In case you haven't been watching, an obsession with immigration has overtaken the national political discourse. Nearly every GOP presidential debate dedicates significant time to the subject, with candidates pitching such things as erecting an electrified fence on the Mexican border and guaranteed vetoes of the DREAM Act.
As an electoral strategy, it might be smart (see the 2010 Florida gubernatorial election), but as an economic and social policy, it's awful. Worse still, the rhetoric that our borders are being overrun and government expenditures are exploding in a new welfare state for immigrants has no correlation with the facts.
According to research conducted by Prince- ton University, the Pew Hispanic Center and the University of California, immigration from Mexico over the past four years has not only been on a precipitous, downward trend, but last year actually showed net negative migration. The biggest culprit in this long-term trend is not necessarily the U.S. recession but declining birth rates in Mexico, with women averaging 2.1 babies today versus 6.8 just 30 years ago.
In Florida, where agriculture continues to be critical to our state's economy, employing more than 750,000 residents and representing a $100 billion-a-year impact on the state, we can ill afford to accept the new anti-immigrant dogma. At the height of the recession, Florida's agriculture sector still grew exports by more than $1 billion. With significant dependence on hand-picking fruits and vegetables, there is a need for reliable access to labor from Mexico and Central America.
Until Congress and the White House agree on comprehensive immigration reform that ensures access to this labor for farms, it is fantasy to suggest that agriculture in Florida and the United States would survive if we were to pursue Arizona or Georgia-style anti-immigrant policies, which our current GOP candidates tout as smart action. In less than six months, Georgia suffered more than $500 million in agriculture-related losses, with the governor sending felons to the field to pick what crops weren't rotting.
With the expansion of the Panama Canal, Florida's ports, in particular those of Tampa and Manatee, stand to realize significant new exchange with the Americas. During this recession, nearly all new net job growth nationwide has been concentrated in the export sector, with the biggest growth in trade being with countries who have large migrant communities.
With a quarter of Florida's population being Latino and our proximity to Latin America, we have the biggest competitive advantage of any state to show explosive growth and job creation in this sector. It would be refreshing to hear, then, from our pro-trade Republican candidates that they would support passage of legislation like the DREAM Act that would create a defined path to citizenship for our bi- and trilingual children growing up in Florida, who are well poised with latent talent and language skills to help drive export growth.
Finally, the Republican Party should look at why immigrants are critical allies to Florida's elderly population. In a recent study of the California housing market, University of Southern California demographer Dowell Myers discovered that over the past decade the biggest sellers of homes were white seniors: 67 percent of those ages 75 and older changed their address during this period. Who bought these homes? Not young whites. White home ownership declined by 158,000 homes over the past decade; 78.5 percent of California's new buyers of homes were Latino. A Latino with a college degree in California pays on average 64 percent more for a house than a non-college graduate.
Myers' conclusion: Embrace the demographic shift that's taken place in this country and recognize the importance of generational partnerships to support everyone's financial best interest. The Republican, middle-aged and senior communities should be vocal about educating all children, in particular our migrant children (see DREAM Act) so that they grow to become the productive, high-skilled, well-paid base that helps maintain stable and appreciating property values, and pays into the system with the future tax revenue to take care of seniors and educate the next generation of children.
It's important for our presidential candidates to realize this isn't a race issue; it's a math issue based on addressing our aging population, declining white fertility rates and how that gets balanced out.
Kelly Kirschner is a former mayor of Sarasota and current director of UnidosNow.org, a new nonprofit organization mobilizing Hispanic civic, economic and cultural integration throughout Southwest Florida.