Malthus Lives in Anti-Immigrant Ads


Since the rampant anti-Chinese xenophobia of the late 1800s that led to our modern immigration laws, debate about immigration has been a wellspring of racism. Last month an advertisement in the New York Times (also printed in The Nation magazine) linking high gas prices, population control, and immigration proved that immigration restrictionists have not forgotten the tired arguments of the past.

The ad, paid for by "America's Leadership Team for Long Range Population-Immigration-Resource Planning," shows a traffic-clogged highway above the caption "One of America's Most Popular Pastimes." It argues that traffic jams will only get worse as the nation's population grows and that 82 percent of growth between 2005 and 2050 will result from immigration. "[Q]uality of life for future generations will be gone unless we take action today," the ad urges, leaving the unmistakable impression that the answer to our traffic problems--and to the "stress with our schools, our emergency rooms, our public infrastructure, even our water resources"--is to be found in ending, or at least seriously curtailing, immigration.

The ad is plagued by two fatal misrepresentations. First, the study it cites, the Pew Hispanic Center's latest population projections report, notes that almost half the immigration-related population growth will consist of children born in this country to immigrant parents, and not from newcomers. These children are automatically entitled to citizenship because the Constitution says so. The Fourteenth Amendment couldn't be any clearer: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside." Sure, there is legal precedent for declaring certain groups of people as not "persons" -- the infamous Dred Scott, for example, or the line of cases that limited citizenship to "white" people and then set out to carefully mark the contours of that label -- but do we really want to go there yet again?

Second, it is ludicrous to suggest that the country's traffic jammed highways are caused by immigration. The great critic of urban planning Lewis Mumford must be shouting from his grave the same lessons that he taught in the 1950s and 1960s: "The fatal mistake we have been making is to sacrifice every other form of private transportation to the private motorcar . . . . we need a better transportation system, not just more highways."

Even to suggest that immigrants are the cause of transportation congestion is beyond disingenuous; rather, it reveals the lengths to which nativists now � like nativists of generations past � are willing to invent and distort facts for the sake of irrational tirades. Highway traffic is not caused by too many people trying to go about their lives.

Every day the true cause is made clear to me as I look down onto the interstate highway that divides my neighbor from downtown Providence -- the reason we have traffic problems is that we have too many cars. As Mumford warned, that's not the result of individual choice as much as it is the result of decades of government abandonment of public mass transit. My own state's public bus system is relatively remarkable. I can get to the beaches of southern Rhode Island (halfway across the state), for example, for $1.50. But despite record high ridership, high gas prices and an aging bus fleet mean that the bus system is still struggling to stay afloat -- even with another fare hike coming soon. And, like public transportation systems across the country, there appears to be little help coming from state and city governments anytime soon.

This is not to say that there is no link between traffic and immigrants. There is. Like poor people and people of color generally, immigrants bear the brunt of traffic-related pollution and highway-related neighborhood displacement. The environmental justice movement has long argued that poor people and people of color are more likely to suffer respiratory and other medical problems because of the poor air quality near highways. And as anyone who has traveled on an interstate highway through a major city knows, highways are more often than not built straight through working class neighborhoods and areas where people of color live.

Though these misrepresentations are troubling, the most disturbing aspect of the ad is the barely concealed racism embedded in its references to population control. Our cherished pastime of jumping into private cars and driving for relaxation is at risk (literally stopped), the ad implies, because immigrants, especially those pesky "Hispanics," just won't stop reproducing.

Thomas Malthus would be proud. The eighteenth century Englishman is famous for writing about the danger of overpopulation, especially food shortage, as it related to poverty. The most significant argument Malthus put forth is as simple as it is disturbing--that overpopulation was an enormous cause of poverty and that disasters such as war and famine were nature's method of controlling population growth.

This man, once described as "a prophet of doom" by an editor of his work, has had his perverted logic experience periodic revivals. In the early twentieth century, for example, his argument provided a suitable foundation for eugenics advocacy of birth control as a solution to poverty. Malthusian eugenics, popular among liberal reformers at the turn of the twentieth century, even made its way to the Supreme Court in an opinion by the highly respected Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. In Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court ruled that forced sterilization of "the daughter of a feeble minded mother . . . and the mother of an illegitimate feeble-minded child . . ." was constitutional because "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind."

The purveyors of this month's ad seem to agree. Even if it were possible or desirable to eliminate immigration entirely, the highways would still be clogged and our public infrastructure stressed. At least until governments follow Mumford's advice. What's more, to call for an end to immigration as a solution to overpopulation and traffic jams is Malthusian logic at its most racist and simplistic. In our interdependent world, it's of no use to rehash these tired arguments.

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