Roy Beck's Numbers

Blueprints for an Ideal Legal Immigration Policy

By Roy Beck on March 1, 2001

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Roy Beck is Director of and author of The Case Against Immigration: The Moral, Economic, Social, and Environmental Reasons for Reducing U.S. Immigration Back to Traditional Levels (W.W. Norton & Co., 1996).

The most important public policy issue concerning immigration is the numbers.

This is true in terms of the way immigration affects housing, schools, streets and roads, public transportation, bridges, other infrastructure, wages, social services, taxes, urban sprawl, traffic, natural habitat, air and water quality.

For example, challenges in every one of those issues and the governmental response to them are tremendously different based on which of the following two scenarios from the U.S. Bureau of Census would occur:

Scenario 1. lf illegal immigration is substantially stopped and our overall legal immigration level is reduced to near the old 1776-1976 annual average of 235,000, that would lead to our U.S. population growing by another 50 million or so by mid-century.

Scenario 2. If net annual illegal immigration remains around 225,000 and we average around 800,000 legal immigrants a year (a reduction from the million a year of the 1990s), we would add another 130 million or so to our population.

The difference in the scenarios is 80 million people. Anybody who thinks that is insignificant must not have noticed the post-WWII Baby Boom. That giant bulge of Boomers (I admit, I’m at the front of the class) has changed every aspect of American life. But the numbers added by Baby Boomers were barely a third those that would be added under Scenario 2 above.

Clearly, the overall numerical level of immigration makes all the difference in the world as to what kind of country is being created and as to what governmental entities need to do to prepare.

Yet, each Congress and President for decades has resolutely avoided even discussing what the overall immigration level should be and what differing levels would mean for demands on the government. The result of not discussing has been the inadvertent quadrupling of legal levels to the million a year mark of the 1990s. It would be difficult to identify a major lobby or political force that has specifically advocated that we should have a million immigrants a year or 800,000 a year or 600,000 a year. The overall numbers have been the result of lots of changes of sub-categories without regard to their overall numerical effect.

Thus, it is obvious that not everybody agrees with me that the most important issue concerning immigration is the numbers.

The avoidance of discussing numbers is due to the way the immigration debate occurs in two very different patterns. There is the "numbers debate" among those of us who focus on the overall level of immigration, and the "characteristics debate" among those who focus on the characteristics of the immigrants.

Most discussion of immigration in the news media, by politicians, and by advocacy groups ignores the overall numbers question. All of those are among the "characteristics debaters" who fall on both sides of the issue. One side wants to primarily reduce immigrants who have certain characteristics; the other side wants solely to increase immigrants who have certain characteristics. Both say the overall numbers really don’t matter.

Those desiring reductions according to characteristics often say they are willing to have the same level of overall immigration — or even higher — if the immigrants getting the green cards have different characteristics than those now getting them. This form of reduction advocacy includes arguments for a lowering of numbers of certain kinds of immigrants based on their culture, race, religion, education, skills, or nationality. These participants in the immigration debate are willing for the overall numbers to come down, but they are also willing to replace the barred immigrants with others who match the cultural, racial, religious, educational, skills or nationality profile the advocate prefers. The overall numbers simply don’t matter much.

Those desiring increases by characteristic almost never suggest a reduction of any existing flow of immigrants even if they don’t particularly like the characteristics of a specific group. They merely want more of their favored immigrants. For some, the characteristic is a particular skill that will enable them to fill jobs more quickly or more cheaply. For others, the characteristic is a culture, race, religion or nationality that usually matches their own. Lobbies and interest groups in this category have been primarily responsible for the escalation of overall numbers as they pushed increases in one sub-category after another. Even though the "characteristics debaters" say they aren’t interested in the numbers — or refuse to define their overall numerical goals — everything they do is an attempt to increase the numbers in sub-categories.

"Numbers debaters" also fall on both sides of the immigration issue. Those who desire to reduce the overall numbers do so primarily for reasons dealing with the environment, education, culture, wages, sprawl, congestion, social cohesiveness or national unity. They commonly state specific numerical goals.

On the other hand, those who wish to increase overall numbers are less likely to state numerical goals, but they make appeals for increasing overall numbers in general. The common reasons for favoring overall increases are to expand the economy, hold down wages, provide population growth for real estate and consumer industries, eliminate a cultural or racial majority in the
country, move the United States into more equilibrium with other countries in terms of higher population density or lower standard of living, or meet humanitarian goals of bringing in as many poor people as possible.

Picking an actual numerical goal subjects a person or group to criticism both for the potential immigrants who would be excluded because the chosen number wasn’t higher and for the Americans who potentially would have their needs less well served because of the chosen number wasn’t lower. No matter what number one picks — unless one completely closes the borders or completely opens them — there will be losers in both camps. The only question is how the losses are apportioned between the two groups.

