Much has been said of the right wing’s efforts to put politics over science when it comes to issues such as global warming and the teaching of evolution. We mock conservatives who happily ignore the evidence when it undermines their political agenda. At the same time, however, we give a free pass to liberals whose sentiments override evidence showing that America’s population growth is unsustainable.
This aversion to inconvenient truths achieves it purest form in respect to immigration, which accounts for two-thirds of U.S. population growth. That growth immensely compounds the difficulties we face in trying to reduce our nation’s carbon footprint, in developing an affordable, universal health care system, and in assuring a livable wage for workers. These are indeed worthy goals, but the solutions they call for do not operate independently of the harsh objectivity of mathematics, notwithstanding the efforts of many liberals to pretend otherwise. While many on the left will admit that global population growth is a problem, they treat domestic population growth as a taboo, out of fear of being labeled as racist xenophobes. Those who aggressively support our high immigration rates know this, and won’t hesitate to pull out the race card.
Our immigration policies are shaped not by abstract forces but by business and political interests. Economic right-wingers see increasing numbers of low-skilled workers creating a best-case scenario of cheap labor and increased demand for goods and services. On the left, the Democratic party embraces high immigration levels because growth in the Hispanic community promises to solidify their grip on political power. In 1990, these usually oppositional forces partnered on a bill that doubled legal immigration. Warning of an “impending labor shortage,” that year’s Economic Report to the President recommended higher immigration rates, and in response the first President Bush signed the bill.
Since then, we have seen an unprecedented surge in U.S. population growth. Indeed, in the year before this legislation, the Census Bureau predicted that our population would reach about 300 million people around the year 2040 — and then level off. After the 1990 immigration bill, however, we reached a population of 300 million in October of 2006. Think about that: the population growth that the Census Bureau had expected in fifty years has occurred in only sixteen.
In today’s political climate, a significant coalition of Americans wants to slow down immigration while an opposing coalition of about the same strength wants high immigration rates to continue, albeit in a more orderly fashion. This stalemate would not exist, however, if not for the many liberals who defend massive immigration in spite of the difficulties it presents. Were liberals more open to rational consideration of objective data, they might notice that we’ve survived the “impending labor shortage” of the mid-90’s, and they might support repealing the 1990 immigration reform. This would put America back on track toward a stabilized population by restoring immigration levels to historical averages. A tighter labor market would enhance job opportunities and wages for the poor. It would slow our nation’s obscene consumption of fossil fuels and make it easier to protect important ecosystems. It would make prospects for health care reform more realistic by slowing growth in the uninsured population.
I support a broad spectrum of progressive goals, so I hope I don’t seem too harsh in arguing that slower population growth would make those goals more realistic. If I think that liberal support of high immigration is flawed, I appreciate that it is a good-hearted and generous flaw. But progressives should trust themselves enough to know that addressing immigration from a scientific perspective does not make them racists. And that scientific perspective demands they challenge the boundaries of their comfortable discourse and analyze the issue in numerical terms. At some point, the number of immigrants we allow into our country begins to tip the balance. At some point, the immigration rates get so high that the benefits are outweighed by the costs to our environment, to our social services, to our millions of disadvantaged, which includes immigrants already here. Only by respecting the science behind the issues of our day can we hope to attain our worthy ideals.
by Mark Powell
(This essay was first published in the Montpelier Bridge, a progressive Bi-weekly, in their special supplement on Population in the winter of 2008.)