Now more than ever, America needs immigrants | Other views

Something about this season echoes the imperative to welcome the stranger, but humankind has proved impervious to the message. We seem unable to extend welcome — or even simple goodwill — to those outside the magic circle of tribe or church or tongue.

Even this nation that revels in its mythology of the melting pot — a place of refuge for the poor, the tired, the huddled masses — has not been welcoming to those masses. Every wave of poor immigrants brings a xenophobic backlash. Now that so many would-be immigrants are Black or brown, the backlash borders on hysteria — an existential crisis for the whites who fear losing their status.

That aggrieved group of reactionary whites — a minority, but a loud and substantial one — is putting the nation in peril of demographic decline. If we cannot welcome Mexicans, Hondurans and Haitians, we will start the slide toward a narrowing future. There won’t be enough younger Americans to pay taxes, fight wars, build houses or care for the elderly. There won’t be enough healthy adults to fill the ranks of firefighters, police officers and paramedics.

In 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the United States grew at the slowest rate in its history — just 0.1%. There were only 148,000 more births than deaths.

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly played its part. Official statistics record about 800,000 COVID-related deaths since the pandemic began, but medical experts say that undercounts the death toll, which is more likely closer to 1 million.

Moreover, there is a deeper trend that demographers have pointed to for years: American families are simply having fewer children. In 2020, the U.S. birthrate dropped by 4% over the previous year, the sixth consecutive year that the number of births declined, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The agency, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the U.S. birthrate has been generally below “replacement” — the number of children required to keep the population stable — since 1971.

That is a trend in many countries, especially in the more developed parts of the world, where women have ready access to contraceptives. Already, the populations of Japan, Russia and several Western European countries, including Germany, have begun to shrink.

The U.S. has been saved from that fate, in part, through immigration. As recently as 2016, net migration (which includes American citizens moving back into the country) totaled about 1 million persons per year. Immigrants often bring young families and have more children. They reinvigorate communities and start businesses. They join the U.S. armed forces and fight for their new country.

But Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency on a platform that denigrated immigrants of color, and he won — elevating xenophobia, rewarding bigotry, embodying nativism. He had babies ripped from their mothers’ arms at the southern border and had children locked in cages. He tried to ban all Muslims from entering.

The number of immigrants has declined precipitously. President Joe Biden has been cognizant of the nativism emerging in the land, so he has kept many of Trump’s malicious policies in place. Haitians trying to enter the U.S. were sent back to a country many of them hardly knew. Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans are stuck in squalid camps south of the border.

That’s not good news for our nation. While we are unlikely to see the apocalypse portrayed in the novel (and film) “Children of Men,” we will see decline. Schools and universities will close across the country. The economy will suffer. As demographer Lyman Stone told FiveThirtyEight, “What happens to mortgages in a country where real estate depreciates like a used car because the population is falling and we need fewer and fewer houses all the time?”
The solution is staring us in the face if we can see beyond our prejudices. We cannot take in every desolate, suffering sojourner trying to enter, but we can start, again, to invite in a million or so a year.

And we can surely allow the Dreamers to stay. That group of young adults has already proved that they are an asset to this country. They think of themselves as Americans. Handing them an official welcome — citizenship — shouldn’t be difficult.

Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.

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