Will Immigration Give the US a Demographic Advantage?

According to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2022, the U.S. population grew by 0.4% for the year. While native-born population increased by 240,000, more than 1 million immigrants comprised the bulk of the population growth. Despite this rise from the stagnant population grown in 2021, the level of growth was still among historic lows.

Some analysts thus believe the demographic dividend that had sustained U.S. power has been gradually declining and is possibly disappearing. In this view, U.S. global dominance has been due to its demographics: The U.S. has the youngest median age of many developed nations and its steady population growth has been conducive to U.S. economic competitiveness. However, since the 1990s, the fertility rates of all major ethnic groups in the U.S. have been in decline, so the demographic advantage has not been due to native population birthrates, but surging immigration. Yet, since the Donald Trump era, immigration has become one of the most divisive issues involving the Democratic and Republican parties and among the electorate. Analysts hold that in order to return to being a nation of immigrants, the U.S. must cross the kind of high political barriers it has never crossed before.

Others argue, however, that U.S. economic competitiveness has been overly associated with large numbers of immigrants; switching between two majority political parties can fine-tune immigration policies according to actual economic and social conditions. Even under Trump, immigration policy was mainly aimed against illegal immigration, while calling for stronger review and restrictions on other types of immigration. For example, the Trump administration believed chain migration, the source of most legal immigration into the U.S., was bringing in low-skilled labor and exacerbating public burdens such as welfare expenditure. Immigration reform raised the bar for legal immigration, reducing the proportion of low-income immigrant groups, thus optimizing the composition of immigrants. Therefore, the tradition of political parties rotating power in the U.S. has brought flexibility to immigration policy. This more subtle picture offsets concerns that the U.S. will lose its demographic advantage as soon as it pauses high rates of immigration.

We should note that demographic analyses acknowledge that high rates of immigration compensate for low U.S. birth rates. The low birth rates are due to both the growth of financial institutions in the economy and the hollowing out of industry, creating a dire economic situation for most. COVID-19, rising child care costs due to inflation, and the disparity between rich and poor have all decreased the desire to have children. Marketization, liberalism, individualism, consumerism and the dilemma of choosing between work or having children have all led the young to be resistant to having children.

Focus too much on low birth rates, and one might miss the unprecedented decline in U.S. life expectancy over the past three years. It has had an enormously negative impact on population size and economic growth. Life expectancy is at a 20-year low, despite the fact that that the U.S. spends the most per person on medical expense among developed nations. This decline is due mainly to COVID-19, opioid overdoses involving drugs such as fentanyl, and rising suicide rates.

U.S. immigration, adjusted to maintain the demographic dividend, has transitioned the demographic structure from being comprised of mostly white baby boomers and their descendants to include descendants of ethnicities from all over the globe. Immigration-fueled population boosts have accelerated the transition, which will inevitably intensify the opposition between the two parties and their electorates. As anti-immigration trends ratchet up, there will be more political and social barriers to immigration.

There is an intensifying battle over immigration between the Republican-dominated southern states and the Biden administration. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, due to net increases in domestic and international migration, southern states, particularly Texas and Florida, are the U.S. region with the fastest population growth. As the number of border crossings soared to record highs in 2022, the Republican-controlled southern states of Texas, Florida and Arizona transferred immigrants by bus and plane to Democrat-controlled New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Massachusetts. Democrats accused the Republicans of using immigrants as “political pawns,” while the Republicans accused the Democrats of “hypocrisy.” Immigrants have obviously become victims of vicious struggle between the political parties.

Confrontation over immigration wins votes. Republicans need to whip up white anger over immigration’s potential negative impact on public policy, security and welfare; Democrats need their Latino voting base, and so they work to loosen immigration policies that obstruct expanding this support. As the new Congress takes office in January 2023, Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, will continue to battle Democrats over immigration.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also gotten caught up in the battle over the immigration issue. In December 2022, Chief Justice Roberts announced he would temporarily prevent the Biden administration from ending the enforcement of the contentious expulsion section of “Title 42” of the United States Code, codified during the Trump administration to quickly deport immigrants on the grounds of epidemic prevention.

Clearly, focusing on U.S. demographic advantages due to immigration obscures a fundamental problem: Serious structural issues in the U.S. hinder the birth rate and lower life expectancy, but the U.S. government lacks the political will and competency to improve, let alone solve, the aforementioned structural issues. Factors harmful to the population are allowed to take their natural course, which keeps public expenditure low while eliminating the old, weak, sick and disabled. This is nothing but social Darwinism, hoping that large numbers of immigrants can drive forward the demographic dividend, stimulate the economy and increase fiscal revenue.

The author is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Institute of American Studies.>/i>

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