Why Progressives Should Support Reducing Immigration Into The United States

Why Progressives Should Support Reducing Immigration Into The United States

Economic Theory, Environmental Impact & Common Sense Immigration Policy

By Professor Philip Cafaro (Colorado State University).

January 6, 2016          Picture: Evan Semon/REUTERS.

This article is part of The Critique’s And Who Is My Neighbour? Exclusive.

I’m a philosophy professor specializing in ethics, teaching at a large public university in the western United States, 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. I favor strong and well-enforced environmental-protection laws, and the creation of an ecologically sustainable society. I support ending 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) and had close friendships strained by discussions of this topic. Yet the more I’ve learned about the economic and environmental impacts of mass immigration, the stronger my conviction has grown that reducing immigration is necessary to achieve progressive political goals in the U.S. and create more just and flourishing societies at home and abroad.

That said, I can understand why many progressives embrace mass immigration (though I can’t help pointing out that this embrace is shared by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, who regularly lobby for greatly increased immigration). Immigration is not an easy issue for those of us looking to create fairer, more egalitarian societies, precisely 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 a recently published book on immigration ethics.

“Immigration is not an easy issue for those of us looking to create fairer, more egalitarian societies, precisely because vital interests are at stake and no one set of policies can accommodate all of them”.

The Dilemma

It’s lunchtime on a sunny October day and I’m talking to Javier, an electrician’s assistant, at a home construction site in Longmont, Colorado, near Denver.[i]He is short and solidly built; his words are soft-spoken but clear. Although he apologizes for his English, it is quite good. At any rate much better than my Spanish.

Javier studied to be an electrician in Mexico, but could not find work there after school. “You have to pay to work,” he explains: pay corrupt officials up to two years’ wages up front just to start a job. “Too much corruption,” he says, a refrain I find repeated often by Mexican and other Central American immigrants. They feel that a poor man cannot get ahead there, can hardly get started.

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 now has a wife (also here illegally) and two girls, ages seven and three. “I like USA, you have a better life here,” he says. Of course he misses his family back in Mexico. But to his father’s entreaties to come home, he explains that he needs to consider his own family now. Javier told me that he’s not looking to get rich, he just wants a decent life for himself and his girls. Who could blame him?

Peter Haden/Flickr
Peter Haden/Flickr"Mexican workers pick romaine lettuce in a field near Yuma, AZ on November 23, 2012".

Ironically one of the things Javier likes most about the United States is that we have rules that are fairly enforced. Unlike in Mexico, a poor man does not live at the whim of corrupt officials. When I suggest that Mexico might need more people like him to stay and fight “corruption,” he just laughs. “No, go to jail,” he says, or worse. Like the dozens of other Central American immigrants I interviewed for my book, Javier does not seem to think that such corruption could ever change in the land of his birth.[ii]

Presidencia de la República Mexicana/Flickr
Presidencia de la República Mexicana/Flickr

[Picture: “The President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, was partly elected in 2012 on an anti-corruption platform, but has struggled to minimize criticism of his establishment following the disappearance of 43 college students from the town of Iguala in September of 2014, and the sensational escape a year later of Mexico’s most infamous drug Lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, from the most guarded maximum security prison in the country”].

Do immigrants take jobs away from Americans? I ask. “American people no want to work in the fields,” he responds, or as dishwashers in restaurants. Still, he continues, “the problem is cheap labor.” Too many immigrants coming into construction lowers wages for everyone—including other immigrants like himself.

“The American people say, all Mexicans the same,” Javier says. He does not want to be lumped together with “all Mexicans,” or labeled a problem, but judged for who he is as an individual. “I don’t like it when my people abandon cars, or steal.” If immigrants commit crimes, he thinks they should go to jail, or be deported. But “that no me.” While many immigrants work under the table for cash, he is proud of the fact that he pays his taxes. Proud, too, that he gives a good day’s work for his daily pay (a fact confirmed by his coworkers).

Javier’s boss, Andy, thinks that immigration levels are too high and that too many people flout the law and work illegally.[iii] 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. He is trying to help him get legal residency.

With the government showing new initiative in immigration enforcement around the time of our interview—including a well-publicized raid at a nearby meat-packing plant that caught hundreds of illegal workers—there was a lot of worry among undocumented immigrants. “Everyone scared now,” Javier says. He and his wife used to go to restaurants or stores without a second thought; now they are sometimes afraid to go out. “It’s hard,” he says. But: “I understand. If the people say, ‘All the people here, go back to Mexico,’ I understand.”

Javier’s answer to one of my standard questions—“How might changes in immigration policy affect you?”—is obvious. Tighter enforcement could break up his family and destroy the life he has created here in America. An amnesty would give him a chance to regularize his life. “Sometimes,” he says, “I dream in my heart, ‘If you no want to give me paper for residence, or whatever, just give me permit for work.’”

It’s a few months later and I’m back in Longmont, eating a 6:30 breakfast at a café out by the Interstate with Tom Kenney.[iv] Fit and alert, Tom looks to be in his mid-forties. Born and raised in Denver, he has been spraying custom finishes on drywall for twenty-five years and has had his own company since 1989. “At one point we had twelve people running three trucks,” he says. Now his business is just him and his wife. “Things have changed,” he says.

Although it has gone through some more ups and downs since then, residential and commercial construction was booming when I interviewed Tom. One of the main “things that have changed” is the number of immigrants in construction. When Tom got into it twenty-five years ago, construction used almost all native-born workers. Today estimates of the number of immigrant workers in northern Colorado range from 50% to 70% of the total construction workforce. 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-take.

“Come in with an “all-white” crew of framers, another small contractor tells me, and people do a double-take”.

Tom is an independent contractor, bidding on individual jobs. But, he says, “guys are coming in with bids that are impossible.” After all his time in the business, “no way they can be as efficient in time and materials as me.” The difference has to be in the cost of labor. “They’re not paying the taxes and insurance that I am,” he says. Insurance, workmen’s compensation, and taxes add about 40% to the cost of legally employed workers. When you add the lower wages that immigrants are often willing to take, there is plenty of opportunity for competing contractors to underbid Tom and still make a tidy profit. He no longer bids on the big new construction projects and jobs in individual, 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.’” He seems more upset at the contractor than at the undocumented worker who labors for him.

In this way, some trades in construction are turning into the equivalent of migrant labor in agriculture. Workers do not have insurance or workmen’s compensation, so if they are hurt or worn out on the job, they are simply discarded and replaced. Workers are used up, while the builders and contractors higher up the food chain keep more of the profits for themselves. “The quality of life [for construction workers] has changed drastically,” says Tom. “I don’t want to live like that. I want to go home and live with my family.”

Elvert Barnes/Flickr
Elvert Barnes/Flickr

Do immigrants perform jobs Americans don’t want to do? I ask. The answer is no. “My job is undesirable,” Tom replies. “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 up until recently. He now travels as far away as Wyoming and southern Colorado to find work. “We’re all fighting for scraps right now.”

Over the years, Tom has built a reputation for quality work and efficient and prompt service, as I confirmed in interviews with others in the business. Until recently that was enough to secure a good living. Now though, like a friend of his who recently folded his small landscaping company (“I just can’t bid em low enough”), Tom 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,” Tom tells me. “You would come here.”


Hard Choices

Any immigration policy will have winners and losers. So claims Harvard economist George Borjas, a leading authority on the economic impacts of immigration.[v] My interviews with Javier Morales and Tom Kenney 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. If we reduce the numbers of immigrants, then good people in Mexico (and Guatemala, and Vietnam, and the Philippines . . .) will have to forgo opportunities to live better lives in the United States.

On the other hand, if we fail to enforce our immigration laws or repeatedly grant amnesties to people like Javier who are in the country illegally, then we forfeit the ability to set limits to immigration. And if immigration levels remain high, then hard-working men and women like Tom and his wife and children will probably continue to see their economic fortunes decline. Economic inequality will continue to increase in America, as it has for the past four decades.

In the abstract neither of these options is appealing. When you talk to the people most directly affected by our immigration policies, the dilemma becomes even more acute. Still, these 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.

“Acknowledging trade-offs—economic, environmental, social—is indeed the beginning of wisdom on the topic of immigration”.

Acknowledging trade-offs—economic, environmental, social—is indeed the beginning of wisdom on the topic of immigration. We should not exaggerate such conflicts, or imagine conflicts where none exist. But neither can we ignore them, or pretend that they are only a function of our benighted fellow citizens’ racial biases or cultural fears. Here are some other trade-offs that immigration decisions may force us to confront:

[1] Cheaper prices for new houses vs. good wages for construction workers.

[2] Accommodating more people in the United States vs. preserving wildlife habitat and vital resources.

[3] More opportunities for Latin Americans to work in the United States vs. greater pressure on Latin American elites to share wealth and opportunities with their fellow citizens.

The most ethically justifiable approaches to immigration will make such trade-offs explicit, minimize them where possible, and choose fairly between them when necessary. Which brings me to the progressive argument for reducing immigration into the U.S.


Economic Impacts: Stagnating Wages and Growing Inequality

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 1.1 million people annually. That is three and a half times higher than any other country on Earth. The graph below shows how U.S. immigration levels have varied throughout history. Contrary to popular belief, most immigration into the U.S. is legal immigration, occurring at levels set by Congress, and these levels can go up or down.

[Source: US Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2011 (Washington, D.C., 2012), table 1].

Crucially, in recent decades immigration into the U.S. has been concentrated among less-skilled, less-educated workers. Again, this is a matter of deliberate policy choice (Canadian immigration policy, for example, employs a points system that brings in a greater percentage of highly skilled and well-educated workers). According to one study, from 1980 to 1995 immigration increased the number of college graduates in the U.S. workforce by 4% while increasing the number of workers without a high school diploma by 21%.

