Ensuring A Sustainable Future by Progressives for Immigration Reform

“Just think! By 2040 there may be twice as many of us to enjoy this beach!”
photo by Tom Sullivan/Flickr/cc

We must choose between sustainability and continued population growth. We cannot have both.


The nation’s ongoing debate over the number of legal and illegal immigrants entering the country each year has raised legitimate questions about the sustainability of current U.S. immigration policies and the size of nation we wish to become.

Although political sensitivity has often curtailed the discussion of the impact that immigration has on U.S. population size, the fact is that immigration accounts for 63% of our nation’s population growth. For over 30 years, immigration has served as the largest contributor to the increase in U.S. population. As a direct result of its immigration policies, the United States is now the third most populous nation in the entire world and grows at a rate of more than twice that of China. In fact, the United States has the fastest population growth of any industrialized nation, and is surpassed only by India and Nigeria.

Projections issued by the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that over the next 50 years the United States is set to add an additional 167 million more to its population, with 105 million resulting solely due to immigration. This projection is an increase of more than 55% of the U.S. population today.

The United States currently adds 1.25 million immigrants (net) to its population every year. Without a return to more traditional levels of immigration, somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 per year, U.S. population is slated to increase from 307 million today to 468 million by the year 2060.

Public opinion polls demonstrate that stabilizing the size of U.S. population is a concept that most Americans are willing to embrace. The goal of population stabilization can be achieved by curtailing large-scale immigration.

“It’s so good to get out into nature!”
photo by M Griffiths/Flickr/cc

Does Immigration Impact The Environment?

Many people want a sustainable society, one that secures essential natural resources for future generations and preserves flourishing populations of all native species in perpetuity.  Yet the United States will fail in these efforts, if we fail to stabilize our population. As David Brower, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, put it, at the dawn of the environmental movement: “We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.”

Many people seek to preserve open space, farms and wildlife habitat from sprawl. They support new parks and wildlife refuges, and improved land use, transportation and zoning policies. But over half the sprawl in the United States is caused by population growth. Unless we stop population growth, sprawl will continue to gobble up undeveloped land.

Many people want the United States to take the lead in combating global climate change. They support higher mileage requirements for cars and trucks and increased funding for mass transit; replacing coal-fired power plants with solar, wind and other alternative energy sources; and higher efficiency standards for heating, cooling and insulating new buildings. But in recent decades, four-fifths of the increase in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions has come from U.S. population growth, as more people drove more cars, built more houses, ate more food, and did all the other things that generate carbon. Unless we stop population growth, America will continue to generate too much CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases.

Some environmentalists argue that Americans only need to focus on fighting pollution and reducing our consumption, in order to curb environmental destruction. They are right to argue for decreased consumption and increased vigilance against polluters, but wrong to assume that such efforts can take the place of stabilizing our population. A growing population can swamp improvements in consumption or pollution abatement. In fact, we have seen this happen regarding national energy use and carbon emissions in the past few decades, as greater efficiency in per capita energy use has failed to keep pace with increased numbers (more “capitas”). Total energy use and total carbon emissions have risen, due to population growth.

As President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development put it:

“Managing population growth, resources, and wastes is essential to ensuring that the total impact of these factors is within the bounds of sustainability. Stabilizing the population without changing consumption and waste production patterns would not be enough, but it would make an immensely challenging task more manageable. In the United States, each is necessary; neither alone is sufficient.”

One of the Council’s ten main recommendations for creating a sustainable society was: “Move toward stabilization of U.S. Population.”

Some American environmentalists argue that overpopulation is solely a global problem, not a national one, and that it requires an exclusive focus on global solutions. They are right that worldwide population growth is an immense environmental problem, but wrong to think that addressing it is best done by ignoring U.S. population growth. The U.S. government should finance and encourage family planning efforts in developing nations, to help slow population growth. We should stick up for the rights of women in international forums and encourage female literacy and economic empowerment in poor countries, since securing these rights and furthering these interests are both the right things to do, as a matter of justice toward women, and they have proven successful at reducing fertility rates around the world.

However, Americans also need to attend to our own house. The United States is the third largest nation in the world, and our population is growing rapidly. Our most direct and important responsibility regarding global population growth is to end population growth within our own borders.

In addition, while many progressives like to think of ourselves as “citizens of the world,” concerned for the well-being of all humankind, those of us who remain citizens of the United States, have further, particular responsibilities. As Americans, we believe we have a special responsibility to preserve wild species and wild landscapes right here, in our own country. Our children and grandchildren will blame us, rightly, if we fail to preserve opportunities for them to get to know and appreciate wild nature. They will blame us, rightly, if we fail to preserve clean air, clean water, sufficient topsoil to grow food, and all the other resources essential for their well-being. In other words, we have a duty to future generations of Americans to create a sustainable society. Continued population growth makes achieving that goal impossible. We must end U.S. population growth.

