The Progressive Case for Reducing Immigration

23 Jun

Philip Cafaro:
January 19, 2015

Philip Cafaro is a professor of philosophy and an affiliated faculty
member in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at
Colorado State University at Fort Collins. His book How Many Is Too
Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration Into the
United States will be published this month by the University of
Chicago Press.

I’m a philosophy professor specializing in ethics and political
philosophy, and like many of my fellow academics, I’m a political
progressive. I value economic security for workers and their
families, and support a much more equal distribution of wealth,
strong and well-enforced environmental-protection laws, and an end
to racial discrimination in the United States. I want to maximize
the political power of common citizens and limit the influence of
large corporations. My political heroes include the three Roosevelts
(Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor), Rachel Carson, and Martin Luther
King Jr.

I also want to reduce immigration into the United States. If this
combination strikes you as odd, you aren’t alone. Friends, political
allies–even my mother the social worker–shake their heads (or
worse) when I bring up the subject. I’ve been called a “nativist”
and a “racist” (thankfully not by Mom), been picketed on my own
campus, and had close academic friendships strained.

I can understand why progressives embrace mass immigration (though
that embrace is shared, I can’t help pointing out, by the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce and the editorial board of The Wall Street
Journal). This is not an easy issue for us, because vital interests
are at stake, and no one set of policies can accommodate all of
them. Consider two stories from among the hundreds I’ve heard while
researching this subject:

It’s lunchtime on a sunny October day, and I’m talking with Javier
Morales, an electrician’s assistant, at a home-construction site in
Longmont, Colo., near Denver. Javier studied to be an electrician in
Mexico but could not find work after completing school. You have to
pay corrupt officials up to two years’ wages just to start a job, he
explains. “Too much corruption,” he says, a refrain I find repeated
often by Mexican immigrants.

So, in 1989, Javier came to the United States, undocumented, working
various jobs in food preparation and construction. He has lived in
Colorado for nine years and has a wife (also here illegally) and two
girls, ages 7 and 3. He misses his family back in Mexico, but to his
father’s entreaties to come home, he replies that he needs to
consider his own family now. One of the things Javier likes most
about the United States is that we have rules that are fairly
enforced, unlike in Mexico, where a poor man lives at the whim of
corrupt officials.

Still, he thinks that the presence of too many immigrants lowers
wages in construction for everyone–including previous immigrants
like him.

Javier’s boss, Andy, thinks that immigration levels are too high. He
was disappointed, he says, to find out several years ago that Javier
was in the country illegally. Still, he likes and respects Javier
and worries about his family. Andy is trying to help him get legal

I interviewed Javier a few years ago, at a time when the federal
government was increasing immigration enforcement–including a
well-publicized raid at a nearby meatpacking plant that caught
hundreds of workers in the country illegally–leading to a lot of
worry among such immigrants. Javier and his wife used to go to
restaurants or stores without a second thought; now they are
sometimes afraid to go out. “Sometimes,” Javier says, “I dream in my
heart, ‘If you no want to give me paper for residence, or whatever,
just give me permit for work.’ ”

A few months later I’m back in Longmont, eating a 6:30 breakfast at
a cafe out by the interstate with Tom Kenney. Fit and alert, Tom
looks to be in his mid-40s. Born and raised in Denver, he has been
spraying custom finishes on drywall for 25 years and has had his own
company since 1989. At one point, he employed 12 people running
three trucks. Now it’s just him and his wife. “Things have changed,”
he says.

Although it has since cooled off, residential and commercial
construction was booming when I interviewed Tom. Even so, he says,
the main “thing that has changed” is the number of immigrants in
construction. When he got into the business, it was almost all
native-born workers. Today the informal estimates I hear from
contractors of the number of immigrant workers in Northern Colorado
range from 50 percent to 70 percent of the total construction work
force. Some trades, like pouring concrete and framing, use immigrant
labor almost exclusively. Come in with an “all white” crew of
framers, another small contractor tells me, and people do a double

Tom is an independent contractor, bidding on individual jobs. “Guys
are coming in with bids that are impossible,” he says. “No way they
can be as efficient in time and materials as me.” The difference has
to be in the cost of labor: Insurance, workmen’s compensation, and
employment taxes add substantially to the cost of legally employed
workers. With the lower wages that immigrants in the country
illegally are often willing to take, there’s plenty of opportunity
for competing contractors to underbid Tom and still make a tidy
profit. He no longer goes after the big construction projects, and
jobs in custom-built houses are becoming harder to find.