The upshot has been flooded labor markets for less-skilled workers, with results that might have been predicted by anyone who passed Econ 101. Wages have been driven down. Benefits have been slashed. Employers have broken labor unions, often helped by immigrant replacement workers (my book explores union busting in the meatpacking industry, where average wages have declined an astonishing 44% between 1970 and the present). Long-term unemployment among poorer Americans has greatly increased, as available jobs have instead gone to immigrants. Mass immigration is not the only cause of these negative economic trends, but many economists believe it has played an important part in driving them.[vi]

“The upshot [of illegal immigration] has been flooded labor markets for less-skilled workers, with results that might have been predicted by anyone who passed Econ 101”.

George Borjas, for example, contends that during the 1970s and 1980s, each immigration-driven 10% increase in the number of workers in a particular job field in the United States decreased wages in that field by an average of 3.5%.[vii] More recently, studying the impact of immigration on African-Americans, Borjas and colleagues found that a 10% immigrant-induced increase in the supply of a particular skill group reduced the wages of black workers in that group by 4% and lowered the employment rate of black men within that group by 3.5%, and increased the black incarceration rate by almost a full percentage point.[viii]

The All-Nite Images/Flickr
The All-Nite Images/Flickr“Fight for $15 on 4/15, NYC Rally and March to raise the minimum wage in America”

Crucially, immigration-driven competition has been strongest among working-class Americans, while wealthier, better-educated workers have mostly been spared strong downward pressure on their incomes. According to an analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies, immigrants account for 35% of workers in building cleaning and maintenance, but only 10% in the corporate and financial sectors; 24% of workers in construction, but only 8% of teachers and college professors; 23% among food preparation workers, but only 7% among lawyers.[ix] As the table below shows, high percentages of immigrant workers strongly correlate with high unemployment rates within particular economic sectors.


Immigrants’ occupational share by economic sector in the United States in 2004

Share of jobs filled by immigrants Native unemployment rate
Farming, fishing & forestry 36% 11.9%
Building cleaning & maintenance 35% 10.9%
Construction & extraction 24% 12.7%
Food preparation 23% 9.3%
Production manufacturing 22% 7.2%
Computer & mathematical 19% 5.0%
Healthcare support 17% 6.6%
Healthcare practitioner 12% 1.5%
Sales 12% 6.1%
Arts, entertainment & media 11% 5.9%
Management 10% 2.6%
Business & financial 10% 3.3%
Education & training 8% 1.3%
Legal occupations 7% 2.7%


[Source: Steven Camarota, “A Jobless Recovery? Immigrant Gains and Native Losses.” Center for Immigration Studies, 2004].

Poorer Americans are more likely to be rendered unemployed or underemployed due to mass immigration than wealthier Americans—a simple function of their more direct and intense job competition with immigrants. In a recent study, Steven Camarota and Karen Ziegler found that in occupations in the United States where immigrants fill 25% or more of the jobs, unemployment from 2009 to 2011 averaged 14%, compared to 8% unemployment for occupations with lower percentages of immigrants. “In high-immigrant occupations,” they write, “59 percent of the natives have no education beyond high school, compared to 31 percent of the rest of the labor force.”[x] These are precisely the people for whom even relatively brief spells of unemployment can be economically devastating.

Meanwhile, wealthier Americans benefit more, in absolute terms, from the lower costs for goods and services made possible by low wages. No wonder wealthy Americans and a bipartisan political elite that serves their interests typically support high levels of immigration. Doctors, lawyers, and Wall Street bankers have done pretty well in recent years in America. Truck drivers, construction workers, backhoe operators, and meat-packers? Nurses, secretaries, cleaning women, and supermarket checkout clerks? Mechanics, roofers, janitors, waiters, day laborers, and garbagemen? Not so well. Reducing immigration would tighten labor markets for these hard-working fellow citizens, including many previous immigrants, and help them secure employment and income gains.

Reducing immigration could also help reverse four decades of ever increasing economic inequality in the United States. Mass immigration’s biggest economic winners among U.S. citizens are the very wealthy: those who hire workers, or whose incomes come disproportionally from capital gains and stock price increases (which rise more quickly in a rapidly growing economy, which is fostered by immigration-driven population growth). Immigration’s biggest losers are found disproportionately among the nation’s poor: people whose incomes come primarily in the form of wages rather than stock gains or capital appreciation, and who consume less than the rich (and hence benefit less, in absolute terms, from lower prices for goods and services).[xi] Reduce immigration and you reduce one of the leading drivers of increased inequality in the U.S.

“Doctors, lawyers, and Wall Street bankers have done pretty well in recent years in America. Truck drivers, construction workers, backhoe operators, and meat-packers? Not so well”.

At this point, though, some readers may protest that we are throwing the baby out with the bath water: historically, one of the most persuasive arguments for continuing mass immigration is that it helps fuel economic growth. Tamar Jacoby put this pro-growth case well in an article published several years ago in Foreign Affairs. Although “immigrants’ overall contribution to economic growth is hard to measure,” she writes:

“there is no doubt among economists that newcomers enlarge the economic pie. Foreign workers emerging at the end of the day from the meatpacking plant or the carpet factory buy groceries and shoes for their children; on Saturday, they buy washing machines and then hire plumbers to install them. The companies where they work are more likely to stay in the United States, rather than move operations to another country where labor is cheaper. Readily available immigrant workers allow these businesses to expand, which keeps other Americans on the job and other US businesses, both up- and downstream, afloat . . . no one disputes that [this] results in a bigger, more productive economy”.[xii]

Jacoby is right to note that economists disagree on the relative importance of demographic increases to economic growth. All else being equal, however, it seems clear that more people equals more workers and more consumers, leading to increased economic activity and a larger economy.

Yet a little reflection should cause progressives, at least, to question the value of immigration-driven economic growth. The two figures below graph, first, changes in annual income among wealthier and poorer Americans in recent decades, and second, the distribution of total wealth among different classes in 2010. Taken together, they suggest how rapid productivity growth simply exacerbates economic inequality in the context of a system where poorer workers cannot garner their fair share of a growing economic pie. Under our current economic system, the more we grow, the more inequitable our society becomes. (Political progressives might want to keep this in mind during upcoming election debates, while listening to candidates brag about their plans to accelerate economic growth.)

Changes in Annual Family Incomes in the US, 1970 to 2005, by quintile

[Source: US Census Bureau, “Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements.” Accessed January, 2009. www.census.gov].


Distribution of Total Wealth in the US in 2010, by quintile

[Source: Dan Ariely, “Americans Want to Live in a Much More Equal Country (They Just Don’t Realize It).” Atlantic, August 2, 2012].

Our current 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 strikingly, an immigration reform bill passed by a Democratic Senate in 2013 would have nearly doubled legal immigration levels. All the declared Democratic candidates for President in 2016 appear to support large increases in already historically-high immigration levels. That includes my preferred candidate, Bernie Sanders, who knows full well that mass immigration drives down workers’ wages, but refuses to draw the logical policy conclusion from that fact.

Michael Vadon/Flickr.
Michael Vadon/Flickr. “Election 2016: Bernie Sanders NYC Fundraiser Draws Campaign Supporters Who Are ‘Feelin’ The Bern'”

[Picture: Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has stood out for his consistent campaign against wealth inequality. He is also an advocate for what the New York Times editorial board calls a departure from “the usual nativist bigotry”, and a turn towards a more “humane and sensible” immigration strategy. Last June, Sanders raised eyebrows in progressive circles when he indicated his opposition to an open border policy. Addressing the idea of sharply raising the number of immigrants via an open border policy, he explained that that is essentially a “right-wing proposal”. “It would make everybody in America poorer (…) If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs”. Read Higgins’ discussion of the controversy here].

“Under our current economic system, the more we grow, the more inequitable our society becomes. Political progressives might want to keep this in mind during upcoming election debates, while listening to candidates brag about their plans to accelerate economic growth. All the declared Democratic candidates for President in 2016 appear to support large increases in already historically-high immigration levels”.

It seems to me that progressives truly concerned about growing inequality and the economic well-being of American workers—including recent immigrants—should instead consider reducing immigration, at least in the short term. After all, Congress can decrease immigration levels as well as raise them. Perhaps a moratorium on non-essential immigration is in order, until the official unemployment rate declines below 5% and stays there for several years in a row. Perhaps non-essential immigration could be halted until real wages for the bottom half of American workers increase by 25% or more. Tightening up labor markets worked post-World War II, during the golden age of the American labor movement. It seems worth trying today, particularly given the paucity of other proposals to address these intractable problems on offer from Democratic politicians. Given progressive leaders’ general unwillingness to forcefully advocate for direct wealth redistribution, it is particularly important to get labor markets working for American workers. And it’s possible—if we are willing to curtain immigration.


Fairness and Equity

Under our current immigration system, the less our fellow citizens can afford it, the larger the burden we ask them to shoulder in paying the inevitable costs of mass immigration. On its face this seems unjust, and reason enough for progressives to oppose mass immigration.[xiii]

However, U.S. citizens are not the only group with an important stake in U.S. immigration policy. There are immigrants themselves and would-be immigrants around the world: people who may greatly improve their lives by moving to the United States. With our preferential concern for the poor, progressives naturally want to help these people. We often support mass immigration for that very reason. Philosophers such as Chandran Kukathas[xiv] and Joseph Carens[xv]have built arguments for more expansive immigration policies around the claim that mass immigration is an efficient means to redress global economic inequalities. But if the preceding analysis holds true, mass immigration is an unjust way to help poor foreigners, precisely because it unfairly burdens America’s poor, rather than asking more from wealthy Americans who can better afford to help.