However, in order to stabilize America’s population, we must reduce immigration, since today it is high immigration rates that are driving continued rapid population growth in the United States. During much of the previous century, population increase was fueled primarily by high native birth rates, but in recent decades, the total fertility rate of American women has fallen dramatically: from 3.5 children per woman in the 1950s, to 1.7 children in the 1970s, to 2.05 children today. According to a recent study from the Pew Hispanic Center, 82% of population growth between 2005 and 2050 will be due to new immigrants arriving and their descendants. [http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=85]


With a total fertility rate slightly below 2.1 children per woman, today the United States is well positioned to transition to slower population growth in coming decades. If we can encourage slightly lower birth rates among American citizens, we could stabilize our population sometime later in this century. If we do not reduce immigration, however, our population will balloon over the next hundred years, and continue growing with no end in sight.

Skeptical? Consider four numbers: 310 million, 377 million, 571 million, and 854 million. 310 million is the population of the United States as we write these words, at the end of 2010. The last three numbers are population projections for the year 2100, according to a study by the U.S. Census Bureau. Each of the three projections holds fertility rates steady, while varying immigration levels, so annual immigration rates make the main difference between them.

Under a zero immigration projection, the U.S. population continues to grow throughout the 21st century, increasing to 377 million people, 67 million more than our current population. Under a “middle” projection, with immigration a little less than one million annually, we instead add nearly 300 million people and almost double our population by 2100, to 571 million people. And under the highest scenario, with over two million immigrants annually, our population nearly triples by 2100, adding almost 600 million more people by the end of the century, to 854 million people. Obviously, according to the Census Bureau, immigration makes a huge difference to future U.S. population numbers.

A booming population has numerous harmful ecological effects beyond the sprawl and increased greenhouse gas emissions we have already discussed. It increases water use. It accelerates deforestation. It furthers crowding, which in turn makes it harder for young Americans to connect with nature, furthering “nature deficit disorder.”  Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, asked in a speech in Wisconsin in March, 2000: “With twice the population, will there be any wilderness left? Any quiet place? Any habitat for song birds? Waterfalls? Other wild creatures? Not much.”

Population growth also increases our dependence on fossil fuels, making the U.S. more likely to resort to deepwater oil drilling and more susceptible to disasters such as the recent BP Gulf oil spill. Indeed, it is hard to think of a single environmental problem that is not made significantly worse by population growth, or that could not be more effectively met if we could stabilize or reduce our population.

As the Clinton Council on Sustainable Development put it ten years ago: “The sum of all human activity, and thus the sum of all environmental, economic and social impacts from human activity, is captured by considering population together with consumption.”

President Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, in a report twenty years earlier, stated: “The United States should . . . develop a U.S. national population policy that includes attention to issues such as population stabilization.”

And the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, fifty years before that, wrote:

“If there is any question of ‘superiority’ involved at all, it is whether we will prove capable of regulating our own future human population density by some qualitative standard, or whether, like the grouse, we will automatically fill up the large biological niche which Columbus found for us, and which Mr. Edison and Mr. Ford, through ‘management’ of our human environment, are constantly making larger. I fear we will. The boosters fear we will not, or else they fear there will be some needless delay about it.”

American environmentalists face a choice. Ultimately, our environmental goals can only be accomplished if the population of the United States stops growing. This will only occur if immigration is substantially reduced, preferably by bringing immigration numbers in line with emigration numbers. We must choose between sustainability and continued population growth. We cannot have both.

Does Immigration Impact American Labor?

Immigration has had both positive and negative consequences for the U.S. economy. It benefits some groups of Americans and harms others. The benefits flow primarily to affluent Americans while the costs are mostly borne by low-income Americans. It is a regressive policy, just like tax cuts for the wealthy or right-to-work laws. Progressives who support low-wage workers should be able to find common cause with the advocates for immigration reduction.

Three basic facts about immigration under-gird its economic impacts. First, immigrant inflows into the U.S. labor market are very large. Immigration accounts for over half of labor force growth. Such large numbers inevitably mean that immigration has had large effects. We can argue about what those effects might be, but we cannot pretend that they have not occurred.

Second, immigrants are especially likely to have low levels of education and skills. About 30% of all foreign born workers (and about 60% of those from Mexico and Central America) do not hold a high school degree. Illegal immigrants are even more likely to have low levels of education. While many immigrants are highly educated, the large share with low levels of educational attainment concentrates their impact in the low-wage sector of the labor market.

Third, immigrant workers are spread throughout the occupational distribution. Less than 2% of all foreign born workers (and less than 4% of those from Mexico and Central America) are in agricultural occupations. The largest shares of foreign workers are in production and construction occupations. Workers from Mexico and Central America are also especially likely to be in buildings and grounds maintenance, transportation, and food service occupations. Immigrant workers are not isolated in a separate labor market. The assertion that immigrants “take jobs that Americans don’t want” is a myth.

