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Diane Mufson: Nation's economy relies on immigrants

Feb. 06, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Immigration is a topic that just will not go away. And why should it? After all, we are mostly a nation of immigrants. Some of us, as well as our ancestors, arrived legally and willingly; others came to our shores as slaves. In recent years, many entered our country illegally.

Today some Americans believe immigration should be halted except for accepting extremely accomplished individuals. But we cannot do this. It is not a question of whether we want new immigrants; it is that we actually need them. If we do not embrace new immigrants, we will end up facing Japan's population problem.

Japan's problem is simple math. They are not reproducing themselves at a rate that will keep adequate numbers of healthy young people in the workforce. Census figures suggest that the average young Japanese family has 1.4 children. They are top heavy with old folks who will soon become a larger percentage of their population.

Sound familiar? It should. It is the new population demographics of developed nations. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American birthrate is under 2.0 children. With the exception of some very religious denominations and those who do not plan for pregnancies, the birthrate in developed nations has fallen for many reasons.

These include birth control, education and greatly improved infant survival rates. Many of us came from families with large numbers of children. Not today. Women recognized it was not good for their physical, economic or mental health to have large numbers of children.

In past generations, rural families benefited from having many offspring. As American mobility and the exodus from farms occurred, smaller families became the norm. By the late 20th century many women opted for careers, economic independence and delayed motherhood.

The genie is out of the bottle. It cannot be put back in. Educated American women (and at this point there are more women attending college than men) are not ready or willing to populate our nation with enough people to do the work that needs to be done and support the economy with a large percentage of senior citizens.

We need new young hard-working people in this country. We want the kind of people who made the country what it is today (OK, leave Congress out of it). We cannot manufacture people and so the only thing we can do is bring them here.

We need a rational approach to immigration, which is a subject that does not lead easily to rational discussion. Yet, we do have one great advantage over Japan and other homogeneous nations regarding immigration. Countries where most of the citizens look alike find that immigrants who vary in physical features are rarely fully accepted. Therefore, those immigrants find it difficult to become part of the homogeneous society.

We Americans are different. Not only were the original settlers of our nation not Caucasian, but we have had people representing almost every ethnic and religious group here from our country's earliest days.

While some Americans still find it more comfortable to associate with people with similar backgrounds, we understand that one of our nation's strengths is the overall diversity of America's population. We may not be a melting pot, but at least we seem to be a rather tasty stew.

It has become obvious that we need to deal with our nation's ongoing immigration issues in a sane and organized fashion. If America is to continue its drive for greatness, it will have to embrace immigration or face Japan's population problems.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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