A steel wall separates Nogales, Sonora, Mexico from Nogales, Ariz.
A steel wall separates Nogales, Sonora, Mexico from Nogales, Ariz. - 
Listen To The Story


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: The political issue of immigration may not be on the front burner but it's still on the stove. The Senate wants to reconsider a bill it passed last May that required some undocumented works to leave but allowed others to stay. A California professor has joined the immigration debate. He thinks immigrant workers should be valued more because they can help ease the economic pressure soon to be created by retiring Baby Boomers. Nancy Marshall Genzer has the story.

NANCY MARSHALL GENZER: A tsunami of aging baby boomers threatens to swamp our retirement system. Could waves of immigrants be the life raft we're looking for?

Dowell Myers thinks so. He's a demographer at the University of Southern California. He says when the children of today's immigrants grow up, they'll help pay the taxes necessary to support Boomers' retirements and take their places in the workforce.

DOWELL MYERS: Who else is going to replace them? The growth rate of the workforce plunges down to near zero nationwide right before the year 2020. And when it's zero nationwide on average, that means that some states are sucking wind and they're desperately clawing for every single worker they can get.

Problem is, Myers' immigrant life raft is expensive. The army of workers Myers envisions is still in elementary school. He says they and their parents, who are first generation immigrants, need government help to succeed.

But critics, such as John Keeley disagree. He's with the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors immigration limits. Keeley says the center has crunched some federal numbers and their take on the results doesn't look good.

JOHN KEELEY: Immigrants on an annual basis — legal and illegal — pay $16 billion a year in federal tax payments. The problem is they use $26 billion in government services. And so our immigration policy is a recipe for budget disaster.

But Myers, the demographer, sees an even bigger disaster if we don't help immigrants get college degrees. He says, without that education they won't be able to support the retired Boomers.

MYERS: The next generation might be less advantaged. It might be more Latino, less educated, and we're going to tax them much more heavily. So unless they're educated, they can't do it.

Myers is careful to say he doesn't want to increase the number of immigrants. He just wants to invest in those that are already here. That's won Myers points with some economists, including Jared Bernstein at the Economic Policy Institute.

JARED BERNSTEIN: These immigrants are assimilating and entering our schools, our middle class, and I think quantifying that is a critically important contribution to the debate. That doesn't mean that they're going to solve the fiscal challenges created by the Baby Boomers but they'll certainly be part of the solution and that's good.

Myers says it'll be good if he can get Congress thinking that way and focusing on turning waves of immigrants into a pool of future workers.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.