Mark Powell: Immigration reform should reduce population growth

Letter date: 
Sunday, September 15, 2013
Letter publisher: 
Providence Journal
Letter author: 
Mark Powell
Letter body: 

I applaud the ambition of President Obama’s second-term goals, but his pledges to reduce America’s economic inequality and to rein in climate change are undermined by the Senate’s immigration bill. Granted, the proposed comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) offers a political bonanza to Democratic strategists. The resulting population growth, however, will make it much harder to restrain our income gap and greenhouse emissions. In his July 24 speech, Obama deviated from his text to say, “The wealthy are doing better while the middle class is struggling and others are faring worse.” This puts him at odds with the Wall Street crowd, as do his concerns about climate change. On the website, the president calls on Americans to “believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.”

But has Obama consulted the judgment of science about how population growth is increasing America’s carbon output? Scientists know that only increased emissions will result when you add millions more people to a culture stubbornly clinging to a lifestyle framed by acquiring, consuming and emitting.

And then there is the science of economics. At its core stands the power that supply and demand have on wages and the cost of living. Wall Street sings the praises of legislation offering new waves of cheap labor but increasing the labor supply in the midst of the slowest job-market recovery since World War II will not shower affluence upon struggling poor and middle-class families.

It seems Obama views continued U.S. population growth as desirable. A recent report from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers claims, “Immigrants increase the size of the population and thus of the labor force and customer base, making an important contribution to economic growth.” Well, that sounds reasonably scientific, but context matters, and today’s population growth occurs in a context that clearly favors the wealthy.

Perhaps Obama also believes that U.S. population growth is slowing down significantly, a claim put forth by those who see continued growth as helpful to their own interests. While it’s true that demographic increase is slowing in the developed world, the United States is at odds with that trend. Since 1980, the population of the European Union has grown by only 10 percent, while the U.S. population has grown by 40 percent, adding 90 million people. Furthermore, the United States is expected to add another 100 million people by 2060, while the E.U. population remains virtually stable.

This rapid demographic growth resulted from increases in legal immigration passed in 1990 at the behest of business interests who worried that our projected expansion was insufficiently robust. Today, rapid immigration stands as a baseline that CIR would further expand.

Thanks to supply-side analysis since the Reagan administration, continued population growth has attained a mystical halo in policy circles. Many insist that such growth in itself creates sufficient economic energy to bestow prosperity upon current residents and newcomers alike. In the context of today’s economic struggles, this is just a smiley face painted on self-serving policy visions favored by those hoping to further increase their own fortunes.

The current debate about immigration focuses on the status of some 11 million undocumented people and ignores the mathematical horsepower that legal immigration commands in driving our population growth. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2008 that immigrants and their descendents will contribute about 82 percent of the growth in the U.S. population between now and the midpoint of this century. So what we decide about immigration will determine our future population size. We owe it to future generations to expand our national debate to include this neglected facet of immigration policy.

In his July 24 speech, the president also promised to use “whatever executive authority” he has “to help the middle class.” I hope Obama takes a moment to observe the parallel tracks between our nation’s numerical population growth and the decline of the middle class over the past 30 years. And he needs to appreciate that history will judge him less on his legislative achievements today than on the effects of that legislation on the economic equality and climate stability witnessed by future generations.

Whatever is decided about the undocumented, the best approach to reining in America’s growing disparity and its disproportionate greenhouse emissions would be to reduce immigration to a degree consistent with a stable U.S. population.

Mark Powell is co-chairman of the New England Coalition for Sustainable Population and vice president of Vermonters for Sustainable Population.