Think of it this way. Let’s say you are a political progressive who believes the United States can and should do more to help the world’s poor. We are a wealthy nation, after all. The Obama administration devoted a little over $32 billion in 2013 to foreign aid (excluding military aid); you believe we should devote 2 times as much, 5 times as much, or even 10 times as much to such aid. Well, whatever the figure, if you are a progressive you do not want that money coming solely out of the pockets of poor and middle-class Americans, with a disproportionate amount coming from the poor. For example, you would never support a special tax to help poor people overseas that broke down as follows: 5% tax on income for Americans making less than $30,000 a year, 2% for people making $30,000–$60,000 per year and 0% on those making over $60,000 a year—with half the tax money collected not distributed to poor foreigners at all, but instead redistributed to Americans with annual incomes greater than $100,000.

But that, effectively, is the kind of regressive “tax” on wages and benefits that high levels of immigration impose on poorer Americans today. That’s unjust, and it’s why progressives should not support our current immigration policy, or proposals to make it even more expansive. In fact, however extensively we define our responsibilities toward the world’s poor and however much we as a nation are willing to spend to help them, Americans across the political spectrum should be able to agree that we should not meet those responsibilities on the backs of our own poor citizens.

Fortunately, there are better ways to meet our responsibilities to poor people in other parts of the world. The United States remains a wealthy and powerful nation and there is a lot we can do to help people improve conditions in their home countries. (Indeed, interviewing immigrants for my recent book, I learned that many of them would have preferred to make better lives in their own countries, if that had been a realistic option. It’s often hard and lonely making a new start in a foreign land.)

In the first place, the United States could negotiate new trade agreements and rework old ones so that they improve economic conditions for poor workers in our trading partners’ countries, even if this means slowing rather than increasing the growth of trade. Too often, U.S. trade agreements have sought to maximize the volume of trade regardless of all other considerations. Second, we could increase and better target development aid to help poor people around the world enhance their lives in their own countries. Although the United States ranks first globally in total foreign aid disbursed, we consistently rank last or close to last among the major donor nations in foreign aid as a percentage of gross national income.[xvi] Worse, too much U.S. foreign aid comes in the form of military aid—guns, bombs, or military training—which often causes more harm than good. Third, U.S. foreign policy should be refocused on upholding human rights and helping poor people around the world live better lives. By supporting the rights and interests of poor people overseas and encouraging their governments to reduce corruption and embrace democracy, we can help create a world where fewer people will find it necessary to go into exile in order to live decent lives (like Javier, many of the immigrants I interviewed blamed corruption and indifferent governments for limiting opportunities at home).

In all these ways, the U.S. government could help improve conditions in poor countries. Over time, this should help people live better lives in their homelands and alleviate the need for mass immigration. Crucially, Americans may support these programs without harming our poor fellow-citizens at home. And to the extent that foreign aid efforts were funded by genuinely progressive taxation, those most able to help the poor would also be the ones tasked with doing so.

To sum up my argument so far: over the past forty years, the American economy sustained tremendous increases in wealth. But that wealth has mostly been captured by wealthier Americans and economic inequality has increased greatly, while poorer American workers have seen stagnant or declining wages. If we continue to allow mass immigration into the United States, these problems seem likely to worsen—particularly since progressive politicians in the U.S. show little willingness to fight for policies that would significantly shift wealth from the rich to the poor. Those modest measures that mainstream Democrats do feel comfortable advocating, like increased educational funding or a boost to the minimum wage, are not likely to change the general trends. Political timidity on the left makes it even more important to ensure that labor markets do not work against poor and middle-class Americans. At least for progressives, the economic case for reducing immigration seems clear.


Environmental Impacts: More Pollution and Less Open Space

Turning to mass immigration’s environmental impacts, the key issue is immigration’s contribution to U.S. population growth. If they think about population growth at all, most Americans see it as a problem for countries in the developing world. But at 322 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, a good case can be made that we are the world’s most overpopulated country right now.[xvii] Worse, our near-1% annual growth rate—higher than many developing nations, including Jamaica, Thailand, and Uruguay—has America on track to double its population by the end of this century.

Whether we look at air pollution or wildlife-habitat losses, greenhouse gas emissions or excessive water withdrawals from western rivers, 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.[xviii]Researching the scientific literature on the population/environment connection for my book, I found a consensus that, in general, more people put greater stress on natural systems and make it harder to share habitat and resources fairly with other species.

Consider one important example: sprawl, defined as new development on the fringes of existing urban and suburban areas. Over the past three decades, stopping sprawl has become a leading goal for environmentalists across the United States. Sprawl is an environmental problem for numerous reasons, including increased energy and water consumption, increased air and water pollution, and decreased open space and wildlife habitat. Since habitat loss is a leading cause of species endangerment, it’s no surprise that some of the nation’s worst sprawl centers, such as southern Florida and the Los An­geles basin, also contain large numbers of endangered species. Between 1982 and 2001, the United States converted 34 million acres of forest, cropland, and pasture to developed uses, an area the size of Illinois. The average annual rate of land conversion increased from 1.4 million acres to 2.2 million acres over this time.[xix]

Mark Strozier/Flickr
Mark Strozier/Flickr“Sprawl in Houston County, Georgia".

What causes sprawl? Transportation policies that favor building roads over mass transit appear to be important sprawl generators. So are zoning laws that en­courage “leapfrog” developments far out into the coun­try and tax policies that allow builders to pass many of the costs of new development on to current taxpayers rather than new home buyers. Between 1970 and 1990, these and other factors caused Americans’ per capita land use in the hundred largest metropolitan areas to increase 22.6 percent. In these same areas during this same pe­riod, however, the amount of developed land increased 51.5 percent.[xx]

What accounts for this discrepancy? Population growth, which is by far the single most important cause of sprawl. New houses, new shopping centers, and new roads are being built for new residents. As the following figures illustrate, in recent decades, cities and states with the highest population growth rates have also sprawled the most.

[Source: Roy Beck, Leon Kolankiewicz, and Steven Camarota, Outsmarting Smart Growth: Population Growth, Immigration, and the Problem of Sprawl (Center for Immigration Studies, 2003), page 5].

The most thorough study to date on the causes of sprawl in the United States analyzed several dozen possible factors. Grouping together all those fac­tors that can increase per capita land use and comparing these with the single factor of more “capitas,” it found that between 1982 and 1997 in America, 52% of sprawl was attributable to population increase while 48% was attributable to misguided policies that increased land use per person.[xxi]

Some “smart growth” advocates resist the conclusion that population growth is an important sprawl factor: partly because they do not want to obscure the need for good planning and land use policies, partly because they are uncomfortable talking about immigration-driven population growth. They point out that several metropolitan areas that lost population in recent decades exhibited significant sprawl, including St. Louis, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. Of America’s 100 larg­est metropolitan areas, 11 lost population between 1970 and 1990, yet they sprawled an average of 26% (see the previous figures). This shows that poor land use planning and bad transportation, zoning, and tax policies are in­deed important in generating sprawl. Population growth is not everything.

On the other hand, cities with growing popula­tions sprawled a lot more than ones with stable or declining populations. Several states that managed to decrease per capita land use during this period also sprawled, due to high rates of population growth. From 1982 to 1995, Nevada decreased its per capita land use 26% while sprawling 37%, due to a whop­ping 90% population increase. Arizona decreased per capita land use 13% while its population in­creased 58%, generating a 40% increase in developed land.[xxii] The facts are clear: population growth also causes sprawl. Indeed, a more recent study found that almost all recent suburban sprawl in Florida can be attributed to immigration-driven population growth.

The bottom line is that if we want to stop sprawl, we must change the population policies that cause it, in addition to reforming misguided transportation, tax, and zoning policies. We will not stop sprawl if we simply accept population increase as inevitable, when the best research shows that it accounts for much of the problem. Nor are we likely to solve our other important environmental problems without stabilizing or reducing our population. The impacts of population growth are just too powerful.


Efficiency Isn’t Enough

In the early days of the environmental movement, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a popular slogan that went: “Any cause is a lost cause, without population control.” Subsequent events have borne out its truth. For a variety of reasons, in recent decades environmentalists in the U.S. have grown afraid to discuss population matters (discomfort with talking about immigration has certainly played a role).[xxiii] Instead, we have focused almost exclusively on efficiency improvements: in land use, water use, energy use, and other areas. The upshot of this narrowing has been that the efficiency improvements we have achieved have mostly been plowed back into supporting increased growth, with little real environmental improvement. If environmentalists are ever going to win our important battles, rather than just find ways to lose them more slowly, we need to recognize the way efficiency improvements tend to be swallowed up by growth, leaving environmentalists empty-handed and other species simply out of luck.

Jöshua Barnett/Flickr
Jöshua Barnett/Flickr“Mountain Lion”

Consider an example that has been much in the news over the past year: California’s drought, which has spurred proposals to meet chronic water shortages by building new dams and taking more water out of the state’s rivers. Reading news stories about the drought, you might never read that per capita water use declined by 50% in California over the last 40 years, due to extensive conservation efforts. That’s because total water use is as high as ever, due in part to an immigration-fueled doubling of the state’s population over the same period.

Long-time California river conservationist Tim Palmer recently discussed what I call the “efficiency paradox.” “After thousands of dams had been built through the 1960s,” Palmer writes:

“people began to realize the tremendous detrimental effects on rivers, fish, and whole landscapes, and a movement grew to protect the best rivers that remained. A powerful political alliance was driven away from the old pork barrel politics and spending on dams. The demand for water was still enormous and expanding with no end in sight, but rather than make more water available via new dams or take it from other people, a strategy was pursued to make improved use of the water we already had. These efficiency efforts paid off and use of water, per capita, declined by 20 percent nationally between 1980 and 1995. In California, per capita use was halved over 40 years.


