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A Nation of Immigrants

Radioactive Waste

A Nation of Immigrants



Thanks for the thoughtful articles on immigration by David M. Kennedy ("Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants?") and George J. Borjas ("The New Economics of Immigration") in the November Atlantic. Kennedy deserves praise for pointing out the unprecedented, potentially destabilizing migration from Central America to the states from Texas west to California. Borjas rightly stresses the harmful effects of current immigration policies on lower-income Americans.

Yet neither article addresses what I consider to be the key issue in the debate over immigration -- namely, what is the ideal size of the U.S. population fifty or a hundred years from now? For the past generation immigration has been the leading source of America's population growth. In particular, it has been a major cause of the growing congestion in urban areas such as Los Angeles, Denver, and Miami -- and, closer to where I live, in Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Columbia, and Atlanta. If high rates of immigration continue, the Census Bureau predicts, the U.S. population will grow from about 265 million today to roughly 450 million by 2050.

Wouldn't the quality of life -- for natural systems as well as for our children and grandchildren -- be better if the U.S. population stabilized at under 300 million instead of nearly doubling in the twenty-first century? The November, 1996, issue of National Geographic notes that "Colorado [a mecca for recent immigrants] is losing some 90,000 acres of rural land a year to . . . development." Similarly, rapid population growth in my native North Carolina is transforming beautiful farms, forests, mountain meadows, and coastal wetlands into unsightly, pretentious subdivisions.

Thinking ahead, as the Harvard scholars Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May urged us to do in Thinking in Time (1986), one asks, Does it make any sense to keep the gates open for a continuing flow of immigrants? And wouldn't closing them make it more likely that nations like Mexico and India would take more seriously their manifest need to limit their own populations?

Ralph B. Levering


David Kennedy is correct that the earlier European immigration should properly be understood as a movement from overpopulated rural Europe to industrial cities. Those cities were in Europe, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere (Buenos Aires, for example). However, the effect on the United States did not stop with the passage of restrictive immigration legislation in the 1920s. The source of immigrants just shifted, from southeastern Europe to the southeastern United States, and this resulted in the northward migration of American-born blacks from the 1920s to the mid-1960s. Economic growth in the northeastern United States absorbed those immigrants, whether they were from Ireland, Italy, or Alabama. Sometime around 1970 the growth rate of the U.S. economy shifted from the historical average of three percent to about one percent. Hence distributional issues have come increasingly to the fore of national politics ever since (affirmative action, welfare, trade restrictions).

George Borjas is correct that the economic impact of immigration at the levels under discussion is probably small in the aggregate but potentially large in its distributional impact. This has always been true -- native male laborers in the northern United States probably experienced a "silent recession" in the twenty- year period prior to the Civil War owing to immigrant competition. However, economic growth was strong enough to absorb that impact with only a fleeting nativist reaction: know-nothingism.

Ultimately, the issue is U.S. economic growth -- the causes of which, both historically and currently, are little understood. Is the economy growing fast enough to absorb the regressive distributional impact of immigration without triggering a backlash from low-income native Americans? The earlier European immigration was absorbed by an America that, within the constraints of the business cycle, experienced sustained economic growth high enough to minimize social tension. The current immigration is being absorbed by a different America, one with an anemic economic growth rate. I doubt that we will be able to absorb immigrants as easily as our ancestors did.

James J. Bante


The excellent articles dealing with immigration illustrate a common shortcoming: that the narrow window of economics is the primary viewing port this nation ought to use for observing immigration's effects and proposing solutions. Economics does play an important part, but we need to view the issue from a much larger perspective, that of overall population pressure.

Few recall or even know that the 1972 Rockefeller Commission concluded that immigration would provide no benefits to a growing population, that the economy does not depend upon it, that democratic representation is diluted by it, that the life of the average person is not enhanced by it, and that most of our major problems would be easier to solve if we stopped growing. This was proclaimed more than twenty-four years and 55 million people ago, and we are still avoiding the issue.

Setting aside a discussion of natural resources as they relate to supporting a given population, how do we even begin to assess the social, psychological, and political carrying capacity of a nation like the United States? One example will suffice to illustrate where we find ourselves on the continuum from optimum to apocalypse, and should suggest that we move in a different direction.

When this nation was founded, the ratio between federal representatives and constituents was 1:30,000. Today the ratio is 1:600,000 and growing. This twentyfold increase in the ratio translates into a twentyfold dilution of each citizen's effective political representation. The ratio is even greater in the Senate. Another way of expressing this is to note that we would need 8,700 members of the House, rather than the current 435, to restore the original ratio.

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