The upshot is that immigrant workers increase job competition for American workers, and drive down their wages and employment opportunities. According to Professor George Borjas of Harvard University, immigration from 1980 to 2000 reduced the weekly wages of all native workers by about 4%. The greatest negative impacts were on high school drop-outs, black and Hispanic workers, and young workers.

There is also good evidence that immigration has decreased the employment of these groups of American workers. According to Professor Andrew Sum and his colleagues at Northeastern University, a one percentage point increase in a state’s labor force caused by immigration results in a 1.2 percentage point decline in the employment rate of 16-24 year olds, and a decline of twice that amount among African Americans of that age group. Professor Sum has also shown that almost all of the job growth between 2000 and 2004 went to immigrants. Young workers, minority workers and workers without a high school degree have unemployment rates that are much higher than other workers. This is the opposite of what one would expect if low-wage occupations faced labor shortages, as the advocates for open borders often argue. In fact, the U.S. already has an excess supply of labor in low wage occupations—that is why they continue to pay such low wages.

These figures on the impact of immigration on the wages and employment of American workers might seem small (though a 4% wage reduction can significantly reduce living standards for people with low earnings). But immigration creates a number of offsetting trends that blunt the measurement of its effect. For example, the negative consequences of immigration tend to wash out over time as workers adapt and the labor market adjusts. The workers most adversely affected by immigration in a particular locale may move or drop out of the labor force. Immigrants may be attracted to locales that offer higher wages, obscuring the correlation between immigrant growth and wage decline. All of these factors make it difficult to measure the true economic impact of immigration.

Immigration also creates economic benefits. By adding to our labor resources, it increases our capacity to produce goods and to generate income. The major recipients of this additional income, aside from the immigrants themselves, are the employers who hire them and the high-skill workers who work alongside them. Immigration can also increase consumer choices and expand markets. If it stimulates growth, it may also stimulate investment (though an increase in the availability of very low-wage labor is usually associated with a decline in investment in labor-saving technologies). Immigration may help keep jobs in the U.S. if it increases our competitiveness with respect to labor costs.

Like the labor market impact of immigration, the fiscal impact is also characterized by pluses and minuses. Because immigrants have lower incomes and larger families than natives, they tend to use more social services, particularly public education and public hospitals. They also tend to pay less in taxes, resulting in significant fiscal deficits at the state and local levels. But the opposite is true at the federal level because immigrants often pay social security taxes but fail to collect benefits. The overall fiscal impact of immigration appears to be negative, at least in the short-run, but not large relative to total government borrowing.

Because immigration creates both benefits and costs, its aggregate economic impact is surprisingly small. Those who argue that immigration will destroy the economy, and those who argue that immigration will save the economy, are both wrong.

Immigration is both bad and good for the American economy. The problem from a progressive perspective is that the negative consequences of immigration fall on the shoulders of those least able to bear it: low-wage workers, minority workers and young workers. Like international flows of capital and commodities, international flows of labor add to growth but also increase job competition, particularly for workers without specialized skills. Progressives who are critical of other aspects of globalization should apply the same analysis to immigration.

 This section on labor was written by Steven Shulman, Professor of Economics, Colorado State University.


Bringing population size into balance with natural resources is critical to improved economic conditions and environmental and food security worldwide. This is a key element in preventing further damage to the planet’s ecosystem and the current threats to a stable climate conducive to all forms of life on Earth.

Families should always be created by choice and not coercion. The first priority of U.S. humanitarian aid should be provision of comprehensive, voluntary family planning and reproductive information and services along with support for elevation of the status of women and girls, education of daughters, protection of children from exploitation, and related social and health goals. The accumulated evidence of the last half century is that delaying childbearing until adulthood and spacing of children is the single most effective step to improving maternal and child health that any society can take. Having every child wanted and loved is a requirement for healthy development of children.

These priorities and steps will reduce the potential for civil and international conflicts that can result when demand for resources outstrips supply.

A number of countries, especially in Asia, have demonstrated that the reduction of high fertility rates is a precursor to society-wide economic development. Such development narrows the gap between rich and poor, leading to egalitarian societies. Indeed, economic progress and economic welfare should always be measured not by such indicators as GDP, but rather GDP per capita. Economic policies of the United States should emphasize genuine well-being, not increasing consumption beyond the level needed for a decent and healthy life.

The United States should provide universal access to voluntary family planning services here at home. The U.S. should work to reduce both its population growth and excessive consumption of energy and resources in order to protect the most vulnerable in the global society from the potential effects of climate change and environmental destruction. The U.S. should take a lead role in demonstrating the positive benefits of sustainable population size and lifestyles.

 For more information contact: Progressives for Immigration Reform, 888 16th Street NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20006, phone toll-free: 866-331-PFIR, website: http://www.progressivesforimmigrationreform.org

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