The Progressive Case for Reducing Immigration

Philip Cafaro, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 19, 2015

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:


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 choose?

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 percent.

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.


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. {snip}


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.


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. {snip}

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 better.


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