But here’s the catch: population growth has rendered the savings almost meaningless. In the same fifteen-year period, the national population increased by 16 percent, and in California’s last 40 years the population nearly doubled. Water shortages have increased and they require unpopular adjustments by farmers and consumers, while still spelling ruin to whole ecosystems from the Sacramento Delta to Apalachicola Bay. Even though much of the low-hanging water-saving fruit has been picked, we can probably cut the current use in half once again. But by the time we do that the population is likely to double for a second time. With the numbers of people outstripping the amounts of water saved, we’ll be back in the same place where we started, except with less potential for further conservation and with a lot more people waiting in line for water.


In the end, we will not have protected wild rivers, spared endangered species, or saved public money as we had intended, but will have principally served to make more population growth possible. Then, the momentum to grow will be even greater. . . . The point here is that many people sought to do something good in conserving water, something of lasting value. But nothing can truly be protected if the source of the threat continues to grow”.[xxiv]

Palmer is not arguing against efficiency improvements; he has pushed hard for them throughout a distinguished environmental career. His point is that efficiency improvements must be combined with limits to what we demand from nature if we hope to achieve real, lasting environmental protection. And because every additional person, no matter how modest or abstemious, puts some additional demands on the environment, ending population growth is a necessary condition for ecological sustainability. In the absence of population stabilization, efficiency improvements alone will not lead to real sustainability, or a fair sharing of resources with other species.

The story is similar when we turn from water use and river conservation to energy use and climate change, or land use and urban sprawl. Efficiency without an “enough” somewhere only facilitates more growth, uses up any margin of error, and locks in a belief in the possibility and goodness of perpetual growth.[xxv] All this makes it harder, not easier, to create genuinely ecologically sustainable societies. Environmentalists continue to ignore this lesson and punt on the need for population stabilization at our peril.


Demography: The Good News and the Bad

The good news is that in recent decades, Americans have freely chosen a path toward population stabilization. From a peak of three and a half children per woman at the height of the baby boom in the mid-1950s, fertility rates in the United States have declined to two children per woman today: right around “replacement rate” for a nation with modern sanitation and health care. That means that if we reduced immigration rates to the levels that prevailed 50 years ago, America’s population would very likely peak and then stabilize by midcentury—thus achieving an essential prerequisite in the effort to create a sustainable society.

The bad news is that just as America’s citizens have chosen to cut back on family size, succeeding Congresses have increased immigration, thus keeping our country on a path of rapid population growth. Consider the graph below of U.S. population growth to 2100 under three different immigration scenarios (with fertility and mortality rates held steady).[xxvi]

[Source: Philip Cafaro, How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States (University of Chicago Press, 2015), chapter 6].

Starting in 2010 from a population of 310 million, the graph shows population growth for the rest of this century with 250,000 immigrants annually (roughly the rate fifty years ago), 1.25 million immigrants annually (about the current rate), and 2.25 million annual immigrants (roughly the level that would have resulted under the Senate’s 2013 “comprehensive immigration reform” bill). Under these three scenarios, by 2100 we could see relatively modest population growth (to 379 million people), an increase of more than 200 million Americans (to 524 million), or a doubling of our population (to 639 million).

Note how relatively small annual differences in immigration numbers quickly cumulate to huge differences in overall population size, with each additional half million annual immigrants adding about 72 million people to the U.S. population by century’s end. Note, too, that reducing immigration would allow Americans to stabilize our population by mid-century, while continuing or increasing mass immigration instead commits us to further massive population increases beyond 2100 (imagine each of those three lines in the graph with a little arrow on the end).

Given Americans’ failure to create an ecologically sustainable society with 320 million people, creating one with hundreds of millions more inhabitants is very unlikely. And even if we manage to stumble to 2100 with 500 million, 600 million, or 700 million people, our unpromising trajectory with continued mass immigration would be for further immense population growth in the following century. Consider population projections out to 2200, under those same three immigration scenarios (and again holding other factors steady across all scenarios).

[Source: Philip Cafaro, How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States (University of Chicago Press, 2015), chapter 6].

Only when contemplating this last graph are we considering the demographic implications “seven generations out” of current U.S. immigration policy. Doing so allows us to see how that policy could limit Americans’ environmental options down the road and doom any efforts to create a sustainable society. Only by not pondering these numbers can serious environmentalists ignore immigration-driven population growth.

Fortunately such overpopulation, like flooded labor markets, is not inevitable. Americans can stabilize our population by reducing immigration (not ending but simply reducing it). 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 accomplishments rather than achieving new ones.

An environmental movement with the demographic wind at its back would be much more likely to secure the reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions necessary for Americans to do our part to help avoid catastrophic global climate change. It would be much more likely to create new national parks and protected areas, preserving opportunities for future generations to appreciate wild nature; much more likely to find a way to keep some water in California’s rivers rather than draining them dry; and, in general, much more likely to move America toward real ecological sustainability.

Similarly, a labor movement working within a context of tight labor markets could organize workers more effectively. It could negotiate wage and benefits improvements from a position of strength; fortify its role as an important player in Democratic party politics; and, hopefully, move an agenda designed to decrease economic inequality and spread society’s wealth more fairly throughout the U.S.

I don’t say that reducing immigration into the U.S. will guarantee that progressives achieve these political goals. My claim is that continued mass immigration makes achieving them impossible. For that reason, reducing immigration should be part of the progressive political agenda going forward.


My Proposal

Mass immigration no longer makes economic or ecological sense for the United States. The question is how best to reform immigration policy so as to further the common good, while treating everyone involved fairly. In my book, I detail four main proposals [xxvii] to reform United States immigration policy:

[1] Cut legal immigration permanently, from 1.1 million to 300,000 per year (the approximate rate in 1965, when Congress began significantly increasing immigration levels).

[2] Reduce illegal immigration by mandating a national employee verification program for all new job hires and strictly enforcing criminal sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers.

[3] Pass carefully targeted amnesties to regularize the status of long-time illegal residents, particularly children whose parents brought them to this country at an early age.

[4] Rework trade agreements and increase well-targeted development aid, to help poor people around the world live better lives in their own countries.

These policy changes would allow many of the benefits of immigration to continue, such as providing asylum for genuine po­litical refugees, and accommodating family reunification while ending chain migration. At the same time, they would help the United States move in a more progressive direction politically, particularly if they were combined with the right economic policies. By pointing the way toward a more just and sustainable human presence on Earth, these immigration policies would be good for America and good for the rest of the world.

These proposals are solidly within the mainstream of the best thinking on environmental sustainability. As the President’s Council on Sustainable Development put it in 1996:

“Managing population growth, resources, and wastes is essential to ensuring that the total impact of these factors is within the bounds of sustainability. Stabilizing the population without changing consumption and waste production patterns would not be enough, but it would make an immensely challenging task more manageable. In the United States, each is necessary; neither alone is sufficient.” [xxviii] One of the Council’s ten national goals for creating a sustainable society was: “Move toward stabilization of [the] U.S. population,”[xxix] and its Population and Consumption Task Force found that “reducing immigration levels is a necessary part of population stabilization and the drive toward sustainability.”[xxx]

My policy proposals are designed to further the interests of poor and middle-class Americans, rather than the interests of our society’s wealthier members or big corporations. They would help reduce economic inequality. And they are just, I affirm, both in their goals and in their proposed methods of implementation (detailed in my book). Of course, some progressives deny that any policy that limits immigration can be just, but they are mistaken. As the Jordan Commission on Immigration Reform put it in 1997:

“The Commission decries hostility and discrimination against immigrants as antithetical to the traditions and interests of the country. At the same time, we disagree with those who would label efforts to control immigration as being inherently anti-immigrant. Rather, it is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interests.”[xxxi]

Christopher Rose/Flickr
Christopher Rose/Flickr“Barbara Jordan, Mistress of Her Domain”

Such policy changes would make a strong statement that the age of endless growth is over and that the United States will no longer act as a release valve for failed or unjust societies that cannot or will not provide decent opportunities for their own citizens. They would spread the message that people who want to create good lives for themselves and their families need to do so where they are and that those nations that fail to keep their populations from ballooning will themselves have to suffer the consequences. This approach seems best calculated to convince both the general public and politicians worldwide to take steps to reverse global population growth and to create just and flourishing societies where people want to remain.

“The age of endless growth is over and that the United States will no longer act as a release valve for failed or unjust societies that cannot or will not provide decent opportunities for their own citizens”.

What Is Your Number?

I suspect that many progressive readers will instinctively reject any proposal to reduce immigration into the United States. I understand and share many of your concerns. Still, I contend that paeans to sustainability or earnest expressions of our strong environmental feelings are merely hot air, when coupled with a blithe acceptance of the doubling or tripling of America’s population. Similarly it is counterproductive to advocate for tax, labor, and benefits policies designed to increase security for poorer Americans and reduce economic inequality, while at the same time advocating for immigration policies that increase economic insecurity and inequality. We need to get immigration policy working for poorer Americans, not against them as it does now.

“Paeans to sustainability or earnest expressions of our strong environmental feelings are merely hot air, when coupled with a blithe acceptance of the doubling or tripling of America’s population”.

At a minimum, readers unwilling to reduce immigration into the United States need to own up to the demographic, environmental, and economic implications of their positions. If you support the immigration status quo of about 1.25 million immigrants annually, then you also support increasing America’s population to approximately 525 million people by 2100, a 66% increase over current numbers. If you support an immigration policy along the lines of the Senate’s immigration reform bill of 2013, which would have increased immigration to about 2.25 million annually (the numbers were kept deliberately vague), then you also support more than doubling America’s population to about 670 million people by 2100. If you support the Wall Street Journal’s “open borders” vision then you also support tripling, at a minimum, the number of Americans to over 900 million people by 2100.