“I’ve gone in to spray a house, and there’s a guy sleeping in the
bathtub, with a microwave set up in the kitchen. I’m thinking, ‘You
moved into this house for two weeks to hang and paint it, you’re
gonna get cash from somebody, and he’s gonna pick you up and drive
you to the next one.’ ”

In that way, some trades in construction are turning into the
equivalent of migrant labor in agriculture.

Do immigrants perform jobs Americans don’t want to do? No, Tom
replies. “My job is undesirable. It’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s dusty.
I learned right away that because of that, the opportunity is
available to make money in it. That job has served me well,” at
least until recently. Now he is thinking of leaving the business. He
is also struggling to find a way to keep up the mortgage payments on
his house.

He does not blame immigrants, though. “If you were born in Mexico,
and you had to fight for food or clothing, you would do the same
thing,” he tells me. “You would come here.”

Any immigration policy will have winners and losers. So claims the
Harvard University economist George J. Borjas, a leading authority
on the economic impacts of immigration. My interviews with Javier
and Tom suggest why Borjas is right.

If we enforce our immigration laws, then good people like Javier and
his family will have their lives turned upside down. And if we
reduce the numbers of legal immigrants–contrary to popular belief,
most immigration into the United States is legal immigration, under
Congressionally mandated levels, currently 1.1 million
annually–then good people in Mexico (and Guatemala, and Vietnam,
and the Philippines … ) will have to forgo opportunities to create
better lives here.

On the other hand, if we fail to enforce our laws or repeatedly
grant amnesty to people who, like Javier, are in the country
illegally, then we forfeit the ability to set limits on immigration.
And if we increase immigration, then many hard-working men and
women, like Tom and his wife and children, will continue to see
their economic fortunes decline.

Neither of those options is appealing, particularly when you talk to
the people most directly affected by our immigration policies.
Still, they appear to be the options we have: Enforce our
immigration laws, or don’t enforce them; reduce immigration levels,
increase them, or hold them about where they are. How should we

Acknowledging trade-offs–economic, environmental, social–is the
beginning of wisdom. We should not exaggerate conflicts or imagine
them where they don’t exist, but neither can we ignore them.

There are a number of other choices that we must confront: Cheaper
prices for new houses versus good wages for construction workers.
Faster economic growth and growing economic inequality versus slower
growth and a more egalitarian society. Increasing ethnic diversity
in America versus stabilizing our population. Accommodating more
people versus preserving wildlife habitat and productive farmlands.
Creating more opportunities for foreigners to work in the United
States versus pressuring foreign elites to share wealth and
opportunities with their fellow citizens in their own countries.

The best approaches to immigration policy would make such trade-offs
explicit, minimize them where possible, and choose fairly between
them when necessary. Which brings me back to the progressive
argument for reducing immigration into the United States.

Consider first the economic impact of current immigration policies,
starting with some key numbers. Since 1965, Congress has increased
immigration levels half a dozen times, raising legal immigration
into the United States from 290,000 to approximately 1.1 million
people annually. That is more than four times as high as any other
country. Crucially, post-1965 immigration has been concentrated
among less-skilled, less-educated workers. According to a study by
Borjas, from 1980 to 1995, immigration increased the number of
college graduates in the American work force by 4 percent while
increasing the number of workers without high-school diplomas by 21

The results have been predictable. In economic sectors with large
percentages of immigrant workers, wages have been driven down and
benefits have been slashed. Employers have broken unions, often
helped by immigrant replacement workers. Long-term unemployment
among poorer Americans has greatly increased. Mass immigration is
not the sole cause of those trends, but it appears to have played an
important role. Borjas contends that during the 1970s and 1980s,
each immigration-driven 10-percent increase in the number of workers
in a particular field in the United States decreased wages in that
field by an average of 3.5 percent. More recently, studying the
impact of immigration on African-Americans, Borjas and colleagues
found that a 10-percent immigrant-induced increase in the supply of
a particular skill group reduced the wages of black workers in that
group by 4.0 percent, lowered the employment rate of black men by
3.5 percentage points, and increased the incarceration rate of
blacks by almost a percentage point.

Significantly, immigration-driven competition has been strongest
among working-class Americans, while wealthier, better-educated
citizens have mostly been spared strong downward pressure on their
incomes. According to an analysis by the Center for Immigration
Studies, immigrants account for 35 percent of workers in building
cleaning and maintenance, but only 10 percent in the corporate and
financial sectors; 24 percent of workers in construction, but only 8
percent of teachers and college professors; 23 percent among
food-preparation workers, but only 7 percent among lawyers. No
wonder wealthy Americans and the bipartisan political elite that
largely serves their interests typically support high levels of

Our era of gross economic inequality, stagnating wages, and
persistently high unemployment among less-educated workers would
seem like a terrible time to expand immigration. Yet the
immigration-reform bill passed by a Democratic Senate in 2013 would
have nearly doubled legal immigration levels. President Obama’s
recent executive actions to regularize the status of workers in the
country illegally respond to genuine humanitarian concerns.
Nevertheless, like previous amnesties, they are likely to encourage
more illegal immigration by poor but desperate job seekers.

