Published Sunday, July 30, 2000
Immigration reform, yes. More immigrants, no.
B. Meredith Burke
In his Business Forum in the June 25 issue, immigration lawyer Scott Wright calls for
"permanent immigration reforms that meet the needs of the New Economy."
Gosh, like any right-thinking American, I, too, endorse meeting the future needs of our
society. But somehow my reading of our future needs, based upon three decades of plying my
trade as a demographer and labor economist, differs 180 degrees from those Wright
Employers now plead a vast shortage of high-and low-skilled workers. They support an
inexorable expansion of H-1B visas for workers in short supply. H-1B visas are temporary
in practice but permanent in application, especially as a holder becomes parent to a
Once a visa holder manages to convert his or her status to a permanent one, he or she can
take full advantage of the uniquely generous U.S. family reunification policy.
Advocates of expanded quotas -- industrialists, politicians, immigration lawyers, even
some journalists -- wear blinders. They dupe many into believing this act carries no
far-reaching societal consequences and certainly no downside.
Wright accuses government bureaucrats as unreasonably opposing expanded quotas. In fact,
it is organized labor and environmentalists and a majority of the populace who assail
continuation, let alone expansion, of the H-1B program.
Population is key
In 1970, we Earth Day activists espoused a systemic view of all societal actions, one
derived from MIT Prof. Jay Forrester's book "Urban Dynamics." Population was the
fundamental dynamic underlying sprawl, resource consumption and habitat destruction.
But sheer numbers also subvert realization of cherished non-material American values:
breathing room, uncrowded wilderness and recreation land, low-density but compact cities.
Hence the initial Earth Day slogan, "Zero Population Growth!" In 1972 the
President's Commission on Population Growth and the American Future joined us in urging
Congress to adopt a population stabilization policy with all due speed.
Tellingly, the commission stressed the deleterious effect of further population growth not
just upon our physical habitat but upon the ability of Americans to enjoy their cherished
low-density lifestyle. The commission noted that both reproductive health and immigration
policies would have to be accountable to national population goals.
In 1945, the United States enjoyed a still-sustainable population base. The labor market
was tight for 20 years, reflecting the restrictive immigration era that began in 1924 and
the maturation of small Depression-era birth cohorts.
Workers were prosperous; income differentials narrowed. Low-paid farm workers, especially
Southern blacks and Southwestern Hispanics, shifted into better-paying city jobs.
Lesser-skilled workers gained bargaining power. Women and blacks saw employment barriers
The progenitors of the baby boom relished low-cost living and still-accessible, unspoiled
natural settings. The 1964 Civil Rights Act's passage and Cesar Chavez's near-success in
unionizing farm workers were no accidents. Chavez's movement originated in a tight farm
labor market, which also prompted growers to invest in raising worker productivity in
order to justify the higher wages needed to retain workers who had urban alternatives.
Meanwhile, the baby boom swelled U.S. population to 200 million in 1970 from 132 million
as recently as 1940. Reflecting both high fertility and net in-migration from other
states, California's population had grown from 7 million to 20 million in three decades;
Minnesota's has grown from 2.8 million to 3.8.
Against this backdrop, Congress rejected demographic self-accountability. Since 1970, we
have added 75 million more to our population, half from expansive immigration and
birthright citizenship policies.
Births to foreign-born women now raise total births by 25 percent nationally and nearly
100 percent in California, the prime destination of both legal and illegal entrants.
California's population now stands at 35 million, five times its 1940 level; Minnesota's
is at about 4.8 million, more than twice its 1940 level.
Not in best interest
Expanding any category of immigrant acts against the best interests of common working
folk, and our national and global futures.
Explosive population growth rates have fanned explosive increases in housing prices and
cries of housing and classroom shortages. Still, employers cry "labor shortage."
As an economist, I instruct that a "shortage" of a good or service signifies
that at the prevailing market price buyers wish to consume more than suppliers are willing
to supply. This is generally self-correcting: Buyers bid up the price, which triggers an
increase in the amount supplied until an equilibrium is reached.
The price of labor is artificially low. Employers paying below-living wages to low-skilled
workers rely upon the public coffers to subsidize the difference via welfare programs.
Naturally, such employers enjoy extra profits from such "cheap" labor.
But merely importing more workers, low-or high-skilled, muffles the labor market signals
that otherwise would call for the increased wages and improved work conditions that
normally attract more people into an occupation.
Among the displaced costs are environmental degradation and congestion. Ecologists looking
at drained aquifers, disappearing wetlands, the paving of our most productive farm land
threatened plant and animal species agree that our population exceeds sustainability.
By definition, beyond that point each extra person carries a negative net cost to the
community at large. Yet population policy has been summarily removed from the national
agenda even as symptoms of population-gone-amok abound.
Today the United States is the world's greatest resource consumer and pollution creator.
The latest Census Bureau population projections show our present immigration policies will
more than double our population, to 570 million by the year 2100.
To the best of my knowledge, no politician or H-1B apologist has called for a national
debate on doubling the U.S. population.
Expanding the H-1B visa program and the bewildering multiplicity of other entrant
categories could result in a year 2100 U.S. population of 1 billion.
One billion Americans! Is our following on the path set by China not worth a public
airing? Will employers then consider we have "enough" workers?
Before Congress scales up already-indefensible immigration quotas, why not hold a national
referendum on what population level citizens desire, and what we are willing to sacrifice
to attain it?
Why not debate the morality of encouraging the sort of "brain-drain" development
economists of the 1960s rightly condemned?
The United States should serve as an international role model in shaping policies to
safeguard our environment for posterity while reducing our plundering of other nations'
resources, including manpower.
We can increase our shamefully meager assistance to Third World family planning, female
literacy and women-in-development programs, perhaps the best way to narrow the gap between
rich and poor nations. The resultant world will be far more politically stable than one in
which an overgrown rich nation seeks to drain poor countries of both their physical
resources and their brightest brains.
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