Given our history, our beneficent self-image, and the fact that we are nearly
all descendents of immigrants, Americans get emotional about immigration. So
the Sierra Club is in trouble.
In 1950 the U.S. population was 150 million. Now it is nearly 270 million. About half that increase has come from immigrants and their descendents.
The U.S. population currently grows by about 3 million a year. Of that number 1.6 million come from natural increase, 1 million from legal immigration, and roughly 400,000 from illegal immigrants.
While we take in 1.4 million immigrants a year, the third world increases in population by 80 million a year.
The average number of children born to an American woman has been around 2.0 for the past 25 years. That means our population will stop growing by natural increase in about 20 more years, when we finally have more older people moving out of reproductive age than young people moving in.
About 200,000 people emigrate from the United States every year. A policy of zero net migration would permit that many annual immigrants.
Immigrants classified as refugees average 125,000 per year.
The United States takes in more immigrants than all other industrial nations combined.
If immigration and natural increase rates remain unchanged, the U.S. population would reach 340 million by 2025 and 540 million (and still rising) by 2060.
If illegal immigration were stopped and legal immigration limited to 200,000 a year and birth and death rates do not change, the U.S. population would stabilize at 320 million in 2025.
The net cost to U.S. taxpayers of public goods and services supplied to immigrants (taking into account the taxes paid by those immigrants) is $68 billion a year -- $250 for each man, woman, and child of us.
There is also a cost, estimated at $133 billion a year, in lower wages and fewer jobs for our low-skilled workers with whom immigrants are likely to compete.
Over 90 percent of our old-growth forests are gone and 99 percent of our tall-grass prairies and half our wetlands and vast quantities of soil and cropland and hundreds of species of plants and animals. We are pumping down groundwater aquifers, piling up dumps, and pouring forth toxic materials. Any land whose resource stocks are dropping while its pollution sinks are filling is, by definition, being used beyond its carrying capacity.
Some number of people at some standard of living in any nation is too many. We don't help either the rich or the poor by going beyond that number. What is it? Who decides? Could we be beyond it? Is stopping immigration the way to deal with our limits, or cutting our birth rate further, or reducing our consumption? (No one seems to be creating Sierra Club referenda to set limits on consumption.) Could we move toward less wasteful lifestyles and greater social justice at the same time we take seriously the task of controlling our numbers? Might those objectives even go together?
Ignoring these questions because they are uncomfortable, because they are emotional, because they cause decent people to call each other names, does not make them go away. They are questions not just for the Sierra Club, but for us all.
Donella H. Meadows, co-author of Beyond The Limits,
is an adjunct professor of environmental studies
at Dartmouth College