The Chronicle Review

The Progressive Case for Reducing Immigration

John Moore, Getty Images

Nationally, immigrants account for 24 percent of workers in construction but only 8 percent of teachers and college professors.
January 19, 2015

I’m a philosophy professor specializing in ethics and political philosophy, and like many of my fellow academics, I’m a political progressive. I value economic security for workers and their families, and support a much more equal distribution of wealth, strong and well-enforced environmental-protection laws, and an end to racial discrimination in the United States. I want to maximize the political power of common citizens and limit the influence of large corporations. My political heroes include the three Roosevelts (Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor), Rachel Carson, and Martin Luther King Jr.

I also want to reduce immigration into the United States. If this combination strikes you as odd, you aren’t alone. Friends, political allies—even my mother the social worker—shake their heads (or worse) when I bring up the subject. I’ve been called a "nativist" and a "racist" (thankfully not by Mom), been picketed on my own campus, and had close academic friendships strained.

I can understand why progressives embrace mass immigration (though that embrace is shared, I can’t help pointing out, by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal). This is not an easy issue for us, because vital interests are at stake, and no one set of policies can accommodate all of them. Consider two stories from among the hundreds I’ve heard while researching this subject:

It’s lunchtime on a sunny October day, and I’m talking with Javier Morales, an electrician’s assistant, at a home-construction site in Longmont, Colo., near Denver. Javier studied to be an electrician in Mexico but could not find work after completing school. You have to pay corrupt officials up to two years’ wages just to start a job, he explains. "Too much corruption," he says, a refrain I find repeated often by Mexican immigrants.

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 has a wife (also here illegally) and two girls, ages 7 and 3. He misses his family back in Mexico, but to his father’s entreaties to come home, he replies that he needs to consider his own family now. One of the things Javier likes most about the United States is that we have rules that are fairly enforced, unlike in Mexico, where a poor man lives at the whim of corrupt officials.

Still, he thinks that the presence of too many immigrants lowers wages in construction for everyone—including previous immigrants like him.

Javier’s boss, Andy, thinks that immigration levels are too high. 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. Andy is trying to help him get legal residency.

I interviewed Javier a few years ago, at a time when the federal government was increasing immigration enforcement—including a well-publicized raid at a nearby meatpacking plant that caught hundreds of workers in the country illegally—leading to a lot of worry among such immigrants. Javier and his wife used to go to restaurants or stores without a second thought; now they are sometimes afraid to go out. "Sometimes," Javier says, "I dream in my heart, ‘If you no want to give me paper for residence, or whatever, just give me permit for work.’ "

A few months later I’m back in Longmont, eating a 6:30 breakfast at a cafe out by the interstate with Tom Kenney. Fit and alert, Tom looks to be in his mid-40s. Born and raised in Denver, he has been spraying custom finishes on drywall for 25 years and has had his own company since 1989. At one point, he employed 12 people running three trucks. Now it’s just him and his wife. "Things have changed," he says.

Although it has since cooled off, residential and commercial construction was booming when I interviewed Tom. Even so, he says, the main "thing that has changed" is the number of immigrants in construction. When he got into the business, it was almost all native-born workers. Today the informal estimates I hear from contractors of the number of immigrant workers in Northern Colorado range from 50 percent to 70 percent of the total construction work force. 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.

Tom is an independent contractor, bidding on individual jobs. "Guys are coming in with bids that are impossible," he says. "No way they can be as efficient in time and materials as me." The difference has to be in the cost of labor: Insurance, workmen’s compensation, and employment taxes add substantially to the cost of legally employed workers. With the lower wages that immigrants in the country illegally are often willing to take, there’s plenty of opportunity for competing contractors to underbid Tom and still make a tidy profit. He no longer goes after the big construction projects, and jobs in 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.’ "

In that way, some trades in construction are turning into the equivalent of migrant labor in agriculture.

Do immigrants perform jobs Americans don’t want to do? No, Tom replies. "My job is undesirable. 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 until recently. Now he 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," he tells me. "You would come here."

Any immigration policy will have winners and losers. So claims the Harvard University economist George J. Borjas, a leading authority on the economic impacts of immigration. My interviews with Javier and Tom suggest why Borjas is right.

