There’s a baffling paradox and denial of reality surrounding the issue of immigration as it’s unfolding in the United States.

It involves a gap in critical thinking on the part of those who decry the influx of immigrants to this country that is simply breathtaking.

These folks tend to characterize immigrants — especially undocumented ones — as a drain and a threat. But this perspective couldn’t be more wrong, because immigrants aren’t the problem. They’re part of the solution.

First, the current numbers and the paradox they represent. Then we’ll address the solution, which involves the crucial role migrants play — now and in the future — in the economic vitality of this country.

There’s no doubt that the human flow to America’s southern border has been chaotic and overwhelming in recent times. Last year, border patrol officers made nearly 2.4 million arrests, the highest total ever recorded, more than the 1.7 million apprehensions the year before.

Around half of those immigrants were expelled, the majority of them Mexican nationals, and some more than once.

But in recent years, “net immigration” in the United States — which means the number of all foreign arrivals, including illegal ones, minus the number of departures — has actually been on a downward slope.

Reasons for this include the harsh anti-immigration policies put in place by former President Donald Trump, a dent that was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which essentially brought immigration to this country to a halt.

In 2020, immigrants made up 13.7% of the U.S. population — higher than in the 1970s, but below the peak set in the 1890s, when millions of Europeans (a group that no doubt included refuge-seeking ancestors of the people who today rail against immigration) crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Because of COVID and a host of anti-migrant policies, and despite the recent surge, a recent study found there are about 2 million fewer working immigrants in this country.

You may say to yourself: Who cares? So what if there are fewer immigrants living and working in this country?

It matters. America — a country burdened by an aging citizenry, declining birth rate and native-born population that is unwilling, for whatever reason, to do certain kinds of work — shoots itself in the foot when it seeks to stop or reduce the flow of immigrants into this country, legal or otherwise.

It’s not that we have too many immigrants. We don’t have enough.

As a nation, we’ve become dependent on migrant labor across a range of occupations. From agriculture and food-processing and childcare to the hospitality and retail industries, from the folks who build our buildings and pick our food and take care of our seniors, from jobs both high-skilled and highly paid (especially in the tech and STEM industries) to mid-to-low skilled and modestly paid, immigrants have been part of the economic engine of this country for decades.

Right now, there are severe shortages for all these jobs. And it’s only going to worsen as baby boomers retire, fertility falls below replacement levels (it’s happening in all developed countries) and America’s non-college-educated population turns up its nose at the kind of work immigrants heartily embrace.

A lack of immigrants has deepened labor shortages in a time when more than 11 million jobs go unfilled and 6 million Americans are unemployed.

The ripple effect of all these missing workers can be felt down the line, in the form of supply chain issues, fewer goods and services, higher prices, inflation — problems most Americans would agree are worth trying to solve.

It’s absolutely forehead-slapping: Why on earth would we want to keep out people who are desperate to come here, work and raise families and become part of the American dream? Whose children will grow up here and very well may become the leaders and innovators of tomorrow?

Oh, and spare me the canard about immigrants depressing wages for native-born workers. That myth has been debunked, along with a host of other unsavory untruths about immigrants, who actually have an overall positive economic impact on this country.

These are individuals who make the treacherous journey here to escape a dearth of economic opportunity in their home countries, along with horrible violence, government corruption, raging drug cartel gangs and other dangers.

President Joe Biden, his hands all but tied by anti-immigrant politicians, has at least made a gesture toward work-related immigration reform. He recently adopted a “parole” policy that admits up to 30,000 immigrants a month from four countries — Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua — to live and work in this country for two years.

Another part of the program expels 30,000 immigrants a month from those countries back into Mexico, if they’ve entered illegally, under expedited removals and an expansion of Title 42, the Trump-era policy begun during the pandemic that expels asylum-seekers without a hearing – in defiance of the sacred history of asylum in this country. 

The Biden policy triggered a huge drop in arrests — 42%, especially among migrants from the four countries — at the border in January.

Immigration advocates say the bar is set too high for many migrants from those nations — to get in via parole, they must have a U.S. sponsor, pass background checks and apply online while still in their home countries. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other Republican leaders, never ones to pass up a chance to denigrate potential reforms, have filed suit to stop the Biden Administration’s parole policy, saying it creates an “unlawful amnesty.”

In reality, we need to go further. We should expand this country’s worker visa and green card programs, and admit immigrants no matter their education level or if they have a family member who resides here. We must permanently grant legal status to “dreamer” immigrants brought here illegally as children, and create easier paths to admittance and permanent residency to all immigrants, legal and not.

We should add lack of economic opportunity to the grounds for asylum, because what concern could be more “humanitarian” than a person’s desire to work and feed his or her family?

We need to eradicate bureaucratic red tape that surrounds immigration processing, and spend resources to hire more lawyers, judges and case workers to address historic backlogs. We should tax wealthy individuals and corporations that benefit from immigrant labor and send the money to struggling border cities.

We need to mimic Canada and other more progressive (or just sensible) countries, which view immigrants as the economic gold they are and have created expedited admittance pathways and developed job training programs that allow immigrants to slip seamlessly into the lifeblood of their societies.

The shortage of immigrant labor has led to a veritable crisis in the agricultural industries, including in Texas.

Business lobbying groups — not your typical bleeding-heart types — know what’s at stake. That’s why they are advocating for such reforms as upping the annual allotment of work visas, making it easier for immigrants to renew their visas and letting in more farm workers.

“We have long known that Americans do not want to do these jobs,” one farm industry executive in Edinburg, Texas, told The Washington Post. “We’ve been struggling with labor shortages for decades, but now it’s come to a crisis point. The labor force has completely dried up.”

For decades, through administrations of both political stripes, attempts at immigration reform in Washington have imploded. That’s largely because politicians, especially conservatives, would rather use immigration as an “us-vs.-them” political wedge issue, to fire up the base and demonize an entire demographic group.

In Texas, instead of reform, we get Gov. Greg Abbott’s widely-criticized, $4 billion-and-counting Operation Lone Star adventure on the border, which even Republican officials in the region have deemed “a waste of time and money.” We get his political stunt of busing thousands of migrants up north.

We get cruel bills from the likes of Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) and his Republican co-sponsors that would essentially shut down immigration and asylum-seeking altogether.

We get ostensibly moderate politicians like Sen. John Cornyn making absurd statements, saying Congress can’t address immigration reform until the border is “secure” — a logical fallacy akin to saying we can’t do anything to help put out the house fire until the house fire is put out.

Until national leaders stop using immigration as a political weapon to foment heat and anger but very little light, we will continue to shoot ourselves in the foot. 

Until we can get past our own xenophobia and ethnocentrism and begin to see immigrants as the human beings — and economic blessing — they are, we will continue to suffer as a nation.

Until we find a way to create a path to legalization for the estimated 11 million undocumented migrants already here, many of whom have lived in this country for decades, we will continue to squander an unimaginably huge well of untapped human potential.

Even some hard-boiled conservatives can see the writing on the wall.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who has advised Republican presidential candidates and now heads the conservative American Action Forum, told The New York Times that migrants represent the key to our very future.

 “Without immigration, we shrink as a nation,” he said.

Melissa Fletcher Stolje, columnist for the San Antonio Report, on Friday.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje has worked in Texas newspaper journalism for more than three decades, at the San Antonio Light, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. She holds bachelor’s...