Listen to some of the shouting out of Washington and the Tea Party rallies and you'd think that immigrants were here to steal our health care.
Instead, we should be talking about how immigrants are an essential part of the workforce of the future, especially in Connecticut, an aging state rapidly growing older.
I went to a naturalization ceremony at the Hartford Library the other day looking for some perspective. With among the highest percentages of foreign-born residents among all states, it isn't hard to see what immigrants — legal and illegal — have meant to Connecticut's economy.
"I realize that now anything is possible," Kpelou Atakora, a native of Togo, told me, proudly holding his new citizenship document.
Without arriving immigrants, we would have lost population during the first half of this decade. For the past few years, the numbers suggest that not even these hopeful immigrants are keeping us above water.
We are a state in which the elderly population will surge by nearly 70 percent by 2030. Growth will be in nursing homes, not vital new industries. Gov. Rell's phonebook-thick economic development strategy, released last week, puts it this way: "The aging work force and the significant out-migration of the 25- to 44-year-old may stunt the state's future work force growth unless we can import the labor we need."
States that have a declining population lose businesses, congressional seats and creative young people. Could it be any clearer why we need more immigrants here?
At the Hartford swearing-in, I saw glimpses of an optimistic, hardworking future.
Two dozen people from 20 countries sat nervously, waiting to take the oath of citizenship, joining about 8,400 others in ceremonies throughout the country marking citizenship day. Around the room there were more would-be citizens, hopeful they might be so lucky some day.
All of us listened to a parade of speakers, immigrants and children of immigrants, starting with U.S. District Judge Alfred Covello, who was there to preside over the oath of allegiance. Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele recalled his own citizenship moment, 44 years ago. "I sat as a 10-year-old in a courtroom in Bridgeport in your seats ... my parents and I."
Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz read our still-relevant state motto, which floats, forgotten, on our blue flag: "Qui transtulit sustinet." He who transplanted, still sustains.
A modern transplant, Pramod Pradhan, an assistant librarian at the Mark Twain branch, brought his video camera and a group of newly arrived refugees from Nepal and Bhutan to the swearing-in ceremony.
"I want them to see what they are aiming for," said Pradhan, who is from Nepal and speaks six languages.
The interesting thing is that amid all this talk about immigrants-as-threat, the picture is changing. Conservative commentator Michael Barone wrote recently that the surge of illegal immigrants appears to be receding — probably due to stricter enforcement of laws and the worldwide recession.
The Center for Immigration Reform reports that there is "clear evidence" that the number of illegal immigrants is plummeting, from 12.5 million two years ago to about 10.8 million earlier this year. USA Today reported Monday that researchers are finding it's not just those without papers who are leaving, warning of a rising tide of skilled immigrants leaving the U.S., returning home to China, India and beyond.
So as you listen to this immigrant paranoia and phony rumors of dire disasters, think about what happens to a state without enough eager workers. It dies.
"We are in a great country," Deonarayan Bharati, a young man who arrived just weeks ago from Bhutan and who hopes to make a life here. "We are lucky."
Actually, it is us who could use a lot more of the sort of luck this man brings.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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