By MARGARET TALEV
Pollster Sergio Bendixen was surveying legal immigrants this month about their attitudes on illegal immigration when he came across a man from India now working in Massachusetts as a demographer for a financial investment firm.
The demographer said he found the debate polarizing Americans and Congress ironic.
"He was saying that the United States, Europe and Japan have two things in common," Bendixen recalled. "They have aging populations, and the people that are in their 30s and 40s are having very few babies. That, 10, 15, 20 years from now, there would be a great shortage of manpower, and that there would actually be tremendous competition to see who could attract immigrants from Latin America, from Asia, from Africa, to come to these industrialized countries to do to the work that is needed to be done by younger people.
"He said it’s going to flip," Bendixen said. "Instead of us talking about, in a sense, repressive immigration policies, we’re going to be talking about what incentives we can offer people to come."
What to do about more than 11 million undocumented residents estimated to be living in the United States has suddenly taken center stage amid concerns about national security and job losses in parts of the country.
Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have marched in Los Angeles, in Washington and in other cities in recent days to protest proposals by some Republicans who control Congress to arrest illegal immigrants, prosecute their employers or religious groups that harbor them, or build walls to seal off the U.S. borders.
But as the debate rages, experts who track longevity, birth rates, globalization and labor markets say the United States must rely more and more on foreign-born workers to fill jobs in the decades ahead _ whether they are here legally or not.
"We’re not replacing ourselves demographically anymore in this society," said Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
"We are an aging society and we have less and less younger workers that are moving into the labor force," she said. "We have jobs that require those younger workers and that gap is being filled by immigrant labor. Where we’ve been really remiss in our political process is that we haven’t adjusted our immigration policy to take that into account."
Legislation passed last year by the House of Representatives would beef up patrols and build a 700-mile wall along the southern U.S. border. But that bill did not address the issue of allowing temporary workers, something President Bush and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say is needed to ensure a labor supply for low-paying jobs Americans don’t want to do or certain high-skilled jobs Americans don’t know how to do.
Now the Senate is considering its course of action. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., wants a border security bill. But the Senate Judiciary Committee this week voted, with a breakaway group of Republicans joining the minority Democrats on the panel, to support legislation going beyond even the guest-worker program the president envisions, allowing most undocumented workers already here to get a temporary work card and eventually seek permanent residency or citizenship if they pay fees and clear a background check.
Debate on immigration legislation began Wednesday in the Senate and is expected to last at least a week. If a bill is passed, the House and Senate would need to go to a conference to come up with a compromised bill.
"We are open to any suggestions," Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told colleagues Wednesday. "Let’s get some real immigration reform."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., indicated Wednesday he is open to considering a guest-worker program if that is the will of the Senate, a development Specter called "a very positive sign."
It’s unclear whether, particularly in an election year, the disparate camps can reach a final agreement on any comprehensive legislation to send to Bush.
But looking two decades out, Meissner said, there will be stiff competition with other industrialized nations for high-skilled labor.
She thinks that’s less likely on the low-skilled end because of geographic ties, cultural differences and the sheer volume of willing low-wage workers worldwide.
"(Western) Europe has sources of low-skilled workers nearby, from Africa and Eastern and Central Europe. The U.S. has sources of low-skilled workers in Mexico, Latin American and the Caribbean," she said.
"Japan I think will struggle harder than any of the other advanced industrial societies, simply because of their strong belief that homogeneity is the source of strength of their society. But to the degree they do reach out to workers, the sources of supply in Asia are enormous."
In any case, Meissner said, these trends already are playing out.
"The way it’s talked about politically is that people don’t apply for these jobs _ and they don’t," she said. "Some labor economists would say if you just raise the wage high enough you’ll get workers. And that’s partly true. But it is heavily oversimplifying it. The deeper truth is that, demographically, we’re a different nation from what we have been pre-1990s."
About 11 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born. But 14 percent to 15 percent of the nation’s labor force is foreign born. One in five low-wage workers is foreign born. The unemployment rate is less than 5 percent.
A study released in November using Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed how heavily some of the fastest growing fields already rely on immigrant labor. The number of jobs for computer software engineers in the United States, for example, was projected to rise by 48 percent by the year 2014; roughly 27 percent of those jobs already were held by foreign-born workers. On the other end of the scale, work for home health aides was expected to increase 56 percent; immigrants comprised 17 percent of such workers at the start of this decade.
While immigrants may be taking jobs away from Americans in some labor markets and geographic areas, nationwide, Meissner said, beginning in the last decade, statistics suggests there are not enough native-born Americans to fill new job growth taking place.
This is a contentious conclusion, however.
Andrew Sum, an economics professor and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, said Americans are being substantially displaced from jobs by immigrants, and "the big losers" are young men, teens and low-income minorities whom Democrats court as constituents.
"There has been much more competition among native-born workers and immigrants for jobs" than many Democrats and Republicans who favor guest worker programs would let on, he said. Unemployment rates are artificially low, Sum said, because many young Americans have given up and dropped out of the job market altogether.
"The country does need immigrants," he said, "but we’ve ignored the displacement effect in the last five years."
Using government data, the Center for Labor Market Studies compared a total employment change of 4.8 million jobs between 2000 and 2005, to estimates there were 4.1 million new immigrant workers over the same period.
The center concluded that foreign-born labor accounted for 85 percent of the increase in the U.S. labor force, and 104 percent of the increase in men.
"Native-born men are employed at lower rates today than they were in 2000," Sum said. "They haven’t gotten any new jobs in five years. This is the first time in U.S. history that’s true."
Twenty years from now, America’s jobs landscape may well resemble the scenario painted by the Indian demographer and already being faced in Japan and Western Europe, Sum said, but it isn’t there yet.