A few years ago, I suggested that progressives truly concerned about
growing inequality and the economic well-being of American
workers–including recent immigrants–should consider reducing
immigration, at least in the short term. Congress can decrease
immigration levels as well as raise them, I said. Perhaps a
moratorium on nonessential immigration was in order, until the
official unemployment rate declined below 5 percent and stayed there
for several years, or until real wages for the bottom half of
American workers increased by 25 percent or more. While there is
debate about the role of immigration reduction in gains by unions,
tightening up labor markets after World War II did coincide with the
golden age of the American labor movement, a time of high union
membership and strong gains in wages and benefits for American
workers. It seems worth a try today, particularly given the paucity
of other proposals to address the intractable problem of inequality.

I started thinking about limiting immigration 25 years ago, as a
graduate student studying American history at the University of
Georgia and a budding environmental activist working to kill a dam
project in the Southeast. (I still recall my sinking feeling as I
read, toward the start of the environmental-impact statement on the
Oconee River flood-control project, the 50-year population
projections for northeast Georgia. Was it possible that our region’s
population was going to grow that fast? And, if so, how could we
argue effectively against building a new reservoir? (We couldn’t.
The reservoir got built.)

Since that time, I’ve worked on many environmental campaigns,
typically at the local or state levels. In every instance–sprawl,
destructive off-road vehicle use, water pollution, ski-area
expansion, you name it–population growth was worsening the problem
we sought to remedy. And in every instance, we decided not to talk
about population matters–either because we thought it would be too
controversial, or because we couldn’t identify any accessible levers
through which to influence population policies.

If they think about population at all, most Americans see it as a
problem for the “developing world.” But at 320 million people, the
United States is the third-most-populous nation on earth, and given
our high per-capita consumption rates and outsize global ecological
footprint (carbon emissions, demands on ocean fisheries, and the
like), a good case can be made that we are the world’s most
overpopulated country right now. Furthermore, our 1 percent annual
growth rate–higher than many developing nations–has America on
track to double its population by the end of this century.

Whether we look at air pollution or wildlife-habitat losses,
excessive water withdrawals from our rivers or greenhouse-gas
emissions, Americans are falling far short of creating an
ecologically sustainable society–and our large and growing numbers
appear to be a big part of the problem. Take sprawl. Defined as new
resource-intensive development on the fringes of existing urban
areas, sprawl has many causes, including transportation policies
that favor building roads over mass transit and zoning laws that
encourage “leapfrog” developments far beyond existing developed
areas. But according to a thorough study by Roy Beck, Leon
Kolankiewicz, and Steven Camarota on the causes of sprawl in the
United States, population growth accounts for more than half of the
problem. While reducing per-capita land use is important in reducing
sprawl, we cannot simply ignore its most powerful driver: ever more

A similar logic appears to hold for most of our other major
environmental problems. I live in Colorado, and my conservation
focus has shifted to the rivers of the arid West. Over the past 40
years, declines in per-capita water use in the western United States
have been matched by equivalent increases in population. With the
low-hanging conservation “fruit” (fixing leaks in urban areas,
lining drainage ditches in rural areas, etc.) already picked and
population continuing to increase, pressure is growing to build more
dams and siphon more water from already overallocated rivers,
including the Cache la Poudre River, running through Fort Collins. I
love the Cache, and so do many people here; my town has spent
millions of dollars to buy land and preserve parks and other open
space along the river. If our population wasn’t growing, no one
would be proposing a big new reservoir; in fact, there remain
opportunities to save water through conservation and put more of it
back in the river, where it belongs. But an ever-growing population
will take such conservation measures, swallow them with hardly a
thank you, and demand more. At some point, that means new dams and
reservoirs and a dried-out Cache la Poudre River.

Such examples suggest that we Americans cannot meet our important
environmental challenges without stabilizing our population. So I’ve
argued that American environmentalists should support significant
reductions in immigration. I expected to be attacked from the right,
and I was. More surprising have been the assaults from the left.

