Commentary: Why U.S. needs immigrant labor to sustain economic growth

Two recent incidents illustrate for me America’s current quandary over immigration.

The first came during my return to Austin from a needed midsummer break in Colorado. My friend and I made a wrong turn somewhere south of Lubbock. As a result, we drove through small towns we otherwise would have never seen.

What we saw was heart-wrenching: boarded-up storefronts and empty streets. It felt like you could nap undisturbed on main street sidewalks in the middle of the week.

The demographic facts of small-town life are stark: Only nine percent of Americans live in communities with less than 10,000 residents — but most of these communities continue to shrink. Meanwhile, the median age in the U.S. is 38, though the median age in our rural communities is 10 years older.

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What does this have to do with immigration? Hamlets from Maine to Georgia have found a second wind by inviting refugees and immigrant to help reverse their declining populations.

Sure, the communities that have embraced immigrants from Vietnam, Somalia or Honduras have faced real challenges of cultural assimilation — but the resulting new blood has brought them back from the brink. Economic growth is impossible without a growing workforce.

It does not help other towns consider taking similar steps when our president continually slanders immigrants as a burden rather than a blessing. The facts show that immigrants participate in the workforce at a higher rate than U.S. citizens, commit less crime, and pay more in taxes that they receive in government services.

It seems to me that the issue of immigration burns brightest in communities that have the fewest immigrants.

It may seem unthinkable to many that the path to revitalization of their beloved communities might include something as strange as a Somalian restaurant opening its doors on main street in their traditional Texas town. However, the shuttered stores and empty chairs at their kitchen table require boldness.

Only the brave leave their homes in foreign lands to come to America. Those ruled by fear stay behind. Only the intrepid try something new — and this certainly applies to community leaders presiding over dying towns.

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Republicans once knew that entrepreneurs created most American jobs, not corporations. Now, they want us to believe that corporate tax cuts will revitalize our economy, even though corporations are hell-bent on outsourcing and automation to reduce their labor costs. The creation and subsequent growth of small businesses has always been the engine of economic prosperity in our country.

That brings me to my second story. I was invited to an East Austin home on the weekend of the Texas Book Festival to mingle with a visiting author. His host wanted him to meet her Austin friends and enjoy some Texas barbeque. Among the guests was a handsome couple with an adorable baby.

The baby was passed around; others eagerly held her while the mother gratefully enjoyed eating ribs with both hands. I was in the kitchen when the author’s charming adolescent daughter sidled up to him, and smitten, asked him if they could add a similarly adorable baby to their family.

“You can,” he said, “But not until you turn 30.”

Census data shows the median age of first marriage for millennials today is 29 for men and 27 for women. This is more than seven years later than in the 1950s. In states with higher educational attainment, first marriages come even later. The upshot is that millennials create fewer babies than their baby boomer parents — but fewer than needed to replace themselves in the workforce.

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PEW Research projects the workforce shortfall a generation from now to be about 8 million workers. Demographics don’t lie. We need immigrant labor to sustain economic growth in the coming decades — not only in our small towns, but in our cities as well. We need the passion and drive to succeed that newcomers have always brought to our shores. We need immigration policies that are in touch with today’s demographic realities, not dead-set against them.

Lallier teaches government at Austin Community College.

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