Washington

Immigrant fertility plunges in U.S., drops below replacement rate for first time


Immigrants’ fertility rate in the U.S. has plunged in recent years, dipping below the replacement rate for the first time in history, according to a new report Tuesday that challenges claims that the country can use more immigration to solve the costs of its aging population.

The Center for Immigration Studies calculates that the total fertility rate reached 2.02 children per immigrant woman in 2019, well below the 2.1 rate necessary to replace the existing population. In 2008, the TFR for immigrant women stood at 2.75.

Steven A. Camarota, the lead author of the study, said that undercuts conventional wisdom that the U.S. can rely on immigrants to rejuvenate an elderly population.

“Immigration is no fix for an aging society,” he said. “It doesn’t increase your fertility rate very much.”

Mr. Camarota even said there’s some evidence in the numbers, albeit preliminary, that immigrants actually decrease the fertility rate of native-born women, perhaps by driving up housing or other costs and complicating the decision to have more children.

“If true — and I emphasize if true — it completely shatters the idea that you can use immigration to increase your fertility and make your society much younger,” he said.

The TFR is a projection of how many children the average woman will have in her lifetime. Mr. Camarota’s study is based on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which asks women ages 15-50 if they had a child in the last year, and also asks about whether they are native or immigrant.

Immigrant women still have higher fertility rates than native-born women, but the lines are converging quickly. In 2008, immigrant TFR was 2.75, while native TFR was 2.07. Now those numbers are 2.02 and 1.69.

Among Hispanic immigrants, traditionally the most fertile demographic, the rate has dropped from 3.15 in 2008 to 2.24 in 2019.

When fertility is measured in births per thousand, a different yardstick than TFR, the lines are also converging, with immigrant women falling from 90.8 in 2008 to 70.9 last year, and native-born women going from 66.5 to 55.7.

The 2019 numbers come before the coronavirus pandemic, which demographers say is likely to cut even deeper into fertility.

The debate over whether immigrants can help support an aging population has raged for decades, with those favoring higher rates of immigration arguing they are usually younger and more willing to work, and so they can help a society pay for expensive social safety net programs.

“More immigration, especially in rapidly aging countries, would help slow the growth of the age dependency ratio,” Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis, argued in a paper in March in Finance & Development.

At a congressional hearing last week, John Littieri, CEO of the Economic Innovation Group, which pushes for more skilled visas, made a similar argument.

“Alongside policies that make it easier to start and support a family, immigration policy is one of the few and most obvious ways to counter demographic decline,” he said.

Mr. Camarota said he sees two problems with that. The first is that it would take massive levels of immigration to make a dent in the dependency ratio, and the U.S. system is set up around family migration.

In short, he said, even when younger workers come they often bring parents.

The age of newcomers has risen from 26 in 2000 to 31 in 2017, Mr. Camarota calculated in a 2019 study.

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