By John Feffer
Germany faces a major crisis.
The German birth rate is considerably below what’s needed to replace the population. German seniors, meanwhile, are living longer and drawing more on state resources for their pensions and health care.
There are basically two ways out of this demographic crisis. First of all, Germany could boost its birth rate.
The German state provides generous family leave and child-care policies—not to mention the famous Kindergelt, the direct monthly payments of child benefits—and the fertility rate has indeed edged up over the years from 1.24 children per woman in 1994 to 1.57 today. But the trend in industrialized countries suggests that it will be difficult to push the rate much higher. The closest to the replacement rate of 2.1 children that any EU country gets is France at 1.88.
The second way out of Germany’s crisis would be through immigration. The country could throw open its doors to people from all over the world to take unwanted and unfilled jobs, pay taxes, and support the increasingly aging population.
That is exactly what Germany did. The government of Angela Merkel, in 2015 and 2016, accepted over a million refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Germany now has the fifth largest population of refugees in the world (after Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, and Uganda).
This headline-grabbing decision, five years later, has been a remarkable success. The million refugees have prospered, reports the Center for Global Development.
Today, about half have found a job, paid training, or internship. On arrival, only about one percent declared having good or very good German language skills. By 2018, that figure had increased to 44 percent…Such successful integration also has impacted the local German population. For example, between 2008 and 2015, the number of employees in companies founded by migrants grew by 50 percent (to 1.5 million). It has also mobilized civil society. A survey by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research suggests that 55 percent of Germans have contributed to the integration of refugees since 2015.
In 2015, nearly everyone in the media—German, European, international—referred to the millions of desperate people trying to get into Europe as an “immigration crisis.” They should have given it a different label: the immigration solution to the continent’s demographic crisis. Germany wisely chose to take advantage of this opportunity, while the countries of Eastern Europe by and large have embraced demographic suicide.
The naysayers had a field day back in 2015 with their predictions of political failure for Merkel and social chaos for Germany. Today, Germany continues to be the strongest European economy. It struggled during the pandemic, but is now rapidly scaling up its vaccinations. And the anti-immigrant backlash, represented by the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland, has ebbed, with the popularity of the party falling to 11 percent in recent polls. Meanwhile, with its liberal platform on immigration, the Green Party has surged to 25 percent and may well win the September 2021 elections.
It’s useful to bear the German experience in mind as the United States once again tackles its own “immigration crisis.”
Immigrants Are a Gift
The United States has been the exception to the demographic rule for industrialized countries. The U.S. fertility rate, at 1.73, is also well below replacement. But because of a constant stream of immigrants, America has managed to grow at a healthy clip.
That began to change in the 2010s. According to the latest Census numbers, the United States grew at the second slowest rateover the last decade since the founding of the country. The culprits were a declining fertility rate—the birthrate has declined 19 percent since peaking in 2007—and a reduction in the number of immigrants. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic—in terms of mortality, long-term disability, and anxiety over economic insecurity—will only make matters worse.
America has always depended on immigrants and undocumented workers. That dependency has only grown more acute over the years. Let’s take a look at four critical sectors.
Between half and three-quarters of the farmworkers who ensure a supply of food to the American population are undocumented workers, and many of the rest are recent immigrants. The pandemic hit farmworkers and food manufacturing workers hard, and even the Trump administration had to acknowledge them as essential workers in reducing their risk of deportation (though not providing them additional protection against infection).
Even before the pandemic hit, the food sector faced a shortage of workers. “In a 2017 survey of farmers by the California Farm Bureau, 55 percent reported labor shortages, and the figure was nearly 70 percent for those who depend on seasonal workers,” according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, Congress (read: Republicans in the Senate) has failed to provide a legal framework for what remains an essential workforce, pandemic or no pandemic, though the recent Farm Workforce Modernization Act has a shot of passing with bipartisan support to provide a million undocumented farmworkers with legal status.
The health-care sector similarly depends on immigrants. Of the nearly 15 million people working in the health sector, about 18 percent are immigrants. COVID-19 is going to exact a heavy toll on this sector, though. According to a recent Washington Postpoll, one in three health-care workers are thinking about exiting the profession: “Many talked about the betrayal and hypocrisy they feel from the public they have sacrificed so much to save—their clapping and hero-worship one day, then refusal to wear masks and take basic precautions the next, even if it would spare health workers the trauma of losing yet another patient.”
Even without pandemic-related job changes, the United States has been looking at a major upcoming nursing shortage: over a million new RNs are needed by 2022. Nursing schools are just not keeping up with the demand created by retirement.
Manufacturing, challenged by foreign competition and outsourcing, has infamously declined in the United States. Despite the spread of automation, this sector too needs more workers. There are currently 500,000 job openings, and one recent report estimates 2.1 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2030.
Then there’s domestic work, one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S economy. Home health aides, child-care providers, housecleaners: the vast majority are women and more than one-third are foreign-born. “By 2026, care jobs will constitute one of the fastest growing professions in the country, and we will need more caregivers and nannies than we have ever needed before,” writes the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Home-based elder care is already the single fastest growing occupation in our entire economy due to the rapidly growing aging population.”
