What if we tried to recruit immigrants?

What if we tried to recruit immigrants?
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President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE says that he wants comprehensive immigration reform. Instead of focusing on the border wall, Trump can really disrupt the conversation by focusing on the impact immigration has on an aging country like the United States.

Imagine this: You’re a CEO and the company board has asked you to present a talent recruitment plan to shareholders. The board knows that in the face of nearly full employment you have to be creative to attract top talent. What would be on your list of recruitment tactics? 


Insulting potential applicants? Physical barriers to keep them from your workplace? Delays in processing that last years? Separating them from their families?

With suggestions like these, your board might say, “You’re fired!”

Yet, these are the strategies the U.S. is employing in the competitive global marketplace, with a significant portion of our future workforce at risk. As our country’s population ages, our working population shrinks. To make up the difference we will need to reach beyond our border to fill jobs, especially caregiving jobs.

Congress sought a compromise and averted another government shutdown, but they and the president overlooked an important challenge: the aging of the world’s population. In an aging world, immigration is a competitive advantage. Congress and the president must ask a simple question: How are we protecting and leveraging that advantage?

Of course, we need to focus on border security in all of its aspects as we consider immigration reform. But we also have to make sure that our country is a positive destination for potential employees, for whom other countries are already competing. 

The demographics are compelling. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that 20 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 or older by the year 2030. In other words, soon Florida's demographic profile will be the nation’s. 

The aging of our population means that we will be in competition for workers in many fields. For example, China's workforce will be shrinking considerably over the next 30 years. As part of the rapid aging of its society, China’s total population is expected to grow only 2 percent between 2010 and 2050, while the U.S. population is predicted to grow by 29 percent during the same period, according to the Pew Research Center. What accounts for the difference? Our historical levels of immigration.

At the very time that we are in keen competition for skilled and unskilled workers, our national leaders seem unaware of how their proposed reforms will undercut our competitive advantage. Japan, for example, with its cultural history of excluding foreigners and the aging of its workforce is now struggling to recruit students to its universities and workers to its economy. We don’t have that cultural legacy. We are still a destination that many immigrants seek out, despite our best efforts to undermine that appeal.

We can see these effects clearly in long-term care. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, someone turning 65 now has an almost 70 percent chance of needing some sort- or long- term care services. What’s the connection to immigration reform? We already rely on immigrant workers for 25 percent of the direct care workforce in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and in home-care agencies. And we can expect international competition for these workers to heat up over the next 20 years, as the OECD countries, Japan and China face the aging of their societies.

My friend Terry’s mom was in her 90s when she started to need help. Through an agency, she found Rachel, a nurse from Kenya who had immigrated to Canada and the United States for better working conditions. Rachel’s salary helped put her daughter through medical school, while her caregiving helped Terry’s mom remain in her home until her death at age 100. This is just one story of many reflecting the direct impact of immigrants in the daily lives of older adults.


Most politicians don’t like to think about aging — their own or their constituency’s. But we need to factor in aging as we consider immigration. For example, a few years ago, Deval Patrick was running for governor of Massachusetts. At a campaign event, I asked how his plans for the state would take into account the aging of the population. He quickly replied: “We’re going to make Massachusetts so attractive, young people will want to move here.” Gov. Patrick’s answer didn’t acknowledge the facts of aging, but it did point to a partial solution: importing talent.

So whether it’s long-term care or the broader global economy in an aging world, when the president and our congressional leaders finalize a set of comprehensive immigration reforms, let’s make sure that they remember aging. To paraphrase Gov. Patrick, let’s make the U.S. so attractive, young people will continue to want to move here.

Michael A. Smyer, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology at Bucknell University and an encore public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.