We need immigrants, but the latest numbers suggest that increasingly they might not want to be in Connecticut.
For our state to flourish — where we have good schools and people who pay taxes and businesses that actually make things — we need, above all else, more people willing to work.
Without a growing immigrant community, our population will decline. Everything else is meaningless, including noble talk about smart growth and reviving the cities.
"We are dead without immigrants in this state," said Peter Goia, vice president and economist at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. "The only growth we are going to get is from immigration. If the immigrants go negative, we are going to have a declining population."
You can forget about more money for high schools, a commuter rail line to New Haven or health care for the poor.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that after slow but steady growth since 2000, we are now losing population, if only slightly. Perhaps significantly, the decline matches the drop in the number of immigrants.
The state's population dropped to 3,502,309 in 2007, down 2,500 people. At the same time, the number of foreign-born immigrants slipped by roughly the same amount — 2,697.
One explanation comes from the Pew Hispanic Center, which in a new report finds that fewer immigrants are entering the country illegally, very likely because of tighter border controls and a tanking economy.
This is good news if you think illegal immigrants are stealing jobs. But a larger issue is that fewer immigrants — legal or illegal — means bad news for the future of Connecticut.
"If you are not getting immigrants, it's a pretty bad sign," said Jeffrey S. Passel, co-author of the Pew report. "They generally help the economy. They tend to go places where the economy is strong."
"Not only do they take jobs away from natives, they tend to spur job creation for natives."
Talk like this, obviously, angers people who are upset about illegal immigration, particularly in Danbury and New Haven.
"When those people will work for less than legal immigrants or American citizens … that creates competition among the lower class and lower-middle class," said Dustin Gold, leader of the Community Watchdog Project, a group opposed to illegal immigration.
I'm not going to argue about this, or New Haven's handing out of ID cards to undocumented workers or if Hartford should be a "sanctuary city."
Because there's a bigger threat: This state is becoming a place more unfriendly to outsiders, if it is, indeed, possible for Connecticut to do this.
For years young people have beaten a path out of the state, fleeing high housing costs and property taxes, among other things. By one estimate, we are losing 10,000 "established" residents a year.
Meanwhile, state demographers estimate that by 2030, the number of residents over 65 will have grown by 70 percent. The percentage of people between 18 and 64 won't change.
It's hard to argue that there's not a connection between more old folks living on fixed incomes and more town budgets getting rejected by voters.
"Without an immigrant labor force in Connecticut, this economy would grind to a halt," said Joseph McGee, a vice president with the Business Council of Fairfield County.
"We don't have the native-born population to do these jobs," said McGee, a former economic development commissioner. "Those who deny that are making a huge mistake."
Obviously, we need immigration laws that can be enforced. But in this tiny and expensive state, we can't afford to lose anyone.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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