Will we have enough workers?

SHANNON O'NEIL, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, teaches in the political science department at Columbia University and is working on a book about Mexico-U.S. relations.

AS MANY IN Congress, in the media and in homes across the country debate the best way to stem the flow of undocumented workers across the Rio Grande, they don’t seem to be aware that this perceived problem is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In fact, the immigration concern of the future could well be how to entice Mexicans and other Latin Americans to cross into the U.S. in the numbers we need.

Mexico is undergoing a demographic transition. According to the Mexican census bureau, long gone are the days of families with six, seven or 10 kids. Instead, Mexican women now average 2.2 births — only slightly above the average 2.1 births that occur in the United States and that are considered the “replacement rate,” the level needed to maintain a stable population over time. Life expectancy in Mexico has increased to 75 years, compared to 77 in the United States. With fewer births and longer lives, by 2050, Mexico will become as old as the United States. In short, Mexico is about to age dramatically.

In the last 10 years, nearly 5 million Mexicans have come to the U.S. They’ve done many jobs, especially agricultural and construction work, keeping our food prices low and enabling the recent housing boom. The “pull” of plentiful U.S. jobs and higher salaries has been an important factor in this migration, but so has the “push” of Mexico’s fast-growing, economically-active population, combined with weak job creation.


This situation is about to change. Job growth is a key component of President Felipe Calderon’s agenda in Mexico. But even without faster job creation there, migration pressure — the “push” — will ease. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the economically-active population — which grew by more than 1 million new members each year during the 1990s — now adds just 500,000 annually. Over the next 10 years that means about 5 million fewer new workers compared to the previous decade — a number that’s roughly equal to the population of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States. This suggests that demography may accomplish what border enforcement has not. In the next decade, the tide of northbound Mexican labor will likely recede.

At the same time, the United States is on the brink of its own massive demographic change. The first baby boomers are becoming eligible for Social Security benefits, and over the next 25 years, many will retire. The next generation, Generation X, with 15 million fewer members, doesn’t have the critical mass to fill their shoes, much less new job openings. The generation after that, Generation Y — now ranging in age from babies to college students — is larger, so it will partly alleviate the labor crunch. But Gen Y workers are also likely to follow form and be better educated than their elders, which will push them toward high-skill careers. Immigrants will still be needed if the U.S. economy is to continue growing.

The immigration policy debate needs to grapple with these future facts. The current demographic situation — a high supply of Mexican migrants and high demand for them from U.S. employers — inexorably reflects the laws of supply and demand. Sealing our borders won’t change that now or help us adjust to changing demographics and labor markets in the future.

Looking forward, the immigration system should balance the pressures of supply and demand, not flout them. It must provide a flexible and legal valve on the labor flow, one that will attract workers who will soon find that staying home isn’t a bad economic choice.

This would include an efficient guest-worker program that rises and falls with labor needs and also provides a potential path to citizenship. It includes a dignified and fair process through which undocumented workers who are here now could be legitimized, and it includes long-term planning with Mexico (and other Latin American nations).

This practical strategy is the only approach to immigration reform that enhances the security of our international borders now and in the long term. It positions the U.S. for continued growth. And it goes far beyond merely reacting to the immediate situation with ineffective and ultimately counter-productive barriers.