Supporters of the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill expressed frustration and disappointment with the legislation's ultimate demise last month. Democratic backers sought to pin the bill's failure on President George W. Bush-just one more shortcoming of a dysfunctional administration, they charged. Defeated Republicans lashed out at members of their own party for caving to the political heat of a talk-radio-led conservative outcry.
Such spirited blame-shifting and sour grapes betray the finality of the Senate's June 28 vote to kill the bill. Subsequent reform efforts will not likely resurface until 2009, despite widespread agreement that current policies remain untenable. Expressing dismay over the outcome, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) reminded a celebrating opposition that its victory provided no resolution to the country's massive illegal immigration problem: "This issue is not going away."
Or is it? Robert M. Dunn Jr., an economics professor at George Washington University, says that sharply declining birth rates in many Latin American countries will eventually dissolve the flow of illegal immigration to the United States independent of any act of Congress. "We're looking at a very different situation in a decade," he told WORLD.
Dunn examined statistics from the World Bank's 2007 Annual Development Indicators and discovered a common trend among nations from which the United States draws significant numbers of illegal workers. In Mexico, for example, the total fertility rate plummeted from 3.3 children per woman in 1990 to 2.1 children per woman in 2005. The 2.1 figure, which mirrors the fertility rate of the United States, represents a break-even point beneath which a country's population destabilizes.
Unlike Mexico, the U.S. fertility rate has not changed since 1990, suggesting it may avoid dipping below the 2.1 level. But Dunn believes increased access to education and a changing social climate in Mexico will continue drawing more women into the labor force and push fertility rates even lower. He predicts similar futures for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Jamaica, all of which have experienced considerable drops in fertility rates over the past two decades.
The combined fertility rate for all of Latin America and the Caribbean fell from 3.2 in 1990 to 2.4 in 2005, a decrease of 25 percent. Chile (2.0), Costa Rica (2.0), and Trinidad and Tobago (1.6) have already dipped beneath the break-even point.
Dunn says such numbers should, at least, cool some of the searing anti-immigrant rhetoric: "This ought to take a little of the nasty emotion out of the debate, because it says we've got a problem for a few more years, a decade or two." But fertility rates have no bearing on the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently within the United States or the millions more who could come illegally over the next "decade or two."
Many conservatives were certainly unready to wait when the now defeated immigration bill first debuted on the Senate floor. Numerous talk radio hosts, most notably Rush Limbaugh, unapologetically broke ranks with the Bush administration to savage the proposed legislation as abject amnesty. Limbaugh and others have since claimed credit for preventing sufficient numbers of GOP senators from backing the bill.
Dunn, himself a conservative, believes such stiff opposition to more lenient immigration laws will wane in the coming years as the United States scrambles to find a labor force. The combination of retiring baby boomers with declining birth rates could alter the national conversation beyond recognition. "There's going to be a worldwide competition for able, educated workers," he said. "Anyone who is productive is going to be in demand."
Of course, many illegal immigrants aren't educated, and there's no guarantee that a birthrate slowdown will change the desire of millions to get to the United States, unless many Latin American governments and economies rapidly improve. In any event, a change potentially two decades away represents a painfully slow cure. Of course, given the difficulty of passing legislation on the matter, Congress might take 20 years, too.