Mass immigration, in all its various forms, has become our nation’s population policy by default. In 2005, new immigrants (legal and illegal) plus births to the foreign-born accounted for a national population increase of roughly 2.3 million people—more than 60 percent of America’s average annual growth at the time. In 2008, studies projected that immigration (legal, illegal, and the children of immigrants) would be responsible for 82 percent of U.S. population growth between 2005 and 2050. And in 2013, the Census Bureau projected that by mid-century international migration would become the principal driver of America’s population growth—a first since at least 1850.
There is significant environmental impact from such huge numbers: immigrants and their children become part of America’s population base, which intensifies our depletion of resources and increases the stress on our environment. Sadly, these obvious links between immigration, population growth, and ecological damage have been given little to no consideration in our nation’s immigration choices. In 2013, Congress and the president debated so-called “reform” legislation—yet the proposed changes had the potential to double annual immigration rates. Republican captures of both houses of Congress in the 2014 elections stalled the Democrats’ expansionist legislation. But the Obama administration then invoked executive authority to grant amnesty to nearly five million illegal aliens—a move temporarily blocked by a federal court stay. Both parties now seem increasingly amenable to amnesty and to expanded legal immigration to offset presumed labor shortages and the aging of the U.S. population.
If our nation is ever to reduce its population to an environmentally sustainable size, current immigration rates must be lowered. To reach a smaller, truly sustainable U.S. population size, we argue that illegal immigration must be reduced to near zero—and legal immigration must be reduced by four-fifths to roughly 200,000 admissions per year. These critical reductions can only be realized only through serious changes to our present immigration policies. It will require immediate enforcement of existing laws, mandatory use of E-Verify by all U.S. employers, revision of current birthright citizenship policies, and deep cuts in family chain migration—which accounts for nearly two-thirds of all legal entries.
America’s population growth is excessive, and the time for change has come. Unlike fertility and mortality, immigration is the demographic process most responsive to policy changes and to regulation. The proposed 200,000 allotted visas would satisfy our nation’s labor needs, as well as accommodate legitimate requests for humanitarian relief. The United States has accepted nearly eighty million documented immigrants since 1820. Without guilt, our nation can now be generous to the world in new ways: by slowing our extravagant consumption and waste dumping, by remaining a major food exporter, and by curbing our intense competition for world energy supplies.
Each year, immigrants of all categories (legal, quasi-legal, and illegal) increase U.S. population by roughly 1.1 million people, representing about half of our nation’s annual population growth. Net illegal immigration accounts for a little more than one-third of permanent immigration—about 400,000 a year. Net legal and long-term temporary immigration accounts for a net of about 800,000 per year.
The higher fertility rate of America’s foreign-born population is also a significant source of population growth. By 2005, about 25 percent of U.S. births—an average of nearly one million children each year—were born to immigrants. (Approximately one-third were born to illegal aliens, and current interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment grants those children automatic American citizenship with the ability to later sponsor the U.S. settlement of multiple relatives.) Together, net new arrivals of immigrants and births accounted for 61 percent of America’s population growth in 2005. By 2013, Census estimated the foreign-born population reached 41.3 million—13.1 percent of the total U.S. population.
In recent years, U.S. refugee, asylee, and other “humanitarian” admissions have also climbed sharply. In the 1980s, large increases were allowed due to the perceived emergencies in Vietnam and Cuba. In the 1990s, lavish numbers of admissions were permitted under the “temporary” category—which has, in fact, proven to be permanent. Though the 1980 Refugee Act targeted these humanitarian admissions at 50,000 per year, they averaged 114,000 per year from 1981 to 2000. From the end of World War II until 2000, the United States allowed 3.49 million refugee admissions, 2.1 million (over 60 percent) of which occurred after 1980. In 2012 alone, the United States granted permanent legal residence to more than 150,000 refugees.
These estimates—even though startling—are conservative approximations. Such massive numbers are an ominous warning for the future of America’s overstressed environment. Immigration-driven population growth is pushing any prospect of U.S. population stability into the far future, distancing the prospect of a smaller, environmentally sustainable population size. Our exponential growth—fed largely by irresponsible immigration policies—has developed an awesome momentum.
Population Policy and Mass Immigration
Between the 1970s and 2008, annual illegal immigration rates more than doubled. This is largely due to Washington’s policies—well over five million illegal aliens have been legalized by general and special amnesties since 1986. The 1990 Immigration Act also created an open-ended “temporary protected status”—by 2005, the status had been used by over 400,000 persons from troubled areas who could not qualify as refugees. Right up to September 11, 2001, Congress neglected to implement any effective systems to control the border, identify and block the hiring of illegal aliens, or end the abuse of temporary visitors’ visas.
Has Washington seriously considered the effects of overall population growth in the three decades of immigration increases? If anything, our national leaders have shown more concern over too little population growth, as the fertility of American women fell below replacement level. The Senate’s 2013 immigration reform bill (S. 744) and the House’s 2014 Statement of Immigration Reform Principles openly favored population growth through increased immigration.
Congress also regularly increases immigrant admissions while seeming to restrict them. Dozens of “categories” have been created—with strict numerical limits mandated on each. However, when faced with a massive influx of applications, tens of thousands of immigrants are permitted entry each year under the guise of “conditional asylees.” We must concentrate more on cutting the overall numbers, not just juggling the categories. All streams bring in people for extended or permanent stays, making them full contributors—regardless of their category—to the base population. It is this base population, our nation’s total size, that pollutes our environment and consumes our dwindling resources.
Critical to Reduction: Closing Out Chain Migration
Each year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) releases its official Annual Flow Report for U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents. In 2013, it showed that nearly one million legal residencies were granted. Millions more are currently awaiting Green Cards.
