Counting Costs for What Some Believe is Too Much Immigration

By David Simcox on July 14, 1991

The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 14, 1991

During 1991 nearly a million people from abroad will settle in the United States. About half of them will come as legal immigrants, selected because of family connections here or the possession of needed skills from the list of nearly 2.5 million persons now waiting abroad. Another 200,000 or so will settle under several humanitarian categories for those fleeing persecution or other hardships refugees, asylees, parolees, and temporary protected status. As many as 300,000 more permanent settlers will have slipped into the country or overstayed their visas.

Truly, the United States' biggest import is now people. After allowing for those leaving, 1991's net immigration of 800,000 will add to the country's population the equivalent of another Montana. The 1990 changes in immigration law will further expand intake in 1992 by an additional 100,000 yearly.

For many Americans it is reassuring to have millions abroad yearning to join us. But the resurgence of mass immigration since the 1960s, which is now approaching the all-time peak it reached 90 years ago, has serious drawbacks for the populous, post-industrial America of the late 20th century.

Net immigration of 800,000 to 900,000 a year will alone provide more than a third of our population increase in the coming years. High immigration, combined with rising fertility since the late 1980s that has been nourished in part by strikingly higher fertility among the foreign born, means that the topping out of the population at about 300 million foreseen in about 50 years under lower fertility and immigration assumptions can no longer be expected. The interaction of high immigration and fertility modestly above replacement level will boost the country's population to 370 million in fifty years, and to the half-billion mark by 2080.

Can any one believe that the quality of life and the condition of our environment will benefit from such immense growth? Among the most distressed will be today's rapidly growing states such as California, Florida and Texas, that are receiving vast domestic and foreign migration. California is already struggling with problems of water availability and air quality that are inextricably bound to population growth.

In debating immigration, policymakers have shown more concern for the slowing growth of the labor force than for its qualitative problems of inadequate skills, faltering productivity, and growing concentration in low-wage jobs. These problems will only worsen if we continue heavy importation of low-skill foreign workers. The easy availability of such workers has been an unwitting industrial policy that has seduced sectors of the economy away from innovative, capital-intensive investment and toward low value-added, labor-intensive production and services.

Slower labor force growth is an opportunity, an incentive to open better jobs and training to disadvantaged minorities African-Americans, Hispanics and earlier immigrants. That opportunity will vanish if large numbers of compliant, low skill workers continue to enter. U.S. minorities and immigrants alike will suffer and the country will continue to experience a debilitating mismatch in the national labor market between unmet demands for increasingly proficient workers and an oversupply of the less skilled.

With more than four-fifths of immigrants now from the third world, calls for limits often raise suspicions of racial motives. The racially neutral immigration policies adopted in 1965 are the only acceptable ones for a humane, democratic society. But prudence requires that we acknowledge that race and ethnicity, while enriching, can at times be disruptive forces that immigration may well intensify, and that we prepare accordingly. Greater diversity has the potential for conflict as long as race and ethnicity are associated with class.

Three decades of high immigration, the growing emphasis on group rights over individual adaptation, and rejection by many of assimilation as a goal now test our ability to remain a united and fully participatory society. Immigration, and differing fertility rates among ethnic groups, will transform the United States into a nation with no ethnic majority in the 21st century.

While these momentous shifts can enhance our creativity and civic tolerance, they will demand difficult adjustments by all the once dominant white majority, other long established minorities, and more recent arrivals. Lower levels of immigration will make adjustment to the coming racial shift easier for both residents and newcomers and allow them time to find through democratic means a consensus on the appropriate balance of pluralism and integration for national cohesion.

What is needed then if immigration in the future is to be consistent with high labor standards, enhanced competitiveness, opportunities for the disadvantaged, and sound population and environmental policies? First, the nation must acknowledge early population stability as a priority goal and accordingly adjust immigration numbers to trends in national fertility and mortality. While only ten percent of immigrants are selected for needed skills, more than half of all immigrants will become workers. Labor market considerations, and the training and employment needs of our disadvantaged must rank much higher than in the past in our choices of whom and how many should come. A keystone of current immigration policy, family preference, should be limited to spouses and minor children. Refugee programs should not become alternative immigration channels; refuge should be reserved for those showing a clear likelihood of persecution for their race, associations or beliefs, as required by current law and treaty.

Capping all forms of immigration at 450,000 annually the average intake in the 1970s would help achieve population stability near the middle of the next century and meet legitimate needs for skilled labor and reunification of immediate families, while keeping America's welcome to immigrants among the world's most generous.

David E. Simcox, former head of the State Department's Office of Mexican Affairs, is the former Chairman of the Center's Board of Directors.