Now that the dependent population in affluent countries includes a much smaller proportion of children than ever before, increased pressure on social resources is already provoking generational conflict in the ambitious welfare states of northern Europe. If political deliberation about the impending welfare crisis remains within a framework based primarily on the idea of competition for scarce resources, the outlook for the most vulnerable members of society is grim—as witness the growing normalization of the extermination of persons who become inconvenient and burdensome to maintain at life’s frail beginnings and endings.
Opinion leaders in the aging societies of Europe and the United States have generally avoided mentioning the relation between the birth dearth and the need for immigration. Consequently, there has been little discussion of what should be obvious: An affluent society that, for whatever reason, does not welcome babies is going to have to learn to welcome immigrants if it hopes to maintain its economic vigor and its commitments to the health and welfare of its population.(emphasis mine) The issue is not who will do jobs that Americans don’t want. The issue is who will fill the ranks of a labor force that the retiring generation failed to replenish.
Meeting the challenge of the declining ratio between active workers and retirees will require many sorts of adaptations, but replacement migration will have to play a part in crafting effective responses. The good news is that America enjoys several advantages over Europe. To begin with, the United States has a fertility rate of 2.08 babies per woman, while in the European Union the estimated 2005 fertility rate was 1.47, well below the replacement figure of 2.1. More, the United States has a long history of successful experience in absorbing large numbers of new citizens from many parts of the world. (While the absolute number of new immigrants is currently the highest in United States history, it is proportionately less than in previous eras of large-scale immigration.)
However, Ms. Glendon also acknowledges America’s almost unique respect for the rule of law. Any policy that seems to flout the importance of law will be unworkable. Therefore, general amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States is not a realistic option.
Overshadowing all other concerns is alarm over the fact that there are 11 or 12 million immigrants in the United States who have entered or remained in the country illegally. To comprehend the depth of feeling attached to that issue, one has to keep in mind that there is no country on Earth where legal values play a more prominent role in the nation’s conception of itself than the United States. That was one of the first things Tocqueville noticed in his travels here in the early 1830s, and, as the country has grown larger and more diverse, its reliance on legal values has become ever more salient. In the culture struggles of the late twentieth century, Americans had to rely more heavily than ever on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the rule of law to serve as unifying forces. Persons who come from societies bound together by shared history, stories, songs, and images can easily overlook or underrate the importance of this aspect of United States culture. Persons who come from societies where formal law is associated with colonialism may well find the United States’ emphasis on legality rather strange. But no solution to the challenges of immigration is likely to succeed without taking it into account.
Ms. Glendon offers a framework for crafting a solution. It is based on the principles set forth by the Mexican and U.S. bishops in their 2003 pastoral letter.
The five principles set forth in the 2003 Joint Pastoral Letter issued by the Mexican and U.S. bishops, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, might be helpful in setting the stage for new approaches that could expand the pie for both sending and receiving countries. The letter asserts that (1) persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland; (2) when opportunities are not available at home, persons have the right to migrate to find work to support themselves and their families; (3) sovereign nations have the right to control their boundaries, but economically stronger nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows; (4) refugees and asylum seekers fleeing wars and persecutions should be protected; and (5) the human dignity and rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.
To those five principles, a sixth should be added: a principle recognizing the need for a highly diverse, rule-of-law society to be careful about the messages it sends to persons who wish to become part of that society. And the bishops might have done well to note, as Pope John Paul II did in Solicitudo Rei Socialis, that solidarity imposes duties on the disadvantaged as well as the advantaged: “Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity should not adopt a purely passive attitude, or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all(emphasis mine).”
Perhaps if we can calm the rhetoric, we can see our way clearly to respect the human dignity of all concerned while still honoring and protecting our national well being and sovereignty.