Thus, people or groups who fail to tell the public their numerical goals seek an advantage in the debate by seeming to avoid forcing losses to either potential immigrants or to Americans. But whether or not an overall number is picked, advocacy for any part of immigration policy will result in a specific number — and thus will result in some apportionment of loss to both potential immigrants and to Americans. Refusing to talk about the numbers is intellectually dishonest and should not be honored as a legitimate part of the public policy debate over immigration.

Although simply stating a numerical goal is sufficient to qualify a person or group as serious about immigration policy, I believe it is important to note (1) the principles behind picking the number, (2) the desired optimum level, and (3) a practical level that one would set as an immediate policy goal. Following are my answers to each:


The most important question for Washington is whether a continuing stream of foreign workers and dependents into the country over the next few years will make it more or less difficult to achieve the economic, social or environmental goals of the American people.

In other words, for the first time in decades Washington should consider basing its immigration policy on how many immigrants the nation actually needs. Officials should start the process at the zero level and add only the numbers that actually will help the Americans reach their goals.

The idea of immigration actually having to serve the goals of the American people will be considered somehow selfish by some. But a first principle of democratic nations is that their governments set public policy based on the will of the people. A people can choose goals in all kinds of ways that affect their material prosperity, their social comfort and their humanitarian desires. The government’s choices should reflect the needs and desires of the people of this nation.

Optimum Levels

In examining the research on a number of major societal concerns, I have concluded the following about optimum annual immigration levels:

American Need: Educational Quality, Optimum Immigration: up to 5,000. The worst education results in the country tend to be found in the school districts where most immigrants settle. That isn’t necessarily the fault of the immigrants; many of the school districts were in bad shape before Congress began filling them with foreign students. But none of them has anything to gain by receiving another immigrant child. Congressional immigration policies may be at their cruelest in the way they diminish the chance that the children of some of America’s poorest families will gain at their schools the education, the imagination, and the motivation to work for their share of the American dream.

To the extent that the immigrant children in those districts might receive a significant boost from the work of an especially talented foreign educator, those needs should easily be met if we set aside 5,000 slots each year for foreign professionals with extraordinary skills.

Cutting off all other immigration flow would allow those over-challenged, over-crowded districts to concentrate on educating the native and immigrant students at hand, instead of expending so much energy and money each year trying to accommodate additional students in an ever-expanding array of languages and cultures.

Until urban school districts no longer complain of being over-crowded or of having high dropout rates, any additional immigration is likely to be harmful.

American Need: Meeting Humanitarian Goals, Optimum Immigration: 15,000 to 50,000. Americans are an exceptionally generous people, especially in their private gifts to assist citizens of the developing countries. This is driven by a combination of religious, moral, and ethical impulses. I believe most Americans have an emotional or spiritual need to do their share in helping the tens of millions of refugees around the world. The numbers are so huge that one can make a case that it is unethical to spend any money on expensive resettlement of refugees in the United States when the same money would bring so much relief to so many more people in the camps and in assisting refugees to return home.

Nonetheless, the international community has a system for designating refugees who for political reason have virtually no chance of returning to their homelands — or who are in danger if they remain in camps. America’s generally recognized fair share of those special needs refugees generally runs between 15,000 and 35,000 per year. Re-settling refugees who do not meet the special needs criteria not only needlessly squanders limited resources but can create incentives for people to recklessly leave their homes and recklessly resist homeland return efforts. Thoughtful and effective humanitarianism would limit refugee admissions to the fair share of internationally recognized special needs refugees.

Similar considerations should also apply to asylum requests. Permanent asylum should be granted only to those seekers who meet the international standard for fear of persecution and who prove that there is little likelihood they could ever return home. But there should be a second level of temporary asylum that allows the persecuted to stay in America while waiting out the troubles back home but which assures that the asylee will leave the United States once the war is over, the dictator is deposed, or some other needed change has occurred. The United States should not make it easy for regimes to push their dissidents out of the country, nor should it be a magnet that draws such change agents from being part of the solution for their own peoples.

Thoughtful humanitarianism would not extend beyond those two categories. It certainly would not extend to those who would come to increase their consumption of material goods, education or health care. With 4.6 billion people living in countries below the average income of Mexico, there can be no ethical justification for showering a tiny fraction of a percent of the world’s needy with U.S. residency at the expense of vulnerable Americans instead of turning all such outward humanitarian attention to the billions of people left behind in the sending countries.