If we enforce our immigration laws, then good people like Javier and his family will have their lives turned upside down. And if we reduce the numbers of legal immigrants—contrary to popular belief, most immigration into the United States is legal immigration, under Congressionally mandated levels, currently 1.1 million annually—then good people in Mexico (and Guatemala, and Vietnam, and the Philippines … ) will have to forgo opportunities to create better lives here.

On the other hand, if we fail to enforce our laws or repeatedly grant amnesty to people who, like Javier, are in the country illegally, then we forfeit the ability to set limits on immigration. And if we increase immigration, then many hard-working men and women, like Tom and his wife and children, will continue to see their economic fortunes decline.

Neither of those options is appealing, particularly when you talk to the people most directly affected by our immigration policies. Still, they appear to be the options we have: Enforce our immigration laws, or don’t enforce them; reduce immigration levels, increase them, or hold them about where they are. How should we choose?

Acknowledging trade-offs—economic, environmental, social—is the beginning of wisdom. We should not exaggerate conflicts or imagine them where they don’t exist, but neither can we ignore them.

There are a number of other choices that we must confront: Cheaper prices for new houses versus good wages for construction workers. Faster economic growth and growing economic inequality versus slower growth and a more egalitarian society. Increasing ethnic diversity in America versus stabilizing our population. Accommodating more people versus preserving wildlife habitat and productive farmlands. Creating more opportunities for foreigners to work in the United States versus pressuring foreign elites to share wealth and opportunities with their fellow citizens in their own countries.

The best approaches to immigration policy would make such trade-offs explicit, minimize them where possible, and choose fairly between them when necessary. Which brings me back to the progressive argument for reducing immigration into the United States.

Consider first the economic impact of current immigration policies, starting with some key numbers. Since 1965, Congress has increased immigration levels half a dozen times, raising legal immigration into the United States from 290,000 to approximately 1.1 million people annually. That is more than four times as high as any other country. Crucially, post-1965 immigration has been concentrated among less-skilled, less-educated workers. According to a study by Borjas, from 1980 to 1995, immigration increased the number of college graduates in the American work force by 4 percent while increasing the number of workers without high-school diplomas by 21 percent.

The results have been predictable. In economic sectors with large percentages of immigrant workers, wages have been driven down and benefits have been slashed. Employers have broken unions, often helped by immigrant replacement workers. Long-term unemployment among poorer Americans has greatly increased. Mass immigration is not the sole cause of those trends, but it appears to have played an important role. Borjas contends that during the 1970s and 1980s, each immigration-driven 10-percent increase in the number of workers in a particular field in the United States decreased wages in that field by an average of 3.5 percent. More recently, studying the impact of immigration on African-Americans, Borjas and colleagues found that a 10-percent immigrant-induced increase in the supply of a particular skill group reduced the wages of black workers in that group by 4.0 percent, lowered the employment rate of black men by 3.5 percentage points, and increased the incarceration rate of blacks by almost a percentage point.

Significantly, immigration-driven competition has been strongest among working-class Americans, while wealthier, better-educated citizens have mostly been spared strong downward pressure on their incomes. According to an analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies, immigrants account for 35 percent of workers in building cleaning and maintenance, but only 10 percent in the corporate and financial sectors; 24 percent of workers in construction, but only 8 percent of teachers and college professors; 23 percent among food-preparation workers, but only 7 percent among lawyers. No wonder wealthy Americans and the bipartisan political elite that largely serves their interests typically support high levels of immigration.

Our era of gross economic inequality, stagnating wages, and persistently high unemployment among less-educated workers would seem like a terrible time to expand immigration. Yet the immigration-reform bill passed by a Democratic Senate in 2013 would have nearly doubled legal immigration levels. President Obama’s recent executive actions to regularize the status of workers in the country illegally respond to genuine humanitarian concerns. Nevertheless, like previous amnesties, they are likely to encourage more illegal immigration by poor but desperate job seekers.

