The politics of immigration can be a bit unpredictable. A case in point is the way some prominent conservatives are talking about the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America. Most right-wingers, along with the leadership of the Republican Party, are talking about nothing except tightening up border security and sending these juveniles back as quickly as possible. But a few have taken a different position: At least with respect to the kids, they are saying, we should invite them to stay.
Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host and longtime champion of “securing the border,” made this case earlier this month in an op-ed for Politico Magazine. “Right now the country ought to act to end the humanitarian crisis of tens of thousands of what are, in effect, orphans and strangers in our land,” Hewitt wrote. “The very young among them should find ‘forever families’ right here, right now. They should become Americans.” On Sunday, during an appearance on Fox News, conservative columnist George Will said essentially the same thing. “My view is that we have to say to the children, 'Welcome to America. You're going to go to school and get a job and become Americans,'” Will said. “The idea that we can't assimilate these 8-year-old criminals with their teddy bears is preposterous."
The policy implications of immigration are complex, as any expert will tell you. But there’s one reason to think that Hewitt and Will are onto something. It’s a demographic fact that gets surprisingly little attention—the fact that, if not for immigrants and their children, the U.S. child population would be shrinking.
There are more than 17 million children with at least one immigrant parent in the U.S. They represent over a quarter of the 70 million people under 18 years old. Their proportion will grow over time, as the number of children born to non-immigrant parents declines—in both relative and absolute terms.
This matters, because today’s young people make up tomorrow’s productive workforce, generating economic activity and supporting retirees. We already face a declining young-to-old population ratio, putting huge strain on Social Security and other safety net programs. The children of immigrants will provide a crucial and growing buffer against this demographic shift.
Rather than embrace this fact, though, our current immigration system is actually quite harmful to children, often separating them from their parents and harming, rather than nourishing, their development.
Zach McDade is a researcher and communications specialist at the Urban Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @zmcdade. The views expressed here are his alone, and are not intended to reflect those of the Urban Institute.