February 14, 2019
Projections of future immigration patterns show a dramatic increase in the U.S. population, but not a significant impact on the working-age population.
The argument that immigration is needed to increase the number of workers in the U.S. is plausible, as immigrants tend to be younger when they come to the country, said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies. But the ability to do that is “quite limited,” he said at a CIS event Feb. 14.
If immigration follows Census Bureau projections, 59 percent of the U.S. population will be “working age,” between 18 and 64, by 2060, Camarota said. But if immigration drops to only a third of those projections, the working-age population still would be 58 percent that year, he said.
The results come from recent research by Camarota and Karen Zeigler, a demographer with the CIS, which supports lower immigration levels.
“Raising the age of retirement has a bigger bang than immigration in affecting the proportion of so-called working age population in the country,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist with the American Enterprise Institute. But there’s also the question of whether more or less immigration will result in a “correspondingly high proportion of people who are actually working,” not just working age, he said.
A large proportion of unmarried, lower-skilled, native-born U.S. men aren’t employed, Eberstadt said. But “this is a social problem in the United States entirely apart from the migration question,” he said.
Felony convictions, opioid addiction, and disability all factor into employment rates for that group of Americans, Eberstadt said.
A flow of immigrant workers may reduce the incentive to confront these issues, Camarota said.
Other groups studying the effect of immigration on employment have reached different conclusions.
The Pew Research Center concluded that new immigration will be the sole driver of the growth of the working-age population through at least 2035. Without new immigrants coming to the U.S., the total working-age population will drop by about 17.6 million.
The Bipartisan Policy Institute also found that employment for native-born Americans will increase by 0.055 to 0.075 percentage points for every percentage point increase in the immigrant share of the labor force. The number is small but statistically significant, translating to one job for native-born Americans for every 20 immigrants admitted, the group said.
“Skills matter. Skills matter a lot,” said B. Lindsay Lowell, a visiting researcher with Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The issue of how many immigrants to admit to the U.S. “is married very strongly to who we bring in and what skill levels” they carry, he said.
His comments echoed calls by President Donald Trump for a “merit-based” immigration system that focuses on skills and individual contributions rather than family ties.
Shifting more toward a skill-based system would only improve economic outcomes, Lowell said in response to a question from Bloomberg Law. But there are ways of “nudging” the immigration system in that direction that aren’t a complete shift, he said.
“There’s just no question that more educated immigrants do much better,” Camarota said. But “it’s more complicated” than simple educational level, he said.
Whether a skilled immigrant successfully contributes to the U.S. depends on where he or she was educated, as immigrants educated in the U.S. tend to do better than those with foreign degrees, he said.