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The controversy surrounding immigration has me thinking about the ways that our immigration policy affects those of us who are retired or approaching retirement.

I'm sympathetic to those wanting to come to the United States because my grandparents arrived from Finland, landed on Ellis Island and promptly had all of their luggage stolen.

Later, my grandfather, Anton Kaukonen, won his citizenship by fighting in the cavalry in Cuba with President Theodore Roosevelt. He later organized the Finnish community in Vermont and became a close friend of Calvin Coolidge -- a president whose "summer White House" was just down the road.

Meanwhile, my grandfather's sister was being inaugurated in Asutabula, Ohio, as the first woman mayor in the United States. Another relative, Jorma Kaukonen, was the bass player for the Jefferson Airplane.

I think immigration is great and ought to be encouraged, but I agree with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that "we should have a long high wall with a giant gate."

According to the Hoover Institute, there are about 30 million U.S. immigrants on any given day, with another 12 million to 15 million who are here illegally. This makes a mockery of the immigration laws designed to qualify those legally allowed to live here.

The issue is fraught with a vastly complicated matrix of influences. The temptation for most is to seize on one specific part of the issue that presses our biggest buttons and let that run our thought process. An example is the latest proposed law establishing that anyone here illegally is a felon and gets thrown in jail, or at least into the court system.

I always thought making the employer pay a big fine would send fewer people into the courts and at least generate some revenue, but noooo, that would inconvenience big political donors.

But retired people need all these immigrants, regardless of their status. They perform services that retired people need in many cases. More importantly, they pay Social Security taxes -- about $7 billion annually, or about 1.3 percent of the entire annual revenue to the system.

Maybe these immigrants shouldn't be arrested as felons after all. Estimates are that 75 percent of illegal workers are paying payroll taxes for benefits they will never receive. Without them, our Social Security shortfall in 75 years would be 10 percent worse.

This is not exactly "pay to play." It's more like "pay to work," and not all that bad.

States receive sales taxes and other economic benefits of cost-effective, highly motivated labor. All of this careful analysis has been conducted by bond rating agencies that have concluded that local and state governments are not adversely affected by costs of services for immigrants.

Apart from the costs, we have to consider the bigger picture of the declining U.S. birth rate, which now is slightly below the cusp of where it needs to be in order to sustain a healthy economy.

Immigration is what makes the difference and keeps us on the plus side of population growth rates that sustain our economy. This is especially important to those of us depending on a work force to make future deposits into our retirement "feeding trough," the Social Security system.

Applying a broad-brush solution, the best I can see is a giant but wide gate that allows many to come but keeps track of who's here.

Strict enforcement of limited time periods (with employer responsibility) would allow the opportunities to be spread over larger numbers of foreign workers. Ending the anachronism of making anyone a citizen who happens to be born here (regardless of parent status) would be worth considering as well.

No alternative will please everyone, but the quasi-"don't ask don't tell" aspect of the status quo has some advantages that are not readily apparent until we look at the numbers.

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