Immigration and America’s Unchosen Future

Where Immigration is Taking America

As to population size, the Immigration Act of 1965 and subsequent expansionist laws and lax administration diverted the U.S. from the demographic path it was on toward a stabilized population—probably at 240 million, demographer Leon Bouvier estimates, if immigration had remained at pre-1965 levels. Instead, expanding immigration made this nation the fastest-growing developed society, likely to reach 500 million by 2040 and still robustly expanding. Foreigners, at congressional invitation, have cancelled the growth stabilization path chosen by American citizens. A CIS paper in 2007 calculated from Census Bureau data that the current level of immigration (1.25 million a year) will add 105 million to the nation’s population by 2060. Immigrants and their children account for more than 80 percent of U.S. population growth. Average citizens intuitively understand that a policy producing half a billion Americans, and rising, means more traffic, urban congestion, environmental degradation, extinction of species of wildlife, and resource shortages from petroleum to fresh and potable water. Continued population growth in a country of our size had become, as the Rockefeller Commission said a generation ago, “an intensifier or multiplier of many problems impairing the quality of life in the U.S.”

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These and other costs of population growth must now be framed within a larger new context established by the warming of the planet. The most recent calculations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change foresee a warming of 3.5-7 degrees Fahrenheit, producing among other things melting glaciers and the Arctic ice cap, inundating coastal areas where one-sixth of humanity now lives; fiercer hurricanes; an increase of the geographical range of tropical diseases; expanded desertification; radical alterations of agricultural economies bringing more painful disruptions than benefits; the possibility of a collapse of the gulf stream resulting in radical changes in European climate; and the possibility of oceanic acidification with unknown results.

The effort to curb the increase and if possible reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere proceeds now at the level of feel-good gestures from individuals who are “helping the environment” by buying a hybrid car or cycling to work; of brags from corporations claiming “greener” products and processes; of pledges from towns, cities and states that by a date certain they will somehow reduce their “carbon footprint” to this or that target in order to solve the problem. The price of the de-carbonization of our society will be much higher (and also the benefits) than these newly-greened Americans imagine. Americans, their political leaders coming last, will soon figure out that the necessity of reducing carbon emissions will require painful reductions and shifts in energy use. Then, inevitably, the realization will spread that such sacrifices grow a bit larger every time an immigrant or immigrant’s baby enlarges the American population base that is trying to stay within acceptable emission limits. All future immigrants and their children, and all babies born to American families over 2.1 fertility per woman, move the goalposts back. Immigration reduction is an essential policy tool in all environmental policy efforts, including sharply curbing the emission of greenhouse gases. Policymakers and the public did not yet make the connection between growing environmental and resource problems and the expanding population that immigration brought, and a series of prominent ads in print media in mid-2008, posted by a coalition of four of our reductionist groups, drew no rebuttals or any other public comment.

This slowly emerging perspective on the collateral damage inflicted on the global environment by America’s high and rising population levels cannot be confined only to our citizens. The prospect of more heavy-footprint Americans is one in which foreigners have some stake that cannot indefinitely escape them. In a recent best-selling book, Collapse, UCLA geographer Jared Diamond pointed out that we affluent, high consumption Americans consume thirty-two times the resources, and produce thirty-two times the wastes as inhabitants of the Third World. This huge American footprint grows even more crushing and costly as we add Americans to the total, which is one of the contributions of the immigration policy in place since 1965.

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Otis L. Graham, Jr

Professor Emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author or editor of more than fifteen books, including “Debating American Immigration, 1882-Present” (with Roger Daniels) and “Environment Politics and Policy, 1960s to 1990s”. He lives in Santa Barbara, CA.

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