With a proposed immigration reform compromise deal now before Congress, talk continues to center on so-called undocumented immigrants i? 1/2 the 12 million American residents here illegally and whose presence is either denigrated or celebrated depending on which advocacy group is speaking.
Beyond the undocumenteds, however, the proposed reform bill also transforms the debate by addressing the key role that legal immigrants will play in America's demographic and economic future.
Legal immigrants account for two-thirds of the 36 million U.S. foreign-born population, a fraction that will rise as more undocumenteds become legal. As we move through the 21st century, immigration will be the main driver of America's demographic and economic change.
At present rates, immigrants and their children will account for 60 percent of our population growth in the next 43 years and most of our labor force growth in the next two decades, thanks to the retirement of the baby boom generation. As such, immigration is poised to meet important human capital needs that are crucial to our national and regional economies, especially in such struggling cities as St. Louis.
Yet the existing preference system of admitting legal immigrants is a vestige of the 42-year-old Immigration and Nationality Act. Enacted well before the evolution of a globalized economy that values knowledge workers, it pays little attention to employability and skill levels, focusing instead on such considerations as family reunification. Employment-based admittance accounted for only 17 percent of legal immigrants admitted this decade.
Among recent immigrant adults who became citizens, 20 percent did not graduate from high school compared with 12.5 percent for the native U.S. population. Among all non-citizen immigrants, the figure is 36 percent. For those coming from Mexico, the largest contributing nation to foreign-born U.S. residents, 61 percent did not graduate from high school.
We should be more economically strategic about who is admitted to the nation legally, and a key part of the new bill addresses the issue. As drafted, it proposes a substantial increase in permanent employment-based admissions according to a "points system" that values a prospective legal resident's education and experience.
Already, the Democrats controlling Congress are complaining about the proposal because it reduces family immigration and it does not consider specific linkages to both high- and low-skilled employment needs. Nonetheless, it could open the door to a much-needed fundamental restructuring of our legal immigration system.
An equally important discussion that the bill does not address should focus on what happens to legal immigrants once they arrive, especially regarding the education of the next generation. A recent study by the standardized exam provider Educational Testing Service found that high school graduation rates in the United States peaked at 77 percent in 1969 and have fallen to 70 percent since 1995; graduation rates among minority children are approaching 50 percent.
Focusing on immigration and the educational achievement of Hispanic children, a 2006 National Academy of Sciences report called for greater public investment to prevent their relegation as adults to "unstable, low-paying jobs at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder."
All this suggests that a program of federal assistance for educating the foreign born at the local and state level should be part and parcel of any comprehensive immigration reform.
Almost all observers agree that there is an urgent need for change in America's immigration policy. But this should not stop with a fixation on the nation's undocumented immigrants. We need to give serious reflection to the overall structure of our immigration system, both legal and illegal; it is these immigrants who largely will determine our demographic destiny.
The proposed points system is a start.
William Frey is a demographer at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, a research professor at the University of Michigan Population Studies Center and a Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute. He is the author of "America by the Numbers" (New Press).