The liberal case for reducing immigration

18 February 2018

The liberal case for reducing immigration

by Richard D. Lamm and Philip Cafaro, Denver Post, February 16, 2018.

As Congress considers potential changes to immigration policy, the debate seems to be breaking down along familiar lines. Conservatives argue for stricter enforcement of immigration laws and reduced immigration numbers, while liberals urge a new amnesty for undocumented immigrants [illegal aliens] and higher immigration levels.

Yet there are good liberal arguments for combating illegal immigration and reducing historically high legal immigration. Many of these were articulated by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, commonly known as the Jordan Commission, for its chairwoman, liberal icon Barbara Jordan. The Jordan Commission undertook the last comprehensive national study of immigration, publishing its final recommendations in 1997. It would serve the current immigration debate well to take another look at them.

The Jordan Commission began by stating the rationale for making immigration policy in terms of the public good, broadly considered. “We decry hostility and discrimination towards immigrants as antithetical to the traditions and interests of the country,” they wrote. “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 interest.”

A key aspect of this national interest for the commission was the well-being of working-class people already in the country. Jordan observed that “immigrants with relatively low education and skills may compete for jobs and public services with the most vulnerable of Americans, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed.” She noted: “The Commission is particularly concerned about the impact of immigration on the most disadvantaged within our already resident society — inner city youth, racial and ethnic minorities, and recent immigrants who have not yet adjusted to life in the U.S.” For these reasons, the Jordan Commission recommended sharp reductions in the numbers of less-educated, less-skilled immigrants coming into the country through chain migration. This, they reasoned, would help maintain employment opportunities for poorer Americans and decrease downward pressure on their wages.

When it came to numbers, the Jordan Commission recommended an overall cut of 40 percent in total immigration. Given the increase in economic inequality since 1997, and forecasts that advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and other automation technologies could cut millions of blue-collar jobs in coming decades, this recommendation seems more justified than ever — at least for those of us who believe that gross economic inequality is not compatible with a genuinely democratic society.

Like most Coloradans, we also believe in creating an ecologically sustainable society.

Climate change, water scarcity in the Western U.S. and other growing environmental challenges make this ever more imperative. While the Jordan Commission said little about the role of mass immigration in driving U.S. population growth, the reality is that current immigration levels are set to double our population to over 650 million by 2100. At reduced immigration levels, our population instead could stabilize at under 400 million over the next three decades. Immigration policies are thus among our most crucial environmental policies — even though we don’t usually think about them that way.

Ending U.S. population growth is the most important step we could take as a nation to create a sustainable society. While that alone won’t create such a society, without it ecological sustainability will be an ever-receding mirage. More people will, inevitably, undermine all the good work we do to use energy, water and other resources more efficiently. More people will, inevitably, crowd other species off the landscape.

The goal of public policy is to confront new challenges boldly yet realistically. Two great challenges we face in the 21st century are creating an ecologically sustainable society and sharing wealth more fairly among all our citizens. Reducing immigration, and thus reducing economic pressures on less wealthy Americans while stabilizing our population, will go a long way toward helping us meet these challenges successfully.

Richard D. Lamm is an emeritus professor of public policy at the University of Denver and a former governor of Colorado. Philip Cafaro is a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University.

Reprinted with author permission.