A few years ago, I suggested that progressives truly concerned about growing inequality and the economic well-being of American workers—including recent immigrants—should consider reducing immigration, at least in the short term. Congress can decrease immigration levels as well as raise them, I said. Perhaps a moratorium on nonessential immigration was in order, until the official unemployment rate declined below 5 percent and stayed there for several years, or until real wages for the bottom half of American workers increased by 25 percent or more. While there is debate about the role of immigration reduction in gains by unions, tightening up labor markets after World War II did coincide with the golden age of the American labor movement, a time of high union membership and strong gains in wages and benefits for American workers. It seems worth a try today, particularly given the paucity of other proposals to address the intractable problem of inequality.

I started thinking about limiting immigration 25 years ago, as a graduate student studying American history at the University of Georgia and a budding environmental activist working to kill a dam project in the Southeast. (I still recall my sinking feeling as I read, toward the start of the environmental-impact statement on the Oconee River flood-control project, the 50-year population projections for northeast Georgia. Was it possible that our region’s population was going to grow that fast? And, if so, how could we argue effectively against building a new reservoir? (We couldn’t. The reservoir got built.)

Since that time, I’ve worked on many environmental campaigns, typically at the local or state levels. In every instance—sprawl, destructive off-road vehicle use, water pollution, ski-area expansion, you name it—population growth was worsening the problem we sought to remedy. And in every instance, we decided not to talk about population matters—either because we thought it would be too controversial, or because we couldn’t identify any accessible levers through which to influence population policies.

If they think about population at all, most Americans see it as a problem for the "developing world." But at 320 million people, the United States is the third-most-populous nation on earth, and given our high per-capita consumption rates and outsize global ecological footprint (carbon emissions, demands on ocean fisheries, and the like), a good case can be made that we are the world’s most overpopulated country right now. Furthermore, our 1 percent annual growth rate—higher than many developing nations—has America on track to double its population by the end of this century.

Whether we look at air pollution or wildlife-habitat losses, excessive water withdrawals from our rivers or greenhouse-gas emissions, Americans are falling far short of creating an ecologically sustainable society—and our large and growing numbers appear to be a big part of the problem. Take sprawl. Defined as new resource-intensive development on the fringes of existing urban areas, sprawl has many causes, including transportation policies that favor building roads over mass transit and zoning laws that encourage "leapfrog" developments far beyond existing developed areas. But according to a thorough study by Roy Beck, Leon Kolankiewicz, and Steven Camarota on the causes of sprawl in the United States, population growth accounts for more than half of the problem. While reducing per-capita land use is important in reducing sprawl, we cannot simply ignore its most powerful driver: ever more "capitas."

A similar logic appears to hold for most of our other major environmental problems. I live in Colorado, and my conservation focus has shifted to the rivers of the arid West. Over the past 40 years, declines in per-capita water use in the western United States have been matched by equivalent increases in population. With the low-hanging conservation "fruit" (fixing leaks in urban areas, lining drainage ditches in rural areas, etc.) already picked and population continuing to increase, pressure is growing to build more dams and siphon more water from already overallocated rivers, including the Cache la Poudre River, running through Fort Collins. I love the Cache, and so do many people here; my town has spent millions of dollars to buy land and preserve parks and other open space along the river. If our population wasn’t growing, no one would be proposing a big new reservoir; in fact, there remain opportunities to save water through conservation and put more of it back in the river, where it belongs. But an ever-growing population will take such conservation measures, swallow them with hardly a thank you, and demand more. At some point, that means new dams and reservoirs and a dried-out Cache la Poudre River.

Such examples suggest that we Americans cannot meet our important environmental challenges without stabilizing our population. So I’ve argued that American environmentalists should support significant reductions in immigration. I expected to be attacked from the right, and I was. More surprising have been the assaults from the left.

Thankfully, once we actually begin discussing the issues, civility usually reigns, and considerable common ground can be found. Still, I sometimes find it hard to get past people’s resentment toward me for bringing up what is obviously an uncomfortable topic. I guess I can understand that; as the grandson of immigrants, I’m made uncomfortable by the topic of reducing immigration. But having spent the three decades of my adult life watching organized labor’s power erode and environmentalists tread water, I’m tired of losing.

