As federal lawmakers continue to debate overhauling immigration law, the Census Bureau on Wednesday released a set of population projections that highlight the effects of immigration on the U.S. economy.
The country's financial meltdown and post-Sept. 11 immigration enforcement have slowed the growth of minority groups here. If those conditions remain the norm, whites would make up the majority of the population until 2050, eight years later than previously projected.
In addition, the Census Bureau last year predicted that the U.S. would hit the 400-million population mark in 2039. But if current migration patterns continue, the nation will not have hit that milestone by 2050.
The latest numbers, which supplement the 2008 National Population Projections, reflect four immigration scenarios -- high, low, constant and zero.
A falling immigration rate means a decreased vital workforce to replace the nation's baby boomers, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "Young people bring new ideas, especially new people coming in from other countries," he said. "They're more globally aware of what's going on."
And, Frey said, the scenarios demonstrate that immigrants are an important part of the U.S. population, particularly in Southern California.
The nation is home to more than 308 million people, two-thirds of whom are non-Hispanic whites.
The latest projections, said demographics researcher John Pitkin, show "the stakes of immigration reform."
Pitkin said that if immigration continues to slow, it would affect planning and education. It also would mean fewer workers paying into Social Security and Medicare.
"The flow of immigration makes it more difficult to finance Social Security," Pitkin said. "It does slow down the economy a bit."
But it is hard to forecast immigration patterns, said D'Vera Cohn of the Pew Research Center.
"In terms of thinking of the U.S. and what kind of country it is, it's important to realize that its racial and ethnic composition is changing," she said. "It's hard to say if the lower immigration flow will become the new normal."