Demographer William Frey: 3 Must-Knows Regarding Immigration

William Frey, a demographer who has done extensive research on urban populations, migration, immigration, race, and aging, spoke with The Next America on what pending immigration policies might mean to the nation's future.

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A leading analyst with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, Frey immediately directs the conversation to the 11 million undocumented individuals — about 3 percent of the 315 million living in the United States.

"It seems to have the lion's share of the debate," Frey says. As the nation's population shifts continue to transform communities across the country, more discussions should be focused on how the descendants of these immigrants — their U.S.-born children — will fill jobs as waves of baby boomers begin to retire, he says.

Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with The Next America.

What demographic facts are not being talked about initially during this immigration debate?

Currently, about 13 percent of the population is age 65 or older. Over the next 20 years, we're going to have 14 million whites, primarily native-born whites, leaving the labor force. Almost all the gains will be among Hispanics and other minority groups, and descendants of immigrants. For the nation's economy and workforce to be strong, we must address how people will fill some of those jobs. The dynamic productivity of our country is going to be a result of past, current, and future immigration, of people in their productive years. Otherwise we're going to be extremely top-heavy.

You mentioned different demographic groups aging into the workforce. What should policymakers focus on?  

As far as the workforce, we need to see if the children of immigrants who are already here are getting a good education that will propel them into the middle class. We're not hearing anything on this in the current immigration policy. It's all about who gets to come into the door.

In the immigration debate, we're constantly hearing about the need for high-skilled workers, for people with credentials in critical areas. Why don't we hear about the jobs done by farmworkers, for instance?

Right now, the country has a patchwork of immigration pieces that deal with low- and high-skilled workers. We need to have an immigration policy that recognizes the labor-force needs of this country, whatever they are. Clearly, we focus on the high-skilled workers because they have the greatest productivity for the economy. But low-skilled jobs are important, too. As we get a bigger middle-class population, we will need people to work in many of those lower-skilled jobs which may not be filled with our existing population.


Want to dig deeper? More on the topic from The Next America