DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump has kept the issue of immigration front and center recently. He's shaken up leadership at the Department of Homeland Security. He's promoting an idea that his administration's own lawyers and officials found troubling - the idea to drop detained immigrants in so-called sanctuary cities. And earlier this month at a Border Patrol facility in California, he offered this argument.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Whether it's asylum, whether it's anything you want - it's illegal immigration - can't take you anymore. We can't take you. Our country is full. Our area's full. The sector is full - can't take you anymore. I'm sorry - can't happen, so turn around.
GREENE: The U.S. is full, his argument is. Well, let's talk about that statement with someone who thinks and writes about economics in our country. It's David Wessel, director of the Brookings Institution's Hutchins Center and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal. David, welcome back.
DAVID WESSEL: Good morning.
GREENE: What do you make of the statement that the United States is full?
WESSEL: Well, it's hard to know what the president means. It sounds more of an emotional appeal to people who feel the other. But taking it at face value, physically, are we full? Well, plenty of other countries are more densely populated than the U.S. And, in fact, there are nine U.S. states that lost population last year, including a couple of big ones - New York and Illinois. If you look at it economically, well, at the worst of the recession, there were six unemployed people for every job opening. Today there are more job openings than there are unemployed people. And the Federal Reserve tells us that there are what they call notable worker shortages in IT, manufacturing, trucking, restaurants and constructions.
But I think immigration isn't really about today. It's about the future. And given the aging of our society and the decline in the number of kids that each woman has in her lifetime, projections are that the native-born population of the U.S. won't grow at all after 2030. The only way the population will be growing is through immigration.
GREENE: And what are the implications of whether or not population grows or not when it comes to our economy?
WESSEL: Well, the way to think about this is really looking at the demography of the U.S. We are an aging society. By 2035, the demographers tell us there'll be more people over age 65 than children under 18. That's never before happened in the country's history. We're going to need workers, and we're going to need them not only to staff our businesses but to pay taxes to support those elderly and to take care of them.
So basically if we can't grow our own, we're going to have to import people. I mean, look at the Social Security system. The actuaries at Social Security tell us that the more immigrants we have - working-age immigrants, that is - the more payroll taxes going into the system, and the longer we'll be able to sustain the Social Security system without raising taxes on other people.
GREENE: So this narrative that immigrants take away American jobs, I mean, it sounds like that's an answer that is different than some people assume.
WESSEL: Well, look, if we didn't have immigrants, would more Americans have jobs? And I think the really honest answer to that is maybe. If employers find it hard to hire, maybe they'll raise wages, and maybe that'll draw some people off the sidelines of the economy. I mean, even though there are a lot more people working these days, still, among people between 25 and 54 - that's what economists call prime-age working people - nearly 1 in 5 is not working or looking for work today.
But it's also true that we know that there's some jobs - picking fruits and vegetables in California, caregiving for the elderly, nannies. There are folks - there are jobs here that seem to be much more attractive to immigrants, and they're staffing them. And of course, a large - a disproportionately large number of our entrepreneurs and scientists and technicians are people who came to this country from somewhere else. So it's kind of hard to say, but it's not an easy answer.
GREENE: David, can I just ask you about another statement we heard from the president more recently? I mean, he made the statement about, you know, quote, "our country is full." But as you think through the economic implications of the issue of immigration and what the president has said and his policies, he's talking about the country being full, but at the same time, moving detained migrants into sanctuary cities, these places that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities. How do you even think about that idea from an economic perspective?
WESSEL: Look, it's hard to know whether the president is serious about that. I mean - really? - we're going to tell a bunch of people who want to come to the United States that the government is going to move them to San Francisco, or New York, or Chicago, or Seattle, or Boston or New Orleans, which are all sanctuary cities?
WESSEL: If it actually happened, it would obviously be expensive. Someone would have to pay to - facilities to house them. And it's true that although working-age immigrants can add to our workforce, kids are expensive until they grow up. So it would be expensive if it's a serious proposal, but I'm not really convinced it is.
GREENE: David Wessel of the Brookings Institution's Hutchins Center. David, thanks as always.
WESSEL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.