The Open-Door Policy

Are High Immigration Levels Hurting the U.S. Economy-And the Environment?

For immigration advocates, the release last May of a long-awaited National Research Council (NRC) study on the economic effects of our open door policy (around 800,000 people a year are admitted to the U.S.) was cause for rejoicing. While the NRC study did make some admissions (like, for instance, that wages of native-born high school dropouts have fallen by five percent since 1980), its overall conclusions were overwhelmingly positive. “Immigrants may be adding as much as $10 billion to the economy each year,” says RAND Corporation economist James P. Smith, chairman of the NRC panel.

But immigration critics are crying foul, charging that the NRC panel’s narrow focus prevented it from analyzing the considerable negative fallout from immigration. Much of the damage, they say, is environmental, including such long-term impacts as loss of wildlife habitat (because of increased housing pressure) and air pollution (because of transportation and energy demands).

One of the report’s principal critics is Dan Stein, executive director of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Stein’s thesis is that high immigration levels benefit corporations, which use the swollen unskilled labor force to suppress wages and discourage unionization. “The economic benefits are essentially irrelevant-a few billion dollars in a $7 trillion economy,” he says.

Immigrants, including this Chicago dishwasher, come to the US to escape squalid conditions in Mexico.

Stein notes that 80 percent of new immigrant growth is in sensitive coastal regions. “All the wilderness and preservation schemes—and the clean air programs—will collapse in the face of the largest sustained wave of immigration in history,” he says. “Immigrants come here aspiring to live the American Dream, and that means continued suburban sprawl; they’re not going to be convinced to stay in crowded cities so that we can protect greenbelts.”

Agreeing with Stein is Virginia Abernethy, editor of the Population and Environment journal and a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “We’re losing the species that can’t co-exist with humans,” she says, “and retaining the ‘weed’ animals, from deer to sparrows, that can live in our communities.”

Abernethy charges that major environmental groups “have made a concerted effort to minimize population as an issue.” It’s certainly true that many groups don’t have a policy on immigration. Deb Rephan of Greenpeace’s Washington, D.C. office says, “We don’t have an official position on immigration. I’m not sure why.” Worldwatch Institute “has nobody working on that now,” says Press Officer Mary Caron. Larry Williams, the Sierra Club’s director of international programs, says membership opinion is split. “The board of directors voted that the club would not have a position on immigration,” he says.

On the left, some environmentalists-like Brad Erickson of the Political Ecology Group-do speak out on the subject, asserting that the real damage is caused by destructive development (wealthy suburbs, strip malls, golf courses) that passes immigrants by. Hal Kane, formerly of Worldwatch, now with San Francisco’s Redefining Progress, adds that an immigrant’s impact on the U.S. environment has to be balanced against the lessened impact on his home country.

The mainstream population control groups, in particular Zero Population Growth (ZPG), continue to put immigration reform on a back burner. For Executive Director Peter Kostmayer, the 1.5 million births that annually result from unplanned pregnancies are of far greater concern. “Sex education and contraceptive availability can do more to achieve population stabilization than any amount of tinkering with immigration levels,” he says. ZPG calls for stemming illegal immigration, penalizing visa abusers and closing sweat shops. But, according to legislative associate Heather Smith, “We don’t want to make any blanket statement on actual numbers [of immigrants]. We think that immigration is only a small part of population growth.”

“Many environmentalists still find it difficult to include immigration as an element in the debate.”

The NRC report disagrees with ZPG on that point. It predicts that, if immigration continues at its current levels, it will account for two-thirds of U.S. population growth between now (263 million) and 2050 (387 million). Immigration will also fuel a profound demographic shift; by 2050, the report concludes, one in four Americans will be of Hispanic origin. (In 1988, Hispanics were only 7.4 percent of the population.) The Asian population, at 3.15 percent in 1988, will triple by 2050. Caucasians, as a percentage, will decline from 78 percent in 1988 to 56 percent in 2050 (which some activists argue is the real fear of immigration critics). The trend provoked alarm for the Republican Party’s future in a recent issue of National Review.

The current U.S. immigration policy-which grants priority to “family reunification,” rather than assigning ethnic quotas-has been in place since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. The result has been steeply increased immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean. Interestingly, both black and Hispanic Americans oppose continued high immigration levels. The Latino National Political Survey, published in 1992, found that 79 percent of Mexican-Americans in the U.S. preferred to see lower admission levels. And a recent Roper poll reported that 73 percent of black Americans would like to see legal immigration limited to 300,000 or less (just above replacement level for people who leave). Overall, according to a 1993 CNN/USA Today poll, 76 percent of Americans think immigration should be stopped or reduced.

Black Americans mostly oppose high immigration levels because they fear it costs them jobs. The NRC report says they shouldn’t worry: “Some have lost their jobs, especially in places where immigrants are concentrated. But the majority of blacks live elsewhere, and their economic fortunes are tied largely to other factors.”

Professor Abernethy, who’s also studied the demographic data, denies these cozy conclusions. “Blacks are bearing the brunt from immigration,” she charges. They “live elsewhere,” she suggests, because they’ve been forced out of some labor markets by inexpensive immigrant labor.

Some “limitationists” are, quite simply, racists. But environmental reporter turned anti-immigration author Roy Beck, who illustrates his talks with graphic demonstrations of gumballs (representing millions of people) overflowing glass jars (representing countries), says fear of the racism charge keeps many people with honest doubts about U.S. policy from speaking out. “This is such a messy issue for environmentalists,” Beck says. “We like to feel good about what we do, and immigration is so full of political negatives.”

Congress agrees. Last year it year it put new restriction on illegals, but left the rest of U.S. policy largely intact.