What Trump and Greenville got wrong about immigrants

Anyone who sees America as a nation of immigrants had to be dismayed and discouraged by the nativism and intolerance displayed at President Trump’s Greenville rally.

For UNC-Chapel Hill professor James H. Johnson, those feelings were especially strong. The rally, with its overwhelmingly white crowd chanting “send her back” about an Africa-born congresswoman, struck him at several levels. He’s an African American who grew up amid the struggle to integrate schools. At UNC’s Kenan-Flager Business School, he researches demographic trends and has long advocated for the importance of immigration to the North Carolina and national economies. He’s a co-founder of a Durham charter school that serves 200 black and Hispanic children, a school where Hispanic parents sometimes keep their children home because they fear being arrested by ICE.

On top of all that, Johnson, 65, grew up just outside Greenville and was part of the first integrated class to graduate from Farmville Central High School. Those people who turned the president’s inflammatory tweets attacking four congresswomen of color into a spectacle of rejecting “the Other” are people he thought he knew.

“It broke my heart because I grew up in eastern North Carolina and was in the first wave of school integration,” Johnson said the day after the rally. “I just thought we had come much further than that in the region and the state and we were much more tolerant of differences.”

As a black American, Johnson was saddened by the rally’s racial overtones, but as a demographer he finds the anti-immigrant theme baffling. He said Trump and his supporters are resisting demographic changes to the detriment of the nation and to their own well-being.

“At the end of the day, if we shut down immigration and send all these people home, we’re going to be in deep trouble because we’re not going to have the talent we need,” he said.

While Trump calls for walling off America, Johnson said the nation needs more immigrants to offset its aging white population. Indeed, he said, the Hispanic population already here is the only demographic group with a fertility rate high enough to grow its numbers. In many parts of America where the population is mostly white — including 36 rural counties in North Carolina — deaths are outpacing births.

Among the disproportionately white members of the baby boom — 81 million people born between 1946 and 1964 — 10,000 a day are turning 65. Those boomers, on average will live 18 years beyond 65. That’s a lot of old people. They’ll need care. By 2025, Johnson said, it’s estimated that the United States will need 1.25 million more senior care workers.

Where will they come from?

“You need those immigrants to fill the void of an aging population and lower birth rates,” Johnson said.

Demographic shifts, racial tensions and backlashes against immigrants are recurring chapters in American history, Johnson said, but in the past the nation “has always found a way to navigate those issues.” But after what he saw in Greenville, he said, “I’m not sure we are doing that now.”

Barnett: nbarnett@newsobserver.com