American Need: Taming Urban Sprawl and the Destruction of Open Spaces, Farmland, and Natural Habitat, Optimum Immigration: Zero. Americans are absolutely fed up with the sprawl, traffic, congestion, and disappearing open-space opportunities that are the result of adding 1 million people each year. While it theoretically is possible to create so much population growth without those negative societal trends, there are no examples in America of that having occurred. U.S. Census Bureau measurements of changes in urbanized areas indicate that around half of all sprawl is related to population growth. The Census Bureau also shows that most U.S. population growth is the result of recent federal immigration policies.

Until there is a national consensus that our cities no longer have a problem of sprawl, congestion, and disappearing open spaces, the optimum level of immigration would be zero until the U.S. population size is stabilized.

American Need: Meeting Environmental Goals, Optimum Immigration: Zero. In a country where nearly half the lakes and rivers do not meet clean water standards and where 40 percent of the citizens live in cities that can’t meet clean air standards, anything that adds to the total number of Americans flushing toilets, riding in vehicles, and consuming electricity is anti-environment.

Under current American fertility which is just under replacement level, any immigration over zero during the next few decades will increase the size of the U.S. population and put the country further away from meeting its environmental goals.

It is possible that the current number of Americans could reduce their consumption enough to meet all environmental goals and still have room for more people. But until the American people elect a government to institute the regulations, the taxes, and the enforcement to ensure that consumption is sufficiently reduced, any federal policy that forces U.S. population growth is an anti-environmental policy.

The point here is not that immigrants cause environmental problems but that people cause environmental problems — and federal immigration policy adds millions of extra people each decade.

The optimum level of immigration would be zero until we have substantially met most of the environmental goals that have been set by elected representatives of the American people.

American Need: Right of U.S. Citizens to Marry or Adopt Overseas, Optimum Immigration: Currently Around 200,000. The United States has a long tradition of allowing its citizens to adopt orphans from other countries and to marry people in other countries and immediately bring them to America. This is part of the fabric of generous individual liberties that Americans cherish. Before the federal government began its major increases in immigration numbers back in the 1960s, around 40,000 additional immigrants each year moved to the United States based on this right of marriage and adoption. But because of the explosion in immigration, America is filled with a huge pool of foreign-born citizens — and their children — who have a much higher proclivity toward marrying overseas. There has been no limit on how many foreign people can be married and adopted each year so that this category alone surpasses 200,000 a year, almost as large as the entire annual immigration flow in an average year during the country’s first 200 years (1776-1976).

Although there should be increased efforts to reduce the thousands of immigrants each year who engage in marriage fraud, the optimum number for the sake of preserving this right of citizens should be the present number with the flexibility to go up or down depending on the demand.

Many people claim that this individual freedom to marry and adopt overseas extends to naturalized foreign-born citizens being allowed to send for their adult brothers, sisters and parents. This strains credulity. Except for the small fraction of the immigrant flow that is refugees, immigrants chose to separate from their families by coming here. Nobody forced them. If they have a passionate need to live near their relatives, they should move back. Americans commonly live 3,000 miles from their brothers, sisters and parents inside the United States. There is no legitimate American need for immigrants to nurture a never-ending chain of family migration by sending for close adult relatives who send for their close adult relatives until in-laws and distant cousins of the original immigrant are coming. That was the wise conclusion of the bi-partisan national Commission on Immigration Reform chaired by the late Barbara Jordan.

Parents of immigrants are a somewhat more difficult question. But generous visitor visas could allow for extended visits that would afford more time together than is the case for large numbers of native-born American citizens and their parents. Also, an immigrant is free to move back home to care for a parent during a crisis.

A final family category to consider is the one containing the spouses and minor children of immigrants who have green cards but who have not yet become citizens. There is quite a backlog right now because Congress has extended three amnesties to illegal aliens beginning in 1986. If a person becomes an immigrant through normal channels, he or she automatically can bring a spouse and minor children. But if an immigrant marries in another country before becoming a U.S. citizen, the spouse and children must wait. Currently, that backlog is whittled down each year. The surest solution to the backlog is for the immigrant to become a citizen. Still there may be reason to study this more to see if the backlog reduction numbers should be increased a bit.

American Need: Protection of Workers from Wage Depression, Optimum Immigration: Up to 5,000. No American wage earner benefits from having his or her elected officials import workers who may compete for the same jobs or help to depress wages. That is true whether the American worker is an unskilled lettuce picker, a slightly skilled chicken slaughterer, a skilled construction tradesman, or a college-educated engineer.

The recent spectacle of high government officials and major newspaper editorialists calling for increased immigration in order to hold down wages makes a mockery of the egalitarian ideals of this nation. Until recently, the primary answer to tight labor markets in this country has always been to increase productivity through innovation, invention and capital investment. That traditional style allowed wages to rise so that the vast majority of full-time working Americans could enjoy middle class lives of dignity.

