Jeb Bush says immigrants 'more fertile.' Is that right?

In speech to conservatives Friday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush raised eyebrows with the words he chose to discuss the benefits of immigrants producing many young workers.

Mary F. Calvert/Reuters
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks during the Faith and Freedom Coalition Road to Majority Conference at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington, Friday.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Friday told an audience of conservatives that the future of the US economy depends on immigrants in part because they are “more fertile” than native-born Americans and thus will produce many young workers to help support the aging US boomer generation.

“More fertile”? Yes, that’s a formulation Mr. Bush has used before, but it’s now drawing a lot of criticism on Twitter and elsewhere on the Web. That’s because it’s not the right word. “Fertile” means “capable of reproduction,” so what Bush was saying was immigrants are more physically able to have children. That’s not true.

Jeb Bush, a regular Bill Nye the Science Guy,” read one typical Twitter comment.

What Bush meant to say was that immigrants have a higher birthrate. In the years ahead, the United States will need a large cohort of young workers to pay taxes to help support the Social Security and Medicare expenses of retirees. With the native-born birthrate sinking toward a record low, immigration could be a big help in this regard, runs Bush’s real argument.

“Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families, and they have more intact families, and they bring a younger population. Immigrants create an engine of economic prosperity,” was Bush’s full quote during his speech at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual conference in Washington.

It’s true that immigrant women per capita have more children than native-born women. Last November, a comprehensive Pew Research Center analysis of the latest available government data found that the immigrant birthrate in 2010 was 87.8 live births per every 1,000 women of childbearing age. The equivalent figure for native-born women was 58.9.

(It’s also true that the immigrant birthrate is declining. Hispanics are having fewer children per capita as they assimilate into US culture, as did previous waves of immigrants throughout US history.)

To see why high birthrates might be a help, consider that preliminary figures show the 2011 birthrate for all women was 63.2 births per 1,000, according to Pew.

“That rate is the lowest since at least 1920, the earliest year for which there are reliable numbers,” wrote Pew’s Gretchen Livingston and D’Vera Cohn.

By contrast, the birthrate in 1957, at the height of the baby boom, was 122.7, nearly double today’s rate.

Aside from his weird word choice for his birthrate argument, Bush gave a “civil speech on serious issues,” judges NBC’s deputy political editor Domenico Montanaro.

Besides backing comprehensive immigration reform, he pushed for greater North American energy production; further changes to the education system, such as using student achievement to rank schools; and greater support for families, including nontraditional ones.

“Let me remind you, families don’t look all the time like they used to, and that’s OK,” Bush said. “We have to be supportive of a single mom or dad, or the grandmother taking care of young children.”

But on Friday at least, the right-leaning conference that Bush spoke to was not buying it.

“Bush’s arguments for immigration reform were met with near silence from the conservative crowd Friday, and following his speech the former Florida governor received a polite standing ovation,” CNN reported.

In contrast, firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota received loud applause from the same crowd for opposing the current immigration reform effort.

In general, the tea party and anti-immigration-reform Republicans remain suspicious of Bush. Within the current GOP, he stands as a moderate.

“We need to embrace ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ because ... fertility? Remember when Barbara Bush said, ‘We’ve had enough Bushes?’ ” gibed the conservative website Twitchy following Bush’s speech Friday.

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