If you support these scenarios or anything like them, then you don’t just support drastically increasing America’s human population. You also support more cars, more houses, more malls, more power lines, more concrete and asphalt. You support less habitat and fewer resources for wildlife; less water in the rivers and streams for native fish; fewer forests, prairies and wetlands; fewer wild birds and wild mammals (except perhaps for house sparrows, rats, and a few other human commensals). You support replacing these other species with human beings and our economic support systems—and you are willing to wager your grandchildren’s happiness that those support systems can continue to supply a lot more people with the goods and services they need to survive and flourish, despite signs that the demands of our current 320 million people are already overstressing them.

Similarly, if you endorse an immigration status quo bringing in 1.25 million annual immigrants, the majority of them poorly educated and relatively unskilled, you also accept the downward pressure on poor workers’ wages and greater unemployment that inevitably accompanies this influx. If you endorse increasing these annual immigration numbers, you advocate stronger downward pressure on those wages and higher unemployment among the poor. Under these or any other scenarios where mass immigration continues, we may reasonably expect an increase in economic inequality, as poorer Americans’ wages decline and wealthier Americans capture the lion’s share of the economic benefits of immigration-driven economic growth.

“We need to get immigration policy working for poorer Americans, not against them as it does now”

With increased mass immigration we may also expect further declines in the employment rates of African Americans. According to Andrew Sum and his colleagues at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, “A one percentage-point increase in the share of new immigrants in the state’s workforce will reduce the probability of employment of young adults [ages 16–24] by 2.1 percentage points,” with larger declines among young African Americans.[xxxii] True, mass immigration could make the U.S. an even more ethnically diverse country—but arguably only at the expense of impoverishing some members of our oldest and historically most oppressed minority. To me, the trade-off does not seem fair.

Michele Markel Connors/Flickr
Michele Markel Connors/Flickr

Some progressives honestly believe that these negative economic impacts are relatively small, or that they can be counterbalanced by more progressive tax rates, increases in the minimum wage, improved government benefits, or other progressive economic policies. But the evidence is clear that immigration’s downward pressure on income and employment is substantial and that it falls heaviest on those least able to bear it, the working poor. Furthermore, enacting progressive economic policies is itself made more difficult by mass immigration, for complex reasons that I detail in my book. For example, many progressives pin their hopes for greater economic equality on a revived labor movement. But mass immigration undermines efforts to organize workers, or to strike for improved wages and benefits. It thus undercuts attempts to revive organized labor.

After nearly half a century of steadily increasing economic inequality and three decades with little progress on our most pressing environmental problems, American progressives should be skeptical of our chances of reversing these trends while completely ignoring one of their main causes. Excessive immigration is currently the main driver of U.S. population growth and a chief cause of sprawl, excessive resource use, stagnating wages, high unemployment, and growing economic inequality. For these reasons, progressives committed to sustainability and economic justice should support reducing immigration into the United States.


Moral Objections: Rights

The progressive argument for reducing immigration into the United States seems clear enough. I suspect, though, that even if they tend to agree with the economic and environmental points already made, many progressives will still feel uncomfortable supporting significantly reduced immigration into the United States. Reducing immigration, even limiting immigration at all, just does not strike many of us as fair or compassionate. In the remainder of this essay, I’d like to address some of the more principled concerns that readers may have with reducing immigration, focusing on some of the moral objections that have garnered the most attention in the philosophical literature (my book discusses additional economic and environmental objections that space limitations preclude delving into here; see chapters 4 and 7 of How Many Is Too Many?).

Perhaps the most important objection raised against restrictive immigration policies are that they are unjust, because they are unfair to potential immigrants. One concise way of stating this is to say that would-be immigrants have a right to live and work in the United States. While some immigrants’ rights proponents argue for abolishing national borders altogether, most assert a general human right to freely move and settle without regard to national borders, subject to reasonable government restrictions to keep out criminals and prevent gross harms to receiving societies. For example, philosopher Manuel Velasquez affirms such a right in his article “Immigration: Is Exclusion Just?” He argues that in a globalized world, “national borders have become an obstacle to serving the pressing needs—arising out of economic destitution and political persecution—that afflict inhabitants of less developed countries. These needs can be alleviated by opening our borders. We have no moral right to maintain a closed system of national borders in the face of such need.”[xxxiii]

This is a radical proposal, since a general right to immigrate does not exist currently in American law. The Constitution names no right to immigrate and the Supreme Court has consistently upheld the federal government’s right to regulate and limit immigration into the country. Neither does such a right exist in international law. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not assert a general human right to immigrate into the country of one’s choice, nor do other major framework international rights treaties.[xxxiv] Article 13 of the UN Declaration asserts: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state” (emphasis added). Here the right of movement and residence is clearly limited to a citizen’s home country. Article 14 asserts: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” But this is a right to temporary refuge, not permanent settlement, and in any case most immigrants to the United States are not fleeing persecution but trying to better their lives economically. Hence the right of asylum does not come close to justifying their right to immigrate into the United States.

Proponents of a general right to immigrate, then, claim first and primarily the existence of a moral right to immigrate freely across borders. Second, they claim that national laws should be amended accordingly to better harmonize with the legitimate claims of morality: that a legal right to immigrate should be affirmed. Let’s focus on the primary claim and ask: what arguments do proponents provide for their assertion of a moral right to immigrate freely (or relatively freely) across national borders?

Political philosopher Chandran Kukathas gives what he calls a “liberal egalitarian” argument for open borders. From a proper universalistic moral point of view, Kukathas maintains, citizens of rich countries have no special claims to the resources and opportunities into which they have been born. “Egalitarianism demands that the earth’s resources be distributed as equally as possible,” he writes, “and one particularly effective mechanism for facilitating this is freedom of movement.” Egalitarians want to equalize not just resources, but opportunities. Allowing people to migrate from poor, overcrowded countries with high unemployment and little chance for economic advancement to wealthier, less crowded countries equalizes opportunities. “Our starting point,” Kukathas suggests, “should be a recognition of our common humanity and the idea that both the resources of the earth and the cooperation of our fellows are things to which no one has any privileged entitlement.” For these reasons, “the movement of peoples should be free.”[xxxv]

This is a powerful argument for many progressives, since it rests on egalitarian values that we tend to share. It also relies on the common thought: “what right do I have to shut the door on people who are just as good as I am and who, through no fault of their own, have been born into less happy circumstances?” Kukathas’ argument may speak particularly strongly to political moderates who feel some sympathy with egalitarianism, but not enough to do anything about it personally. For it says to relatively wealthy Americans, “You do not have to give up anything yourself to help poor foreigners live better lives. You can fulfill any moral obligations you may have toward them by allowing them to come here and cut your grass, cook your food, and diaper your children.”

“What right do I have to shut the door on people who are just as good as I am and who, through no fault of their own, have been born into less happy circumstances?”

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to reject the liberal egalitarian argument for open borders. Because rights help allocate scarce goods, any rights claim must be tested against its effects on all interested parties—not just the parties pressing the claim. Even widely accepted, fundamental human rights must be balanced against other rights and other important interests when it comes to their implementation. Such considerations count heavily against open borders.[xxxvi]

As we have seen, current levels of immigration into the United States are leading to a larger population, which makes it much harder to share the landscape generously with nonhuman beings. Allowing a general right to immigrate into the United States would greatly accelerate this process. With open borders, the interests of nonhuman nature would be sacrificed completely to the interests of people. The economic interests of would-be immigrants would trump the very existence of many nonhuman organisms, endangered species, and wild places in the United States.

James Marvin Phelps/Flickr
James Marvin Phelps/Flickr“Utah Prairie Dog, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah”

Like many immigrants’ rights advocates, Kukathas appears to accept this trade-off; he may not even be aware of it. As the previous quotes illustrate, he sees nature essentially as “the earth’s resources.” The only question to ask about them is how people may divide them up fairly and efficiently. In seeking to make sense of Australian environmentalists’ arguments for limiting immigration, for example, Kukathas speaks about their worries that “parks and sewerage services” will be degraded, a revealingly bland locution.[xxxvii] His approach sees no value to the Earth beyond what humans can take from it.

“With open borders, the economic interests of would-be immigrants would trump the very existence of many nonhuman organisms, endangered species, and wild places in the United States”.

But those of us who reject this anthropocentric perspective must consider the interests of the nonhuman beings who would be displaced by an ever-increasing human presence. I myself believe that the human appropriation of natural landscapes has progressed so far in the United States that any further appropriation is unjust toward other species; if anything, Americans should scale back our overall ecological footprint and leave more habitat and essential resources for other species.[xxxviii] Some readers may find this position extreme. But if so, I ask: how many other species must we drive extinct, before you will agree that we have taken too much?

There is room for disagreement here. However, it is important to realize that accepting a general right to immigrate leaves no room to take other species’ continued existences seriously, in the United States or elsewhere, since it ensures that the human appropriation of nature will continue to increase. The logical end point of this is a country filled to bursting with people and our economic life-support systems (farms, factories, roads, reservoirs, channelized “rivers” turned on and off like taps) and whatever other species can survive in our tamed and “working” landscapes (lots of squirrels and cockroaches, perhaps three or four warbler species rather than the dozens existing today, no wolves or bears, etc.). For this reason alone, this right should be rejected.

Similarly, allowing a general right to immigrate would conflict with the rights of poorer Americans to a fair share of the wealth generated each year in the United States and violate their reasonable expectation that the U.S. government should work for their economic well-being. My argument for this contention is developed in greater detail in chapter 3 of my book, which defends a concept of “economic citizenship” borrowed from Stuart White.[xxxix] While highly-educated, well-trained Americans might still do fine under an “open borders” scenario, at least for a few years, exposing less-favored Americans to direct competition from hundreds of millions of poorly-educated, low-skilled workers from around the globe would be disastrous, swamping any efforts to bargain for or legislate higher wages and setting off a race to the bottom among businesses focused primarily on increased profits.

