to attract the best and the brightest. It’s turning itself into a financial capital.
Look at what London has done and completely transformed itself.
So, yes, as a whole America is still far ahead of the rest of the world. We still do immigration better than a lot of the rest of the world. But a lot of the rest of the world is copying us and is learning from us.
Meanwhile, we are bizarrely copying the immigration policies of continental European –countries like France and Germany - which have completely failed to integrate and assimilate their populations.
Unfortunately, this is a perfect picture of the new world where people are learning from our strengths while we are letting some of our most crucial advantages slip.