News & Politics

Round Population Numbers Fuel the Immigration Scare

Even though anti-immigration activists like to trot out population figures to support closing the borders, we should really be concerned with the number of cars -- not people -- in the U.S.
If there's one thing the media loves, it's a nice round number. Unless you had chosen this week to play Henry Thoreau, you probably noticed that the United States population passed the 300 million mark at some point in the last few days. Local newspapers rushed to declare one of their own the 300 millionth soul and nearly every media outlet from NPR to CNN to The News Hour devoted air time to explain to the their viewers What It All Means.

All the attention brought into high relief just how absent demography is from our routine political discussions. Well, with some notable exceptions. On October 18, I got an e-mail from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) with the subject "300 Million and Counting!" -- complete with the obligatory black-and-white photo of a crowded city street at rush hour: Hell is other people. "Can the U.S. sustain this continued increase in its population or will this growth suffocate a once thriving nation?," the e-mail asked. It wasn't really a question.

It's a strange quirk of the anti-immigration movement, that while the base is animated largely by xenophobia, the leadership, like FAIR, Numbers USA and others are driven by the far more esoteric concern of population growth. Much of this is the legacy of John Tanton, the eccentric, brilliant opthamologist from Petoskey, Michigan who founded FAIR and pretty much single-handedly started the modern anti-immigration movement. Tanton's worldview was formed at a time when demography was a major concern, thanks to Paul Ehrlich's landmark book The Population Bomb, which predicted the world was about to breed itself out of existence. As the United States' native-born birthrate leveled off in the 1960s, Tanton turned his attention to the source of the nation's continued growth, which was propelled by immigrants and their offspring. The rest is history.

So that explains why Dan Stein, head of FAIR, was everywhere last week, from MSNBC to the op-ed pages of USA Today making the case that 300 million was an ominous milestone and the culprit was our porous borders. For FAIR, the rare spotlight on population growth was a golden opportunity to make their case. "Overcrowded schools, congested highways, environmental stresses: We are a nation paving over its wildernesses while depending on our enemies for vital resources," Stein wrote in an editorial in USA Today. "Why? Because Americans have been blindsided by a government-mandated mass immigration program that's fueling this nation's runaway population growth. This growth was neither planned nor expected, but we feel the consequences every day."

Stein's partly right. There is little official policy that sets out an ideal U.S. population, but images of crowded streets and traffic jams aside, the fact remains that the US is still a very big place, and relatively sparsely populated. With thirty-two people per square kilometer, the U.S. ranks 172nd in the world in density. Amsterdam and South Korea, just to name two, are each more than ten times as dense.

But of the world's richest nations, the United States is also the only one with a robustly growing population. Most of Europe has been caught in a much-discussed population drought, a birthrate so far below replacement rates that countries like Italy and Spain could lose half their population in the next fifty years. But thanks largely to higher birth rates of America's immigrants, the U.S. faces no such problems.

Is that a good thing? There are arguments on both sides, but ultimately it's the wrong question. Some in the anti-immigration movement point out the environmental effects of the increased resource consumption come from increased population, but if that's your concern, there's no reason to wall off the United States and let, say, Mexico slide into environmental ruin. And while it's true that once people come to the US they burn a lot more carbon, that logic would also imply that it's a good idea to keep the rest of the world poor, which doesn't quite seem fair. The fact is that population growth isn't really a problem for the US. As one environmentalist told me, "It's not that we have too many people -- we have too many cars."

Of course, you can't very well win elections or raise much money demonizing cars. Groups like FAIR figured that out long ago.
Christopher Hayes is a contributing editor of In These Times and the Chicago editor of Just Cause magazine.