Home health aides directly take care of aging Americans. But the United States needs younger workers across all professions to keep alive federal programs like Social Security that support aging Americans. The cohort of people aged 55 to 64 grew by 70 percent between 2000 and 2016 while the working-age population expanded by only 15 percent. That’s bad news for people looking to retire in the future on their Social Security benefits.
Fortunately, immigrants have come to the rescue. They are overwhelmingly working age and have a higher participation rate in the labor force than the native born. Their contributions to Social Security help keep the system afloat. The undocumented have been even more generous, providing an estimated $12 billion to the Social Security system through payroll taxes in 2010 alone (without much hope of ever drawing from the system themselves).
Even with these contributions, however, Social Security is still expected to face a major funding shortfall by 2035 under current projections. One answer: more immigrants!
If this story were a fairy tale, the immigrant would be the goose that lays the golden egg. Immigrants didn’t just build America. They are essential to the health and prosperity of the country today. Immigrants are the gift that keeps on giving.
Whenever a goose starts laying golden eggs, however, someone invariably starts talking about wringing the poor animal’s neck and impoverishing everyone involved.
The Politics of Immigration
The Republican Party remade itself into an anti-immigrant force before Donald Trump entered the political scene. Tea Party insurgents called for closing the border with Mexico. David Brat, an unknown economist, ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 Virginia race by hammering at the immigration issue. Trump, however, took immigration and ran with it, promising to build a new wall along the southern border, shut down travel from predominantly Muslim countries, and make it nearly impossible for refugees and asylum-seekers to find haven in the United States.
Because of Trump’s success in turning his extreme positions into federal policy, immigration largely disappeared as an electoral issue in 2020. The Republican Party focused instead on economic attacks (Biden as a “socialist”) and cultural broadsides (the perennial racist and misogynist dog whistles).
But with the Democrats back in the White House and in control of Congress, immigration will likely become again a major campaign issue in the mid-term elections. The economy is on an upswing, the pandemic is waning, and the Biden administration has been competent and relatively scandal-free. Without an actual platform of their own since they decided to turn their party into a personality cult, the Republicans will inevitably characterize the influx of people over the border as a “crisis” and the president’s “biggest failure.”
The numbers at the border have indeed increased, with the influx for April near a 20-year high. Despite the Republican Party criticisms, these numbers are not the result of Biden administration policies. The number of people apprehended at the border, for instance, spiked in 2018, under Trump, at more than 850,000, which obviously had nothing to do with Biden.
The surge so far this year is largely seasonal, a result of pent-up demand from the COVID-19 border closures, and a function of all the applicants stranded south of the border by Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. The numbers already appear to be plateauing. And the number of unaccompanied minors being held in Border Patrol facilities dropped dramatically in the last week.
The Biden administration has reversed many of Trump’s policies, canceling funding for the border wall, reversing the “Muslim travel ban,” and dismantling the “Remain in Mexico” program. Without any fanfare, the president also allowed the ban on guest worker visas to expire at the end of March. Pictures of joyful family reunifications at the border are now replacing Trump-era images of children separated from the parents.
The administration has also pledged to address the root causes of migration by funding initiatives in Central America that will reduce violence and corruption, stabilize economies, and address humanitarian crises. That, of course, is easier said than done given the authoritarian leadership in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Tasked with tackling this issue, Vice President Kamala Harris is well aware of the folly of funneling aid into corrupt governments, and she is reportedly lining up civil society representatives to meet on upcoming visits to the region. A long-term strategy of fostering political and economic transformation in the region, however, won’t win any points with Republicans or most voters in the United States in the short term.
The recent kerfuffle around refugee policy illustrates the political stakes.
As a candidate, Biden promised to bring U.S. policies on refugees and asylum in line with international standards and raise the annual ceiling to more or less the level of the Obama years. Because of a failure to file the necessary paperwork, however, the number of refugees admitted into the United States in the first months of the Biden administration remained extremely low. Because refugees are often conflated in the public mind with immigrants—and the administration’s immigration policy was getting poor marks in the polls—the president tried to get away with suppressing the number of incoming refugees. Challenged by members of his own party, Biden again reversed himself, returning to the previous promise of a cap for the remainder of this year of 62,500 and an annual ceiling of 125,000 for 2022.
The back-and-forth on refugee policy is an unusual deviation from an otherwise consistent set of policies coming from the administration. It’s a sign that immigration will continue to be subject to finger-in-the-wind calculations rather than rational debate. It’s a shame that it will require enormous political courage to embrace policies that are in the best interest of the United States, whether from the point of view of the labor force, the sustainability of the social welfare system, or the livelihoods of the newest residents of the country.
Republicans, with their steadfast commitment to political divisiveness and firearms, love to shoot themselves in the foot. There’s no reason for the rest of the country to follow suit. Maybe a delegation of Syrian-Germans can come to America on a speaking tour to explain how a “crisis” is really an opportunity.
*John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.