A general right to immigrate also would conflict with American citizens’ right to self-government. Immigration can change the character of a society, for better or worse; large-scale immigration can change a society quickly, radically, and irrevocably. Since self-government is a fundamental and well-established human right, the citizens of particular nations arguably should retain, through their elected officials, significant control over immigration policies. As Michael Walzer puts it in an influential discussion on immigration:

“Admission and exclusion are at the core of communal independence. They suggest the deepest meaning of self-determination. Without them, there could not be communities of [a specific] character, historically stable, ongoing associations of men and women with some special commitment to one another and some special sense of their common life.”[xl]

The citizens of a nation may work hard to create particular kinds of societies: societies that are sustainable, for example, or that limit inequalities of wealth, or that treat women and men as equals. They typically develop feelings of affiliation and social commitments that have great value in themselves and that enable communal projects that create further value. It seems wrong to suggest that these achievements, which may provide meaning, secure justice, or contribute substantially to people’s quality of life, must be compromised because people in other countries are having too many children, or have failed to create decent societies themselves. It is unjust to create a new right that undermines the self-government of others. Instead, would-be immigrants need to take up responsibilities for self-government that they and their leaders have neglected in their own countries.[xli]

“It seems wrong to suggest that these achievements, which may provide meaning, secure justice, or contribute substantially to people’s quality of life, must be compromised because people in other countries are having too many children, or have failed to create decent societies themselves”.

Environmentalists also worry that increasing human numbers will rob future generations of their right to enjoy a healthy environment with its full complement of native species. Over the past dozen years, as I’ve watched increasing numbers of people displace wildlife along Colorado’s Front Range, I have often recalled this rueful passage from Henry Thoreau’s journal, as he reflected on his own Massachusetts landscape:

“When I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here, I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country . . . I take infinite pains to know the phenomena of the spring, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places”.[xlii]

I believe that like Thoreau, my descendants will “wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.” Since a growing population undermines the right of future Americans to enjoy a safe, clean environment and to know and explore wild nature, we must reject a general right to freely immigrate into the United States.

To summarize: for American progressives, the rights of our fellow citizens, the interests of nonhuman nature, the responsibility of self-government, and our concern for future generations all come together in efforts to create a just and sustainable society. Because we take these efforts seriously and because they cannot succeed without limiting immigration, we must reject a general right to immigrate into the United States.

Note that this discussion does not deny the importance of human rights. Rather, it presupposes their importance. Rights allow us to protect important human interests and create egalitarian societies that maximize opportunities for people to flourish. I believe rights are justified ultimately because they contribute to such human flourishing.[xliii] But not all rights claims are justified. When such claims are pressed so far that their recognition would undermine human or nonhuman flourishing, we should reject them.[xliv]


Moral Objections: Welfare

The considerations above suggest that there is no general right to immigrate into the United States (or anywhere else). Still, even if no such general right exists, there might still be good moral reasons for continuing the permissive mass immigration status quo, or even enlarging it. Consider the following welfare-based argument.[xlv]

Over a million people immigrate into the United States each year. Clearly the majority believe they will improve their own or their families’ welfare by doing so, otherwise they wouldn’t come. Immigrants may find educational, vocational, or other personal opportunities in the United States that they would otherwise be denied. Immigrants coming from some countries may significantly improve their own or their families’ health and longevity. All else being equal, the potential improvements in would-be immigrants’ welfare seem to make a powerful argument for continuing to allow mass immigration.

The problem, as I have already shown, is that all else is not equal.[xlvi] Whatever may once have been the case, today mass immigration drives down the wages of working-class Americans and increases economic inequality in the United States. It threatens the very existence of many nonhuman species and compromises future generations’ right to a decent environment, both here and abroad. It makes it easier for wealthy elites in other countries to ignore the conditions that are driving so many people to emigrate in the first place. For all these reasons, the welfare argument does not make a convincing case for continuing high levels of immigration. Indeed, I believe current immigration levels are so harmful to the welfare of nonhuman beings and poor Americans that our immigration policy is unjust toward those two groups.[xlvii]

Still, immigration’s benefits to new immigrants remain substantial, and welfare arguments of the sort we are considering cannot be ignored by those seeking a just immigration policy. While they do not justify continued mass immigration, they do make the case for some immigration, provided it can be accommodated with justice toward all concerned and without undermining ecological sustainability. I have tried to make just such a place for a reduced immigration in my proposals for immigration reform.

Such welfare arguments also point to a responsibility, not to immigrants per se, but to people around the globe who live in poverty, insecurity, and injustice. Even the most generous immigration policies will not help most of them, since only a small percentage can conceivably emigrate from their home countries and the worst off rarely have the resources to do so. The wealthy people of the world—including not just citizens of “the West,” but hundreds of millions of people in the developing world itself—owe the world’s poor people something. I’m not speaking here of just the lucky few millions who manage to emigrate to the West, but of the billions who will have to sink or swim where they are. Just what do we owe them?

In One World: The Ethics of Globalization, Peter Singer argues that the developed nations can and should increase and better target foreign aid to improve conditions for poor people overseas. I find Singer’s arguments convincing and have included such a component among my own proposals for reforming immigration policy. Less valuable is Singer’s silence, typical among progressives, regarding what wealthy people within the developing nations themselves owe the poor: a fairer distribution of wealth and political power, and greater opportunities for economic advancement. Too often, these elites instead give their fellow citizens a strong shove toward the exits. In response, I propose that encouraging economic equality and opportunity in other lands be made a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, replacing our current emphasis on increasing the volume of international trade. There are limits to what the United States can accomplish in these areas: the primary responsibility to create economically just and flourishing nations rests with the citizens of those nations themselves.[xlviii] But what we can do, through diplomacy and foreign aid, we indeed have an obligation to do. And where our actions or policies actually serve to undermine those efforts, we should change them.

Views about the proper scope of our global obligations, the best ways to fulfill them, and how to balance them with our obligations to our fellow citizens, are likely to vary widely. However, most progressives tend to agree with me that wealthy people, West and East, have a prima facie duty to share some of our wealth and help the world’s poor people live better lives. Rather than try to justify this duty, I conclude this section with three brief comments on its proper scope and pursuit.

First, mass immigration is neither a sufficient nor an efficient means of meeting it. Inviting the world’s poor to America to become our servants is no substitute for helping them create safe, just, flourishing societies where they live. Even taking the most positive view possible of its effects on immigrants, mass immigration does little for the vast majority of the world’s poor. One caveat is that remittances from workers in the United States can be an important source of income for immigrants’ families back home. But these economic benefits must be weighed against the dispersal and breakup of families through immigration, which is an important social cost. They also must be weighed against the cost of enabling these sender countries’ continued failure to create just and sustainable societies. Remember, the 1% don’t just live in America, but in China, India, and Mexico, too.

“Inviting the world’s poor to America to become our servants is no substitute for helping them create safe, just, flourishing societies where they live”.

Second, serious progressives will not allow efforts to help poor people overseas run roughshod over our commitments to ecological sustainability or to economic justice for our fellow citizens. It is true that the serious and immediate needs of asylum seekers may sometimes overrule our prima facie duties to protect nature or to further a more egalitarian distribution of wealth in our own society. But committed progressives cannot interpret our duties to foreigners in ways that make our duties to our fellow citizens impossible to fulfill. This rules out immigration as a cheap form of foreign aid.

Third, fortunately, our prima facie duty to help the world’s poor may be pursued in ways that do not undermine efforts to meet our prima facie environmental and social duties. The United States government should be much more generous and intelligent with development aid to poor countries. It should fully fund international family planning efforts, which help both poor people and the environment. It should set trade policies to benefit workers and protect nature, rather than to maximize trade. The United States should pressure foreign governments to respect their citizens’ rights, as mandated by international law, and change any U.S. policies that undermine other countries’ efforts to create more just or sustainable societies. All these efforts and more may be taken up without embracing mass immigration. Mass immigration is no substitute for such efforts.

Most important, endless population growth and flooded labor markets are incompatible with creating just, sustainable, flourishing societies. Creating nations with stable populations and tight labor markets is essential for creating a better world, and efforts to do so should not be sacrificed on the altars of economic globalization or cosmopolitan morality.


Are Borders Bad?

There is a visceral sense among many progressives that national borders are bad. Borders limit people, keeping them from going where and doing what they want. They separate people, interfering with personal plans and the development of international understanding. They seem to emphasize possessiveness—this country is mine—which is a quality that progressives tend to dislike, often equating it with selfishness. As Michael Kellett, a forest activist from New England who I interviewed for my book, put it:

“If we don’t allow immigrants into the U.S., then we are walling ourselves off and floating above the increasing morass of humanity everywhere else. . . . Walling ourselves off is not a solution.”[xlix]

Still, borders have their uses. Many homeowners have a fence around the yard, and I guess that few people reading this essay allow strangers to come and go as they please through their homes. The obvious reason is that private households provide us with important benefits. Beyond the various material possessions they allow us to enjoy, there is the control of key living spaces, which helps us live the kinds of lives we want to live, and the space and time necessary to focus on our most important relationships. All these good things would be devalued or made impossible by an “open door” policy—although a judicious hospitality enhances our enjoyment of them. Even Michael Kellett, when pressed, had to admit that while he was not comfortable “walling people out” of the United States, he did want to wall off sections of the Maine woods from development (“That’s survival of the planet itself,” he told me).[l]

Are there certain national “possessions” that would be threatened by an open borders policy, or by a too generous hospitality? I believe there are and that truly appreciating, enjoying, and protecting these things is, perhaps regrettably, inseparable from limiting access to them. These possessions include:

[1] A material prosperity that is widely shared, where no one who is willing to work for a living falls below a basic living standard.