Thankfully, once we actually begin discussing the issues, civility
usually reigns, and considerable common ground can be found. Still,
I sometimes find it hard to get past people’s resentment toward me
for bringing up what is obviously an uncomfortable topic. I guess I
can understand that; as the grandson of immigrants, I’m made
uncomfortable by the topic of reducing immigration. But having spent
the three decades of my adult life watching organized labor’s power
erode and environmentalists tread water, I’m tired of losing.

The good news is that after more than two centuries of continuous
population growth, in recent decades we have freely chosen a path
toward population stabilization. From a peak of 3.5 children per
woman at the height of the baby boom, in the mid-1950s, fertility
rates in the United States have declined to 1.9 today: slightly
below “replacement rate” for a nation with modern sanitation and
health care. That means that if we reduced immigration rates to the
levels that prevailed 40 years ago, America’s population would very
likely peak and then stabilize by midcentury.

The bad news? Just as Americans have chosen to cut back on
childbearing, succeeding Congresses have increased immigration, thus
keeping our country on a path of rapid population growth. Consider
three alternative immigration scenarios–250,000 immigrants annually
(roughly the rate around the middle of the 20th century), 1.25
million (the current rate for legal and other immigrants), and 2.25
million (about the level that would result under the Senate’s recent
reform bill). At fertility and mortality rates projected by the
Census Bureau to 2100, we could see modest population growth (to 379
million people), an increase of more than 200 million Americans (to
524 million), or doubling of our population (to 639 million).

Given Americans’ failure to create a sustainable society of 320
million people, creating one with hundreds of millions more
inhabitants is even more unlikely. And even if we manage to stumble
to the year 2100 with 500 million, 600 million, or 700 million
people, our unpromising trajectory with continued mass immigration
would be further immense population growth in the following century.

Fortunately, such growth, like the flooded labor markets, is not
inevitable. We need to remember that the American people have
voluntarily chosen to stabilize our population, through our choices
to have fewer children than our parents and grandparents did. We can
lock in that achievement by reducing immigration rates. That, in
turn, could help revitalize the American environmental movement,
which, like organized labor, these days spends most of its time in a
defensive crouch, trying to protect past achievements rather than
reach new ones.

An environmental movement with the demographic wind at its back
would be much more likely to secure significant reductions in
greenhouse-gas emissions, create new national parks and protected
areas, and in general move America toward real sustainability.
Similarly, a labor movement working within a context of tight labor
markets could organize workers more effectively, and negotiate wages
and benefits from a position of strength.

The economic and environmental arguments for reducing immigration in
the United States seem clear enough. Why, then, do so many
progressives advocate for more immigration? As I’ve learned during
dozens of interviews with progressive leaders, the reasons are
complex and reflect both the strengths and weaknesses of
contemporary American progressivism.

On the positive side, progressives are compassionate. We care about
the well-being of would-be immigrants, many of whom are poor and
downtrodden. We do not want to tell good people like Javier Morales
that they cannot come to America and make better lives for
themselves and their families.

We also value diversity. We appreciate the many contributions that
immigrants have made and continue to make to American life, and we
value the idea of the United States as an open and evolving society.

On the negative side, though, we progressives share our fellow
Americans’ lack of discipline and inability to think clearly about
limits. The answer to any problem tends to be “more,” even when it
should be obvious that the pursuit of more is causing the problem or
making it worse. We dislike economic inequality, for example, but
join our fellow citizens in clamoring for faster economic
growth–even though under a status quo in which 90 percent of income
gains go to the wealthiest 1 percent, more growth just means more
inequality. We want to create an ecologically sustainable society,
prevent dangerous climate change, and share the landscape generously
with other species–but not if it means curtailing anyone’s freedom
of movement or economic opportunities, or our own consumption. The
result is a kind of flabby generosity, in which generalized feelings
of good will take the place of focused and effective political

Then there is the R word. Progressives are easily frightened by
accusations of racism. Immigration debates within the Sierra Club
have shown that such accusations can silence or marginalize members
concerned about population growth. In my own experience, I’ve found
that critics avoid the substance of my arguments, dismissing them as
a cover for nefarious intentions. (Philosophers have been teaching
our students for at least 2,500 years that ad hominem arguments are
fallacious–but, you know, they still sometimes work.) Progressives’
commendable sensitivity to racial concerns can keep us from thinking
through what a just and sustainable immigration policy would
actually look like.

We need an honest and truly comprehensive debate about immigration
and population matters–one that considers Javier and Tom and their
grandchildren, along with the many other species that have a right
to continued existence. We need to face limits realistically,
consider the trade-offs involved in different policy choices, and
ask which ones will best serve the common good over the long term.
Current immigration policies are ill suited to create an
economically just, ecologically sustainable society. We can do
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