When I decided to profile UNC demographer Jim Johnson for Endeavors and the Carolina Alumni Review, I knew part of the story would be about the economic effects of immigration, which he has researched extensively. I did write about that, but those sections never made it into the final draft. Instead, the profile focuses on Johnson’s new model of education for at-risk kids.

I did save those sections on immigration. I think professor Johnson’s research is worth a good look, especially while Congress debates immigration reform. So here they are:

CHAPEL HILL, NC, January 2006—The word in the media is that Hispanics are costing North Carolina a boatload of cash. They’re a drain on schools, prisons, and hospitals. They’re a burden, and many are here illegally.

The demographer in Jim Johnson knows that such issues are better measured by statistical analysis than by opinions in the press. And so he teams up with Jack Kasarda to find out just how much Hispanics cost North Carolina. Their research reveals that, in 2004, the state spent $817 million on education, health care, and corrections for Hispanics. Hispanics paid about $756 million in taxes. So, the net cost to the state was $61 million. 

Click to read photo caption. U.S. Census Bureau

But Johnson and Kasarda also find that the cost of Hispanics’ living here was overwhelmed by the billions of dollars they spent inside North Carolina. Hispanics, it turns out, add hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s economy.

Johnson and Kasarda do the same kind of study for Arkansas, another state with a burgeoning Hispanic population. There, the money spent on Hispanics versus the money they paid in taxes resulted in a $19-million surplus for Arkansas. Tack that onto the $2.9 billion Hispanics added to the economy through purchases from local businesses, and it’s clear that Arkansas benefitted from its immigrant community.

In a nutshell, Johnson says that for every dollar that Arkansas spent on health care, corrections, and education of immigrants, it received ten dollars in revenue. That was before the recession. Now, according to Johnson and Kasarda’s latest work, it’s more like six dollars back for every one dollar spent. Still a good deal.

CHAPEL HILL, NC, March 2013—In a boardroom on Europa Drive, academics and administrators quiet down so Jim Johnson can speak the truth:

“The discussion about illegal immigration gets hijacked because we assume that the only people here illegally are Hispanics. Not true,” he says. “There’s a group of immigrants here called ‘nonimmigrants.’”

At least, that’s what they’re called by the part of the government that collects and organizes demographic statistics.

“They include people we invited to come here on a temporary basis,” Johnson says. “There are at least 68 categories of these folks—tourists, students, foreign diplomats, international baseball players—and all of them end up here on visas. Ladies and gentlemen, if you come to United States on a 90-day visa and stay 91 days, what are you called? You’re what the government calls a ‘visa over-stayer.’ But in reality you’re an illegal immigrant.”

About 40 to 45 percent of illegal immigrants are so-called “visa-over-stayers.”

“They walk through our door with papers from the federal government,” Johnson says. “When it’s time to go home, they stay.

“Remember the terrorists of 9/11. Six had temporary visas that hadn’t expired. Three were ‘visa over-stayers.’ Six, we don’t know how the heck they got here. One came on a student visa. He was supposed to go to California to learn English but instead went to flight school in Florida. We learned after the fact that the flight school reported this cat to Immigration Services and the Federal Aviation Administration. To anyone who’d listen, the flight school said, ‘We got this guy who can’t speak English but he wants to be a pilot.’

“Why don’t you hear much about this population of illegal immigrants—these visa over-stayers? Well, it’s big business for us. Tourists—that’s $3,000 to $5,000 per visit. International students—that’s $12.8 billion annually to our economy. Foreign baseball players make big dollars.” And so do the teams they play for.

“My message to you is that the immigration debate is far more complicated than the debate you hear,” Johnson says. “If you’re really worried about homeland security, it’s probably not a poor Mexican you should be worried about. It’s probably about visa over-stayers because they’re far more likely to be well-educated and sitting right beside you in some of the most sensitive areas of your organization. And you’d not even know it.”

~ ~ ~

Then there’s the side of the immigration debate that has everything to do with the baby boomers and our foundering health-care system.

“Every state in this country is in the midst of an unprecedented demographic change, a set of circumstances that will have enormous implications for all social, economic, and political institutions,” Johnson says. “These changes are going to irrevocably transform everything, including K–12 education.”

The stats are mindboggling.

Some 80 million baby boomers will leave the workforce over the next 25 years at a rate of about 8,000 a day. “And it’s not just an American thing,” Johnson says. “In Japan they’re selling more diapers for seniors than for babies.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, there are fewer and fewer workers in the 25–45-age bracket. One reason, Johnson says, is that the disability rate has doubled since 1969. The sorts of chronic illnesses people used to get in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, they’re now getting in their 20s, 30s, 40s. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease. “If people get debilitating diseases in their 40s, we could lose nearly 30 years of productivity,” he says. If they’re not productive, then they’re not kicking into the system—taxes, Social Security, etc.

During his research, Johnson found that, on average, we’re losing 14 years of productivity—per person—due to early onset of diseases.

 “This is the problem nobody is talking about,” he says. It’s not just that a lot of baby boomers are about to collect Social Security; it’s also that a lot of younger people aren’t working.

And this is one reason why Johnson says we shouldn’t be anti-immigrant. “Look at Alabama,” he says. “That state has put policy in place to drive away immigrants—taxpayers the state desperately needs. Alabama has five counties where there are 153 dependents for every 100 workers. It’s simply not smart to be anti-immigrant.”

In North Carolina, Johnson says, 33 counties have a death rate higher than the birth rate. There’s a brain-drain in many counties where young people seek work elsewhere, leaving behind an aging population. “Those counties can’t sustain themselves,” Johnson says. “It’s a train wreck in the making.”

Statewide, he says, the median age of a white female is 42. The median age of a Hispanic female is 22. “Completed fertility occurs between 40 and 44,” he says. There are 49 live births per 1000 white women. There are 101 live births per 1000 Hispanic women. “It’s not sociology, folks,” Johnson says. “It’s biology. The white population is aging out.”

The result, he says, is this: “In 2011, a profound shift occurred: for the first time in history, non-Hispanic white births were no longer the numerical majority.”

Many of those births were from immigrant women. Not just illegal immigrants from Mexico, but immigrants from across the world, some of whom came here with proper paperwork and some of whom didn’t. “Regardless,” Johnson says, “we’re gonna need every single one of them kicking into the system. We’re gonna need all that talent in the years ahead.”

Jim Johnson is director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, and the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. He’s also a senior research fellow at the Carolina Population Center and an adjunct professor of public policy, sociology, and geography in the College of Arts and Sciences.