[2] A political system with opportunities for power and influence at a number of levels, where an individual’s efforts can occasionally make a difference.

[3] Comradeship and concern for our fellow citizens, which is both good in itself and necessary for the better working of society. This includes the willingness to tax ourselves to provide for the common good and to support people who cannot adequately support themselves.

[4] Natural areas that can become ecologically degraded if forced to accommodate too many visitors, and wildlife that can become rare or extinct if its habitat is destroyed to accommodate more people. (Aldo Leopold called these America’s “Great Possessions,” which was one of his working titles for his classic book A Sand County Almanac.)

A relatively egalitarian society. Self-government. Social solidarity. Access to wild nature. These are indeed great possessions that Americans and citizens of other nations would do well to safeguard as they design immigration policy. These goods are social achievements that each generation may sustain and build on, or allow to diminish and decay. Feeling possessive about them is part of an intelligent citizenship. Far from selfishness, working to protect our descendants’ access to such possessions actually manifests our altruism. Those who would diminish future generations’ access to these goods in an attempt to help poor people from other lands should at least acknowledge what they are asking Americans to give up.

Still, there remains a nagging sense among many progressives that borders are morally irrelevant. In an article titled “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” Martha Nussbaum accuses patriotic nationalists of substituting “a colorful idol for the substantive universal values of justice and right.” All human beings, simply as human beings, have equal moral value, she asserts. Morality involves recognizing this universal value and acting upon it, often in the face of surface differences or particular loyalties that obscure it. The boundaries of a nation are “morally arbitrary.” “Why should we think of people from China as our fellows the minute they dwell in a certain place, namely the United States, but not when they dwell in a certain other place, namely China?” Nussbaum asks. “What is it about the national boundary that magically converts people toward whom we are both incurious and indifferent into people to whom we have duties of mutual respect?”[li]

These are important questions, if a bit tendentiously stated. I answer, first, that American patriots should not be incurious or indifferent toward foreigners; that is a straw man argument. As Stephen Nathanson notes, “Exclusive concern for one’s own country is not a necessary part of patriotism.”[lii] We may care more about our fellow citizens, while still showing reasonable concern for people living in other countries. Second, Chinese people who legally immigrate to the United States become our fellow citizens, for whom we have special responsibilities by virtue of that tie. Such responsibilities include ensuring they have equal protection under our laws, taxing ourselves to provide them with access to health care when they are sick, etc. In return, foreign-born Americans agree to take on those same civic responsibilities when they become citizens. Third, such responsible citizenship does not appear “magically.” It must be cultivated; its absence has deleterious consequences, for society as a whole but particularly for its less fortunate members; and for that reason, we should think twice before undermining it, even unintentionally. Fourth, dividing the world up into smaller units called nations is one way to facilitate real, effective citizenship and mutual responsibility for one another in an immense world of over seven billion people. Similarly, knowledge and devotion to particular landscapes makes environmentalism possible. We are rightly admonished to “think globally and act locally.”

The hard truths behind Nussbaum’s jibe at “morally arbitrary” boundaries are that they do lead to differential concern and action on behalf of others, and they do perpetuate differential access to resources. Borders can lock in place the failures of societies, and often the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons (and even more on their daughters). But borders also help lock in societies’ successes.[liii]They help preserve genuine human diversity in a world that has been shrunken and homogenized by modern technology. “Arbitrary” or artificial boundaries may be out of favor with the jet-setting global intelligentsia. Yet they make self-government possible, and self-government is a key human capability and a fundamental human right.[liv]

All this is not to argue against more wide-ranging moral concerns and commitments. The right kind of immigration reform should acknowledge the right to asylum from persecution affirmed by article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and include serious commitments to address the “push factors” currently causing people to emigrate from their homelands. We are not allowed to treat people unjustly simply because they live outside our borders; we should not remain indifferent to their struggles to live better lives. But we may support universal human rights and increased development aid for the world’s poor, while also recognizing the legitimacy—indeed, the necessity—of meeting our responsibilities as neighbors, community members, and citizens. Borders remain morally relevant, because we have different and stronger responsibilities to our fellow citizens than we have to the rest of humanity. Limiting immigration recognizes our responsibilities to poor people within our borders and to our descendants to create a more egalitarian and sustainable society. Acknowledging boundaries helps people make sense of their duties and responsibilities as citizens, which is part of creating a more just and sustainable world.

“Arbitrary” or artificial boundaries may be out of favor with the jet-setting global intelligentsia. Yet they make self-government possible, and self-government is a key human capability and a fundamental human right”

Of course, political borders do limit people’s freedom and can interfere with their individual pursuit of happiness. That might be a good argument for keeping them somewhat permeable. But limitations on individual freedom are sometimes necessary to further the common good. Ultimately this justifies the making and securing of borders.[lv] It would be best to honestly acknowledge all this.

Instead, many progressives appear to believe, in the words of a recent philosophy blogger (writing ironically), that:

“immigration controls by rich countries are mean. They close out the poor and vulnerable who only want the chance to make a better life. They are characterised by arbitrary rules whose effects can be inhumane—breaking up families, locking up children, deporting good people to uncertain futures in godforsaken countries, etc. … [But the reality is that] liberals need immigration controls for their cherished welfare state to function. They’re just happy to let the conservatives take the rap [for them].”

The anonymous author of these reflections continues:

“One cannot build such a welfare state in which everyone in our society has the right to health care, education, unemployment protection, disability support, pensions, etc., without building a wall to keep some people out . . . The viability, legitimacy, and decency of any welfare state depends upon controlling membership to the society it is created to serve. That’s what a real social contract looks like. Liberals are always criticising the racist motivations for and practical inhumanity of the immigration controls demanded by conservatives, but their objections are superficial”.[lvi]

He or she concludes that reliable conservative support for limiting immigration “allows liberals to get away with the hypocrisy of depending on immigration controls while pretending that they are against them.” I agree. It would be better for progressives to acknowledge frankly the need to limit immigration and help design humane immigration policies that truly further the common good.



We have looked at some of the main moral objections to limiting or reducing immigration into the United States. I believe they can be met. Far from undermining my policy proposals, considerations of justice arguably support them. In addition, as I found in writing my book, trying to answer these moral objections can help define a stronger, more robust progressivism.

By honestly reckoning with limits, we come to a more realistic understanding and a better appreciation of a genuine progressive citizenship. This concept has not become outmoded in a more economically integrated world. On the contrary, it must be reinvigorated, in the United States and across the globe, in order to achieve progressive political goals. Progressives look forward to a world of just, flourishing nations, with citizens governing themselves fairly and compassionately, countries at peace with one another, and humanity as a whole living sustainably on the planet. But there is no achieving any of this without recognition of limits and a willingness to live within them.

In my book, I come to similar conclusions when considering some common environmental and economic objections to limiting immigration. This strengthens the general conclusion that the “key log” that needs to shift in order for us to imagine and achieve a more progressive political order is reckoning honestly with limits. As with the environmental and economic objections to reducing immigration, the temptation in meeting these ethical objections may be to equivocate, or to try to finesse hard trade-offs. That will not work. We need to accept limits to resources and limits to growth, and grapple with them intelligently, if we hope to create just and sustainable societies. The time to do so is now.

In the end, I return to my primary argument. Immigration is now the main driver of American population growth and a leading contributor to growing economic inequality in the United States. Growing economic inequality is unfair and saps our strength as a nation, while excessive immigration serves as a safety valve that allows other countries to postpone the creation of just and flourishing societies themselves. Furthermore, continued American population growth is incompatible with ecological sustainability and the long-term well-being of nonhuman species, nationally and globally. For these reasons, progressives committed to sustainability and justice should support reducing current, excessive levels of immigration into the United States.

Footnotes & References

[i] Author’s interview, Javier Morales, September, 2007. All personal stories related in this essay actually occurred. All quotations are reported verbatim. Full citations can be found in Philip Cafaro, How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

[ii] Jorge Castañeda’s Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans (Knopf, 2011) discusses the causes of this fatalism and some potential cures.

[iii] Author’s interview, Andy Moore, August, 2007.

[iv] Author’s interview, Tom Kenney, October, 2007.

[v] George Borjas, Heaven’s Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy(Princeton University Press, 1999), page 13.

[vi] Vernon Briggs, Mass Immigration and the National Interest: Policy Directions for the New Century (M. E. Sharpe, 2003); Steven Shulman, editor, The Impact of Immigration on African Americans (Transaction, 2004).

[vii] George Borjas, “The Economic Benefits from Immigration,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 9 (1995): 7.

[viii] George Borjas, Jeffrey Grogger, and Gordon Hanson, “Immigration and the Economic Status of African-American Men,” Economica (2010) 77: 255.

[ix] Steven Camarota, “A Jobless Recovery? Immigrant Gains and Native Losses” (Center for Immigration Studies, 2004).

[x] Steven Camarota and Karen Zeigler, “Are There Really Jobs Americans Won’t Do? A Detailed Look at Immigrant and Native Employment across Occupations” (Center for Immigration Studies, 2013). Camarota and Zeigler also note: “A number of politically important groups tend to face very little job competition from immigrants. For example, just 10 percent of reporters are immigrants, as are only 6 percent of lawyers and judges and 6 percent of farmers and ranchers.”

[xi] For a detailed analysis see Cafaro, How Many Is Too Many? chapter 4.

[xii] Tamar Jacoby, “Immigration Nation.” Foreign Affairs(November/December 2006): 55.

[xiii] Stephen Macedo, “The Moral Dilemma of U.S. Immigration Policy: Open Borders vs. Social Justice?” In Carol Swain, editor, Debating Immigration(Cambridge University Press, 2007), pages 63–82.

[xiv] Chandran Kukathas, “Immigration.” In Hugh LaFollette, editor, The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2003).

