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Poor Immigrants: Asset or Burden?

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Dallas -- America's fast-growing Latino population is famously hard working. It also has high rates for teenage pregnancy and dropping out of high school, two markers for poverty. Falling education levels should worry any country seeking to compete in the global economy.

Are these poor immigrants "an asset or an albatross?" San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro provocatively asked the National Conference of Editorial Writers, meeting here in Dallas.

One thing is undeniable: America is rapidly becoming more Hispanic, through both immigration and Latinos' higher birthrates. Such growth is fastest in the Southwest but happening everywhere.

"By 2023, over 50 percent of children in America will be non-Anglo," former U.S. Census Bureau chief Steve Murdock also told the group. By 2050, over half of the labor force will be so-called minorities. ("Anglo" refers to most anyone who isn't Hispanic, black or Asian.)

All the above belongs on the table for any honest discussion of U.S. immigration reform. The number-crunchers excel at spelling out the demographic realities now and in the likely future. What they don't do is determine whether these trends are good, for whom they are good and whether they should continue.

That is for the American public to decide. And in wrestling with the issues, it would help to set aside both political correctness and racism.

A rising star in Texas politics, Castro promotes the "asset" view. An entrepreneurial culture makes Latinos a fast-growing segment of small business owners, he says. And despite the high-school dropout rates, more are going to college.

Others argued that these immigrants meet a U.S. demand for labor. And an aging America needs them to support the older folks.

Geronimo Gutierrez Fernandez, former deputy foreign minister of Mexico, remarked that "the country that suffers the most out of immigration is Mexico because the best people are leaving."

All these statements are true ... but. Much of the demand for labor is really for cheaper labor that undercuts the most economically vulnerable Americans. (Mass immigration has hastened the declining fortunes of our low-skilled workers.)

It's true that immigration has cost Mexico many of its most ambitious people. At the same time, it helps the Mexican elites get rid of potential malcontents who would demand needed change.

More questions: Immigrants may help solve the problems of a declining population, but wouldn't educated foreigners do that best? High-tech professionals from India or Romania (or Latin America, for that matter) have skills that our economy most needs. And they are less likely to tap welfare benefits.

Demographic forces, of course, don't stand still. Mexico's once-high fertility rate has plunged to about replacement level. The country's population may actually start declining in 20 years.

And like past immigrant groups, Latinos are expected to have fewer children as the generations progress. "Texas projects a substantial decline in Hispanic birthrates over time," said Murdock, who now teaches at Rice University in Houston.

But pressure to cross our southern border remains intense. In addressing that and other immigration issues, the following assumptions would improve the debate:

-- Poor immigrants, be they legal or illegal, should be treated with dignity. Portraying these hard-laboring people as some sort of criminal class is plain nuts.
-- The American public gets to decide who comes here and how many, not would-be immigrants.
-- While the demand for workers should inform these decisions, American employers have no God-given right to cheap labor.
-- Immigration laws must be enforced.
-- Such enforcement should not single out Hispanics or any other group.

A bipartisan immigration reform plan now making the rounds in Washington embraces all these assumptions. It would align future immigration flows with the national interest. And the national interest is what should matter most.


Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.              

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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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