The present Green Card system has serious population implications, as each new legal resident has the right to apply for the admission of family members. However, the event of greatest demographic consequence is naturaliz
ation. Presently, annual naturalizations occur at their highest rate in history—reaching 757,434 in 2012. Naturalization is the key to chain migration, as naturalization clears the way for prompt admission—without quota limits—of spouses, children, and parents. Within quota limits, new citizens are also given preference to bring in adult children and siblings. The annual intake of immediate relatives of citizens—an unlimited category—has increased rapidly, rising from 235,000 a year in 1992 to nearly 479,000 in 2012.
This “chain migration” dynamic now powers the legal immigration treadmill and often stimulates the illegal immigration of relatives. In 2012, over 66 percent of all persons granted legal residency entered the United States because of kinship to earlier immigrants.
Getting Along with Just 200,000 Immigrants a Year
At Negative Population Growth (NPG), we accept that there must be some immigration—we must meet our irreducible national interests such as investors and those with rare skills. We must also fulfill our ideal as an “open society,” acting as a refuge of last resort for limited numbers of those truly fleeing mortal danger. But above all, NPG believes that U.S. population should decline to an environmentally sustainable level—fewer than 200 million people—as soon as reasonably possible. Prolonging the transition will only compound the damage to our nation and the planet.
To preserve America’s environment and resources, we believe the maximum allowable number of admissions is 200,000 a year. At that level, over time, average emigration would be in approximate balance with immigration. The 200,000 ceiling could be fine-tuned in future years, depending on trends in fertility, emigration, and mortality. To reach this lower level, the United States must sharply curtail and eventually end the family reunification privilege for everyone—immigrants and American-born citizens alike. Family chains alone have historically produced over 600,000 newcomers a year, a number that makes a reduction in population virtually impossible.
Each year, the 200,000 admissions should be selected with great care to satisfy priority national interests, yet without creating additional expectations. A distribution of admissions roughly proportionate to the world’s major regions would be the most defensible against criticism. The annual numbers could be best allocated among the following categories of immigration:
1. Humanitarian—up to 30,000 for permanent humanitarian admission of refugees, asylees, and displaced persons. Applicants in this category must be in mortal peril and have no other options. (All other humanitarian admissions, granted only in life-threatening situations, would be temporary—not more than one year. Such admissions would be strictly limited to a ceiling of 50,000 at any one time.)
2. Work/Business—110,000 for skilled professionals, technicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and their immediate families. No admissions of semiskilled or unskilled workers. Existing long-term “temporary” visas for skilled workers and professionals would be abolished. Those determined most needed by labor market measurements would be incorporated into this category.
3. Special needs—up to 10,000 to cover a range of special immigrant allocations, such as religious ministers, rare specialty workers and artists, military recruits and espionage specialists, and foreign employees of the U.S. government abroad.
4. Family reunification transition. Those U.S. citizens with approved petitions for spouses and minor children at the time of enactment would not be affected. A gradual phase-out of family reunification would occur, with 50,000 slots set aside—for qualified spouses of U.S. citizens and their biological children under sixteen—over the next five years.
Eligibility during transition would be strictly limited: one spouse only (legally married for at least three continuous years before applying; the immigrating spouse’s children from other marriages would not be eligible; and the immigrating spouse would have to leave the United States if the marriage ended by divorce before his/her naturalization). Also ineligible would be “mail-order brides,” spouses in arranged marriages, spouses ineligible to wed under U.S. law (such as minor children, multiple wives, or close relatives), and marriages contracted while the noncitizen partner was in the United States illegally or in nonimmigrant status. Financial requirements for sponsors would also be stringent: income at least 250 percent above the poverty level, performance bonds if necessary, and existing full-coverage health insurance for all arriving family members.
After five years, these transitory provisions would lapse. All admissions of immediate family members would thereafter have to qualify under other immigration sub-quotas. There would be an immigration fee of at least $10,000 per person for all but humanitarian admissions. The 50,000 temporary allocations would then be prorated among the three basic categories of permanent immigration.
A U.S. Transition: From ‘Mother of Exiles’ to Exemplar of Sustainable Population
The United States should feel no shame or guilt for these massive reductions. Historically, our nation has been the most generous receiver of immigrants in the world. Nearly eighty million people have immigrated to America since 1820, not counting most illegal aliens. Even at 200,000 admissions per year, the United States would rank high for generosity—many nations accept few or none. It is time for America to be generous to the world in other ways—by ending its decadent consumption of goods and energy and by ceasing its massive dumping of waste.
Through population discipline, our nation can once again act as an example to the world. By curbing its consumption of energy, America can reduce world price pressures and slow the depletion of global hydrocarbons. By reducing its demand for food, our nation can remain a grain producer and exporter for the famine-prone world. In general, a smaller U.S. population would be a less intense competitor for the resources of a shrinking planet.
Perhaps most important is that a smaller America could concentrate on building its citizens’ quality of life rather than defining it by the philosophy of “more.” Continuation of our current rapid population growth through mass immigration means greater competition for resources, further income inequality, and evermore environmental decay. That is not an acceptable vision of the American Dream.
Bouvier, Leon F., and Lindsey Grant. How Many Americans? Population, Immigration and the Environment. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994.
David Simcox is a senior advisor of Negative Population Growth (NPG), a past executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, and from 1956 to 1985 a career U.S. diplomat. His diplomatic assignments involved formulating policy for labor, population, and migration issues in Mexico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and the nations of Indo-China.
Tracy Canada is the deputy director of NPG, where she serves as primary editor and a contributing author and assists in daily operations and programs. She holds a degree in Leadership and Social Change.
This article is adapted from a 2014 position paper published by NPG.