Our opinion: We need immigrants, in nation and county

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President Donald Trump has offered a number of rationalizations for his antipathy toward immigrants, the latest of which is "our country is full." Tell that to Idaho or Montana. Or Detroit. Or for that matter, Bennington County and our southern neighbor, Berkshire County.

The reality is that the U.S. population is aging and the birthrate is declining. This translates into a shrinking workforce that hinders businesses and prevents economic growth. To address this problem, the United States, a nation built by immigrants, could compensate for some of these losses by allowing more immigration.

Writing in The New York Times last week, Neil Irwin and Emily Badger laid bare a problem of underpopulation that plagues cities and towns across America. Jobs go unfilled, housing is left vacant and deterioriates, tax bases dry up. Detroit is a prominent example, as years of job losses caused by the departure of much of the automobile industry emptied neighborhoods, leaving them prone to criminal activity, and left City Hall buried beneath a mammoth pension liability. The problem, however, is also more than evident right here at home.

Berkshire County, with its consistently declining population, needs its small immigrant population from various corners of the globe to grow, opening businesses, filling jobs and sending students to schools that are experiencing declining enrollments. A modest resettlement of refugees from Syria and Iraq in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and Berkshire County two years ago would have laid the groundwork for a needed expansion of the immigrant population, but that program fell victim to President Trump's anti-immigrant policies, which are targeted specifically at Hispanics and Muslims to please his base, which has a large white nationalist component.

The problems of Berkshire County are shared by Vermont. Republican Gov. Phil Scott made headlines when he focused his annual budget address last year on the economic problems caused by underpopulation.

"I believe our biggest threat is our declining labor force," declared the governor. "It is at the root of every problem we face. This makes it incredibly difficult for businesses to recruit new employees and expand, harder for communities to grow, and leaves fewer of us to cover the cost of state government."

The Congressional Budget Office, in figures cited by The New York Times writers, foresees the U.S. labor force rising by only 0.5% a year over the coming decade, about one-third as fast as from 1950 to 2007. The result will likely be a sluggish economy and a larger burden on government. There are now 2.8 workers for every recipient of Social Security benefits, which is projected to fall to 2.2 by 2035, creating considerable stress on a program that so many retirees rely upon. Population growth in the United States is at its lowest level since 1937, and it would be even lower if not for the immigrant population, which accounts for 48% of U.S. population growth. The nation needs a boost from immigration, and Berkshire County and Vermont provide textbook examples of where this boost is needed most.

A recent poll in which 84% said legal immigration is good for the country indicates that Americans understand the contributions of immigrants and don't share the White House's bias against them. A great opportunity was squandered during the George W. Bush administration when the White House and congressional Democrats created a path toward citizenship for the nation's illegal immigrants, bringing them out of the shadows, into vacant jobs and onto the tax rolls, only to have their effort sabotaged by congressional Republicans declaring their opposition to "amnesty for illegals." Years later, the illegal immigrants remain illegal, subject to occasional arrests and deportations as has been seen in Berkshire County, and not contributing to the economy as they could and should be.

While President Trump portrays those seeking entry across our southern border as murderers and gang members, they are, in reality, largely families fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. They see the United States as the land of opportunity as promised by the words on the Statue of Liberty and are willing to endure great hardship in a long-shot bid for asylum. While Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia pursue a misguided legislative effort to cut legal immigration by 50% over the next decade, the United States should be pursuing a path to citizenship for the many who want to put down roots in the United States. The demographic and economic numbers don't lie. America needs immigrants. Vermont needs immigrants.

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