Mass importation of foreign labor also violates American-style egalitarianism by creating vast underclass populations cast semi-permanently into the role of servants. Rising income disparity has always been the result of surges in immigration in this country.

Denying industries the immigrant workers they desire should not be a punitive measure. It is in the best interest of all Americans that our industries succeed - and, for that matter, that entrepreneurs and the owners of capital earn generous profits as they create jobs for the rest of us. The government should provide the industries the means to meet real short-term labor emergencies, as long as they do not impede efforts to train Americans to fill the needs later. Foreign workers given only temporary work visas, not by immigrants allowed to enter the United States for permanent residence, should fill nearly all skilled-job vacancies for which an American cannot be found. And temporary workers should be allowed into the country only after they have signed agreements of understanding that they will return to their home country at the end of the short time it may take to train enough Americans to take the jobs.

An allowance for 5,000 brilliant professionals would more than handle the number of scientists, professors, computer whizzes, and so forth who possess extraordinary genius and whom U.S. industries and universities want to steal from other countries each year.

American Need: All of the Above, Overall Optimum Immigration: 100,000. The dilemma in setting the overall numbers is that the optimal numbers for various American needs clash with each other. The American needs to meet environmental goals and to combat sprawl are best met with zero immigration for awhile, but the American need to have the individual liberty to fall in love with anybody in the world and then bring that person to the United States as a bride or groom calls for at least 200,000 immigrants each year. The American need for economic justice in wages and for educational relief for kids in overcrowded, underfunded schools is best met with no more than 5,000 immigrants each year. But the American need to take up our fair share of helping special refugees calls for up to 50,000 a year.

If one left out the issue of overseas marriages and adoptions, one could argue for an optimum immigration level of 55,000 a year.

But in weighing all American needs together, one could make a claim for an immigration level of around 100,000. That represents a compromise between the marriage rights and all other matters affecting Americans’ quality of life. Combined with government estimates that more than 200,000 illegal aliens permanently settle in the United States each year, an overall ceiling of 100,000 legal immigrants still would exceed out-migration each year and add significantly to U.S. population growth. And that would further aggravate efforts to improve education, environmental quality, wage fairness and quality of life issues like sprawl. But the level would be relatively mild compared with present conditions.

Practical Level

Individual liberty often trumps all other needs in the American culture. The optimum immigration numbers noted above would require tens of thousands of citizens to get in a waiting line of perhaps years to marry overseas or to bring a spouse from overseas after marrying. I do not see any practical possibility for limiting the virtually unlimited right of citizens to marry anybody they choose, regardless of home country, and immediately bringing them to this country. I believe Americans will insist on that right even though only a tiny fraction of them — especially native-born ones — will ever even think about using that right. This is a democracy; if Americans are willing to subjugate many of their other needs and desires to this particular right that is their choice. It also is my reluctant preference.

Thus, my proposed numerical level of overall immigration would be 255,000. That is near the number in the Census Bureau’s Scenario 1 noted at the beginning of this essay.

I picked the number based on 200,000 spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens, 5,000 world-class skilled workers and professionals and 50,000 refugees, asylees and nuclear family of permanent resident aliens. If the refugee and asylee admissions fall below 50,000 each year, the leftover green cards could go to reduce the backlog of spouses and minor children of immigrants who have not become citizens.

Since the citizens’ spouses and minor children category would go up and down each year, my number really is not a rigid 255,000 but a formula that would currently produce a number like that. The formulas would be: 55,000 a year, plus an unlimited number of spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.

Trends suggest that my number might rise fairly close to 300,000 before it began coming down strongly. But as the years progressed and we had fewer and fewer recent immigrants in the marrying pool, my overall number should in a decade or two move back to the traditional immigration average, and maybe eventually even toward the 100,000 optimum level.

I am not pleased with the number I have had to pick because it will lead — according to Census projections — to at least another 50 million Americans by mid-century and at current fertility rates won’t stop pressuring urban sprawl, congestion and natural habitat destruction until the next century. If not for a federal government that has refused to look at the effect of overall immigration numbers while constantly making decisions that increased them for four decades, those of us who are Baby Boomers would have lived to see the fruits of a stable population. Now I have already lost the chance to live in a stable America, but I feel guilty about denying the opportunity to my great-grandchildren. I have picked an annual immigration number so high that it compromises their future, as well as every generation in between. But I have picked the best number that I believe is possible. All who pick higher numbers — or who refuse to pick a number at all — propose to only accelerate the future damage from massive additional population growth.