The social-security bind: immigrants the solution?

Here's a challenging thought for Americans: It may be necessary to have future immigrants pay for a sizable portion of your social security pension. Two former Nixon administration sub-Cabinet officials write: "If immigration is not allowed to increase during the next 20 years, we will suffer a very trying falloff in the proportion of prime-age workers in the labor force. Indeed . . . if immigration is not increased, the American labor force will in all probability not be sufficient by the end of the century to maintain the present level of social benefits afforded our elderly population."

Immigration levels were one of the questions undoubtedly discussed by President Reagan and his Cabinet July 1 when they met to discuss immigration policy. The Cabinet had before it the report of an interagency task force chaired by Attorney General William French Smith. That group has recommended, among other things:

* A doubling in the annual limit on legal immigration from Mexico and Canada to 40,000 each.

* A moderate increase in the enforcement budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to provide additional Border Patrol agents, investigators , and other personnel.

* Brothers and sisters of adult citizens should no longer receive preference in the allocation of visas.

* Congress should enact legislation prohibiting employers of four or more employees from knowingly and willfully hiring illegal aliens, with civil fines of $500 to $1,000 for each illegal alien hired.

* Job applicants, aliens and citizens alike, should be required to show identification -- a new, counterfeit-resistant social security card.

* Congress should establish an experimental "guest worker" program with Mexico for 50,000 people a year.

* There should be an amnesty for illegal aliens present in the US before Jan. 1, 1980, and who have been "continually resident" for at least five years.

At this writing, the Cabinet decisions on these recommendations were not public. But the group did have available a paper written by Kenneth McLennan, a vice- chairman of the Committee for Economic Development (a group of top corporate executives and educators), and Malcolm Lovell, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association. The former Labor Department officials were part of the Reagan administration transition team.

That paper, appearing in the summer issue of The Journal of the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies, points out that the ratio of elderly to the overall population was 1 in 10 in 1965. But 19 years from now it will be 1 in 5. That means there could well be a labor shortage and a shortage of funds for the social security program.

Many people do not realize that the program is not a funded pension system. It operates on a pay-as-you-go basis. Those now working are paying the pensions of those retired. So working immigrants could help pay the pensions.

Messrs. McLennan and Lovell, however, suggest tht in increasing the number of legal immigrants, it will be essential that preference be given to specific skilled workers and professionals. This category of immigrant now gets 20 percent of total visas; the level should be boosted to 50 percent. The percentage of visas for family unification would be correspondingly reduced. But, since the number of overall visas will be increased, the total available for family unification would also rise.

They write: "The long-run success of a labor market immigration strategy depends on our ability to vary the skills we import in response to changes in supply and demand in US labor markets.Increasing the temporary foreign worker (H 2) program to the point that it takes on the characteristics of a European 'guest worker' program would provide such flexibility."

Such a program has been vehemently opposed by the US labor movement. however , the two authors speculated: "If the United States were, however, substantially able to reduce the flow of illegal alien labor, union opposition to an expanded temporary foreign worker program might well disappear."

They expect most of such guest workers would come from Mexico, the Caribbean nations, and Canada.

The two maintain that at the moment, US immigration policy is "out of control." As the world population explosion continues from the present 4 billion level, pressures for entry into the US will increase. In a telephone interview, Mr. Lovell noted: "There is no country in the world people want to come to more; and there is no country so casual as to whom it admits. We need a controlled situation."

Regarding US borders as impossible to police adequately against illegal immigrants, the two hold that control must come through the workplace and welfare system. That means a national identification system. Those without proper identification or "work permits" would not be able to get a job or welfare.

Mr. Lovell admitted that this identification system would be objectionable to many employers and civil rights groups. But the AFL-CIO has seen its necessity. "I don't see how you can control the situation without it," he reckons.

He admits that guest worker programs in Europe have caused social problems as cultures clashed between the workers and the citizens of West Germany, Switzerland, France, and so on. But, he adds, both the guest workers and the citizens have benefited economically. The guest workers have received better pay and work experience in more sophisticated industry or other activity. The host nations have had workers willing to do the dirty jobs.

The US, the two authors argue, would benefit similarly. Besides, the immigrants could help pay those pensions.

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