[xv] Joseph Carens, The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford University Press, 2015).

[xvi] Representative figures for 2003 show Norway leading the way, distributing 0.92% of its gross national income as foreign aid, followed by the Netherlands (0.8%), France (0.42%), the United Kingdom (0.32%), Germany (0.28%) and Japan (0.2%), with the United States bringing up the rear at 0.15%. Curt Tarnoff and Larry Nowels, “Foreign Aid: An Introductory Overview of U.S. Programs and Policy” (Congressional Research Service, 2005), pages 22-23.

[xvii] Dave Foreman, Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife (Raven’s Eye Press, 2011).

[xviii] Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist, editors, Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation (University of Georgia Press, 2012).

[xix] Natural Resources Conservation Service, “National Resources Inventory 2001, Urbanization and Development of Rural Land.” US Department of Agriculture, 2001.

[xx] Roy Beck, Leon Kolankiewicz, and Steven Camarota, Outsmarting Smart Growth: Population Growth, Immigration, and the Problem of Sprawl (Center for Immigration Studies, 2003), page 5.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid., pages 68–69.

[xxiii] Leon Kolankiewicz and Roy Beck, “Forsaking Fundamentals: The Environmental Establishment Abandons U.S. Population Stabilization” (Center for Immigration Studies, 2001).

[xxiv] Tim Palmer, “Beyond Futility,” pages 98–100. In Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist, editors, Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation(University of Georgia Press, 2012). See also Kathleene Parker, “Population, Immigration, and the Drying of the American Southwest” (Center for Immigration Studies, 2010).

[xxv] Herman Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development(Beacon Press, 1997).

[xxvi] See Cafaro, How Many Is Too Many? chapters 2 and 6 for a full discussion of these population projections.

[xxvii] Cafaro, How May Is Too Many? chapter 9 actually discusses 7 main proposals for U.S. immigration reform, but these 4 are the most important.

[xxviii] President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment for the Future(U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996), chapter 6, “U.S. Population and Sustainability.”

[xxix] President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Toward a Sustainable America: Advancing Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment for the 21stCentury (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999), page iii. This goal was watered down from an earlier recommendation by the Council’s Task Force on Population and Consumption: “Stabilize U.S. population as early as possible in the next century” (emphasis added). President’s Council on Sustainable Development,Population and Consumption Task Force Report (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996), chapter 4, “Goals and Policy Recommendations.”

[xxx] President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Population and Consumption Task Force Report, Executive Summary.

[xxxi] US Commission on Immigration Reform, U.S. Immigration Policy: Restoring Credibility (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994), page i.

[xxxii] Andrew Sum, Paul Harrington, and Ishwar Khatiwada, “The Impact of New Immigrants on Young Native-Born Workers, 2000–2005” (Center for Immigration Studies, 2006), page 6.

[xxxiii] Manuel Velasquez, “Immigration: Is Exclusion Just?” Issues in Ethics 7 (Spring 1996). Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. See also the response from Martin Cook, “Immigration and Ethics,” both accessible at www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/.

[xxxiv] See, for example, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).

[xxxv] Chandran Kukathas, “Immigration,” pages 571–72, 586. See Michael Dummett, “Immigration,” Res Publica 10 (2004): 115–22, for a somewhat different rights-based argument for more expansive immigration policies.

[xxxvi] Stephen Kershnar, “There is No Right to Immigrate to the United States,” Public Affairs Quarterly 14 (2000): 141–58; Robert Chapman, “Confessions of a Malthusian Restrictionist,” Ecological Economics 59 (2006): 214–19.

[xxxvii] Kukathas, “Immigration,” page 574.

[xxxviii] Winthrop Staples III and Philip Cafaro, “For a Species Right to Exist.” In Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist, editors, Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation (University of Georgia Press, 2012), pages 283–300.

[xxxix] Stuart White, The Civic Minimum: On the Rights and Obligations of Economic Citizenship. Oxford University Press, 2003.

[xl] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (Basic Books, 1982), page 62. Current attempts to increase immigration into the United States also run afoul of the right to self-government more directly. Polls typically show that Americans want either less immigration or the status quo, not more immigration. See Peter Schuck, “The Disconnect between Public Attitudes and Policy Outcomes in Immigration.” In Carol Swain, editor,Debating Immigration (Cambridge University Press, 2007), pages 17–31.

[xli] In researching How Many Is Too Many? I asked numerous immigrants from Mexico and Central America why they came to the United States. Often they have spoken of “corruption” and the fact that a poor man or woman cannot make a good life in their countries of origin. What is the proper response to this? Surely not: “Well, then, let Mexico go to the dogs! Come to America, and bring all your relatives!” A better response, I think, would be: “Mexico needs to reform itself. You need to get to work; what can Americans do to help?” I have to admit, my respondents usually snorted with incredulity at the suggestion that their countries might be reformed. But perhaps their fatalism is part of the problem.

[xlii] Henry Thoreau, Journal (Dover Press, 1962) volume 8, 220–21 (March 23, 1856).

[xliii] For justification and application of a “rights grounded in flourishing approach,” see Amartya Sen, “Women’s Empowerment and Human Rights: The Challenge to Policy,” in F. Graham-Smith, editor, Population: The Complex Reality: A Report of the Population Summit of the World’s Scientific Academies (Royal Society, 1994); and Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Harvard University Press, 2006).

[xliv] As Holmes Rolston III puts it: “Human rights are welcome where they are nonrival with the health of the [ecological] system. But human rights that claim to trump the system are doubtful rights.” Rolston, Conserving Natural Value(Columbia University Press, 1994), page 233.

[xlv] I thank Simon James, Claire Palmer, and Ron Sandler for helping me formulate this argument.

[xlvi] This theme is well developed in Mark Krikorian, The New Case against Immigration: Both Illegal and Legal (Penguin, 2008).

[xlvii] Ryan Pevnick, Philip Cafaro, and Mathias Risse, “An Exchange: The Morality of Immigration,” Ethics & International Affairs 22 (2008): 241–59.

[xlviii] A point emphasized in Martin Cook, “Immigration and Ethics.”

[xlix] Michael Kellett, author’s interview, June 14, 2010. Like Kellett, many environmentalists I interviewed seemed to think about immigration in all-or-nothing terms—letting everyone in or keeping everyone out—rather than as involving a spectrum of possible immigration levels.

[l] Michael Kellett, author’s interview, June 14, 2010.

[li] Martha Nussbaum, For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism(Beacon Press, 1996), pages 5, 14.

[lii] Stephen Nathanson, “In Defense of Moderate Patriotism,” Ethics 99 (1989): 538.

[liii] Michael Walzer, “Spheres of Affection,” in Martha Nussbaum, For Love of Country.

[liv] David Miller, On Nationality (Oxford University Press, 1995). For more on this topic see Philip Cafaro, “Patriotism as an Environmental Virtue,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23 (2010): 185–206.

[lv] Another “border objection” focuses on the negative environmental impacts of building or strengthening Mexican border fences (see, for example, Aaron Flesch et al., “Potential Effects of the United States–Mexico Border Fence on Wildlife,” Conservation Biology 24 (2009): 171–81). I share the worry that these fences may limit wildlife migrations and fragment desert ecosystems. That is one reason my immigration reform proposals focus on limiting illegal employment, rather than on preventing border crossings. If we have an effective system to combat illegal employment, we can go easy on border enforcement. This is a superior approach environmentally, economically, and morally.

[lvi] Anonymous, “Liberalism requires immigration controls,” at The Philosopher’s Beard (http://www.philosophersbeard.org/2011/08/liberalism-requires-immigration.html).

Philip Cafaro
Philip Cafaro
Philip Cafaro is professor of philosophy at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado and an affiliated faculty member of CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability. His main research interests are in environmental ethics, population and consumption issues, and wild lands preservation. Cafaro is the author of Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue and How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States, just published by the University of Chicago Press. He currently serves as President of the International Society for Environmental Ethics and on the editorial board of the journal Biological Conservation.
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  • Juan Carlos López

    With some non-crucial edits, this article could have been titled:
    “Why Progressives Should Support Reducing *Birth-Rates In Less-Educated Communities* In The United States”

    The author presents many valid trade-offs, but fails to examine the magnitude of the impacts at the level of the person – or even the family. In other words, he examines the trade-offs brought about by the issue only qualitatively, or by picking the convenient side of the trade-off and discussing the relevant statistics.

    The author probably has no first-person experience of the change in quality of life a family may experience from moving from a Central American country (say Honduras) to the United States (say a suburb in Nevada). To the author, the magnitude in this improvement in quality of life seems to be comparable to the negative impact of a single-digit decrease in wages for less-educated Americans. This is absolutely wrong.

    The economic and other gains for the average immigrant family are so large that they overshadow the harm on the average less-educated American family; which leads me to believe that there are more humane and ethical arrangements that can be implemented to accommodate the flourishing of the immigrant families while compensating the American families who are being harmed in the labor markets.

    Just based on the point above, this argument fails on its own terms: the premises do not explain the conclusions and policy recommendations.

    Additionally, some of the other premises in this argument smuggle some normative economic and ethical ideas that I categorize as non-progressive. As one example, the idea of an “ecologically sustainable society” is taken an unequivocally good goal. To start, What does it mean to be an “ecologically sustainable society”? At what ecological level should we enforce this sustainability: pre-colonialism, the 1700’s, the 1950s, the 1990’s? How is this idea a progressive value? It is not – it is an anti human progress value. As a second example, the idea that immigrants are in America to compete mostly for scarce economic and ecological resources is dubious at best. Most of the benefit that drives the flourishing of immigrant families comes on the form of non-competitive American institutions, like its rule-of-law, culture, and social contracts.

    I hope that other progressives are not persuaded by this argument – it is not a good one.

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