MACKINAC ISLAND (WWJ) — The United States has to encourage immigration because it’s the only way to avoid the economic stagnation caused by declining population.

That was the word from Carlos Gutierrez, former CEO of Battle Creek-based Kellogg Corp. who later served as U.S. Commerce Secretary under President George W. Bush, at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference 2013 Wednesday.

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“We have some demographic challenges coming at us, and coming at us very quickly,” Gutierrez said. “You know in Detroit what happens to a community when the population starts declining.”

American birth rates are now below replacement level, meaning immigration is needed to keep the population growing. And the Baby Boom is in downsizing mode — buying smaller retirement homes, cashing in stocks.

There are already labor shortages among low-skilled workers in agriculture, construction, hospitality, transportation and logistics,” Gutierrez said. “We don’t have enough truck drivers, we don’t have enough nurses’ aides.”

And he said letting more immigrants in won’t eat any current American’s job.

“Aren’t foreign workers going to come in and take our jobs? The answer is no, they are going to come and create jobs,” Gutierrez said, citing a study that for every 100 new immigrants, 40 new jobs are created for U.S. citizens.

On the high skilled end, America is losing too many of the advanced college students it’s now training.

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“We have always relied on immigration to get the best scientists in the world, and it’s no different today,” Gutierrez said.

Guitierrez said the compromise immigration bill contains an increse in H1B visas for highly skilled workers from the current 65,000 a year to 115,000.

“That’s a great step forward … but we need to be having a conversation about, is 115,000 enough,” he said.

And, he said, “I hate to think where the economy would be without the 11 million undocumented … we’re not going to mass deport 11 million people, but neither are we going to hand them a passport.”

Over 230 years, Gutierrez said, America has shown that it can assimilate and integrate any culture — everyone eventually becomes Americans.

When it comes to immigration reform, Gutierrez said, “If we get this wrong, shame on us, because we’re supposed to know how to do this. If we get this right, the 21st Century is ours — nobody can catch us.”

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In a question-and-answer session, Gutierrez was sharply critical of the Obama administration in themes strongly reminiscent of the 2012 presidential campaign — he contended that the Affordable Care Act will lead to lower quality health care and less innovation, criticized the president for not building the Keystone XL pipeline, backed fracking for oil exploration, and said that “every business I talk to is up to here with new regulation.”