The good news is that after more than two centuries of continuous population growth, in recent decades we have freely chosen a path toward population stabilization. From a peak of 3.5 children per woman at the height of the baby boom, in the mid-1950s, fertility rates in the United States have declined to 1.9 today: slightly below "replacement rate" for a nation with modern sanitation and health care. That means that if we reduced immigration rates to the levels that prevailed 40 years ago, America’s population would very likely peak and then stabilize by midcentury.

The bad news? Just as Americans have chosen to cut back on childbearing, succeeding Congresses have increased immigration, thus keeping our country on a path of rapid population growth. Consider three alternative immigration scenarios—250,000 immigrants annually (roughly the rate around the middle of the 20th century), 1.25 million (the current rate for legal and other immigrants), and 2.25 million (about the level that would result under the Senate’s recent reform bill). At fertility and mortality rates projected by the Census Bureau to 2100, we could see modest population growth (to 379 million people), an increase of more than 200 million Americans (to 524 million), or doubling of our population (to 639 million).

Given Americans’ failure to create a sustainable society of 320 million people, creating one with hundreds of millions more inhabitants is even more unlikely. And even if we manage to stumble to the year 2100 with 500 million, 600 million, or 700 million people, our unpromising trajectory with continued mass immigration would be further immense population growth in the following century.

Fortunately, such growth, like the flooded labor markets, is not inevitable. We need to remember that the American people have voluntarily chosen to stabilize our population, through our choices to have fewer children than our parents and grandparents did. We can lock in that achievement by reducing immigration rates. 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 achievements rather than reach new ones.

An environmental movement with the demographic wind at its back would be much more likely to secure significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, create new national parks and protected areas, and in general move America toward real sustainability. Similarly, a labor movement working within a context of tight labor markets could organize workers more effectively, and negotiate wages and benefits from a position of strength.

The economic and environmental arguments for reducing immigration in the United States seem clear enough. Why, then, do so many progressives advocate for more immigration? As I’ve learned during dozens of interviews with progressive leaders, the reasons are complex and reflect both the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary American progressivism.

On the positive side, progressives are compassionate. We care about the well-being of would-be immigrants, many of whom are poor and downtrodden. We do not want to tell good people like Javier Morales that they cannot come to America and make better lives for themselves and their families.

We also value diversity. We appreciate the many contributions that immigrants have made and continue to make to American life, and we value the idea of the United States as an open and evolving society.

On the negative side, though, we progressives share our fellow Americans’ lack of discipline and inability to think clearly about limits. The answer to any problem tends to be "more," even when it should be obvious that the pursuit of more is causing the problem or making it worse. We dislike economic inequality, for example, but join our fellow citizens in clamoring for faster economic growth—even though under a status quo in which 90 percent of income gains go to the wealthiest 1 percent, more growth just means more inequality. We want to create an ecologically sustainable society, prevent dangerous climate change, and share the landscape generously with other species—but not if it means curtailing anyone’s freedom of movement or economic opportunities, or our own consumption. The result is a kind of flabby generosity, in which generalized feelings of good will take the place of focused and effective political action.

Then there is the R word. Progressives are easily frightened by accusations of racism. Immigration debates within the Sierra Club have shown that such accusations can silence or marginalize members concerned about population growth. In my own experience, I’ve found that critics avoid the substance of my arguments, dismissing them as a cover for nefarious intentions. (Philosophers have been teaching our students for at least 2,500 years that ad hominem arguments are fallacious—but, you know, they still sometimes work.) Progressives’ commendable sensitivity to racial concerns can keep us from thinking through what a just and sustainable immigration policy would actually look like.

We need an honest and truly comprehensive debate about immigration and population matters—one that considers Javier and Tom and their grandchildren, along with the many other species that have a right to continued existence. We need to face limits realistically, consider the trade-offs involved in different policy choices, and ask which ones will best serve the common good over the long term. Current immigration policies are ill suited to create an economically just, ecologically sustainable society. We can do better.

Philip Cafaro is a professor of philosophy and an affiliated faculty member in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at Colorado State University at Fort Collins. His book How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration Into the United States will be published this month by the University of Chicago Press.