The United States Population and Immigration - Testimony to the 107th Congress of the United States, House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, August 2, 2001

The United States Population and Immigration - Testimony to the 107th Congress of the United States, House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, August 2, 2001

By William G. Elder

Originally published in the Social Contract - Winter 2019. Issue theme: "When Liberals Were For Sensible Policies - on the Environment, Immigration, and the National Interest." Reprinted with permission.

The first part of this article is How Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization (SUSPS) Advised Congress in 2001 - An historical perspective followed by the official testimony.

This entire two-part article is available in readable PDF format: How Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization (SUSPS) Advised Congress in 2001 - An historical perspective followed by the official testimony.



My name is Bill (William G.) Elder. I am chairperson of a network of Sierra Club members that has been commonly referred to as Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization or SUSPS. Based on past election results, we represent the views of more than 40 percent of the nearly 700,000 members of the Sierra Club.

I am testifying on behalf of this network of club members. I am not representing the Sierra Club or speaking in my capacity as Population Issue Coordinator of the club's Cascade Chapter.

We thank the Subcommittee for this opportunity to share our views with you — and would like to summarize them briefly before going into more detail.

Executive Summary

The invitation we received indicated the purpose of this hearing is "…to examine the relationship between immigration and the population boom that the U.S. is experiencing." The use of the term "population boom" is absolutely correct. Our 1990-2000 growth of 32.7 million exceeds that of any other census decade in our nation's history — including the 1960-70 peak of the "baby boom" (28.4 million) and the mass immigration period of 1900-10 (16.3 million).

While some economic interests welcome the short-term profits of population booms, we do not. Looking ahead, we see long-term environmental and economic disaster for our country. We've already lost 95 percent of the old growth forests and 50 percent of the wetlands of this nation. We have grown well beyond the energy supply within our borders. Water supplies are declining.

Whether the issue is sprawl, endangered species, wetlands, clean air and water, forest or wilderness preservation — the environmental (and quality of life) impact of adding 33 million people per decade is extremely harmful. It is the equivalent of shoehorning another state the size of California — including all its homes, office buildings, shopping centers, schools and churches, freeways, power, water and food consumption, and waste products — into an already crowded and stressed U.S. environment. And not just doing it once, but then over and over, decade after decade after decade.

The role of immigration in this population boom is crucial. At least 60 percent of our population growth in the '90s (20 million) was from immigration and children born to immigrants. Some put the figure higher, at 70 percent. With no change in immigration legislation, this growth will continue unabated and constitute the sole cause of population growth in the U.S. as the momentum and "echoes" of the baby boom fades away. The Census Bureau projects that unless current trends are changed, U.S. population will double within the lifetime of today's children.

The American people did their part to solve the environmental problems presented by the baby boom. We voluntarily adopted replacement level reproduction averaging two births per woman (although this is still high compared to 1.4 in other developed nations). We have also made some "gains" — albeit very limited — in reducing consumption per capita in areas such as electric power and use of lower polluting technologies.

But Congress, intentionally or not, has completely undone this sacrifice of the American people and our progress towards a stable and sustainable population by creating an "immigration boom." Immigration that averaged about two million per decade over the history of our nation has been expanded four fold by various acts of Congress beginning in 1965. (Since about two million people now leave the U.S. per decade, immigration of this traditional level would represent replacement level immigration.)

This new population boom must be addressed, not only for the sake of the quality of environment and life we pass to future generations of Americans, but also to be responsible to the citizens of the rest of the world who should not have to bear the burden of ever increasing resource consumption of our country.

We urge Congress to enact a comprehensive population policy for the United States that includes an end to U.S. population growth at the earliest possible time through reduction in natural increase (births minus deaths) and net immigration (immigration minus emigration).

Background: Why conservationists/environmentalists are concerned about population

The environmental movement has been guided by the following fundamental formula for years. Environmental damage or loss of a natural resource equals:

  • increase in population
  • multiplied by consumption per capita
  • multiplied by waste/harmful effects per unit of production.

Taking electric power as an example — if U.S. population increases 13 percent (as it did last decade), consumption per capita remains unchanged, and we have to add natural gas and coal fired power plants to accommodate the growth at say a 2 percent increase in air pollution per megawatt produced — we will suffer a 15 percent increase in air pollution. Put another way, to do no additional harm to air quality, all of our businesses and people would need to reduce their use of power by 15 percent. And then, do so again and again if Congress allows population growth to continue unabated in future decades.

Of course, as environmentalists, we think people are entitled to cleaner air (water that we can swim and fish in, etc.), not just the same quality we have now. We also think that many Americans will make sacrifices to accomplish such goals. But we do not think Americans will respond to the call to conserve — only to see the fruits of their sacrifice eaten up by government sponsored population growth.

Taking a longer term view, the U.S. is the third most populated country in the world. With our de facto "growth forever" population policy we are headed in the same direction as the first two — China and India. (The U.S. could hit a billion persons within about 100 years, according to some Census Bureau scenarios.) We see the environmental damage these countries have experienced with only a fraction of the consumption per capita of the U.S. and find this vision of America very sobering.

The Sierra Club itself recognizes the need to stabilize U.S. population because the U.S. population is not environmentally sustainable

The Sierra Club has been calling for stabilizing U.S. population for over 30 years. In 1999, the club's board of directors went even further by calling for reduction in U.S. population, stating: "The Board clarified that Sierra Club favors an eventual decline in U.S. population, since the population has already reached levels that are not environmentally sustainable."

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A 1989 report published by the club's Population Committee summarized the club's traditional position on the environmental damage caused by U.S. population growth and also identified the need to address immigration:

The Sierra Club has long supported the idea that an end to population growth in the U.S. and each country around the world is essential to environmental protection. In particular, Club policy calls for "development by the federal government of a population policy for the United States" and for the U.S. "to end (its) population growth as soon as feasible."

The U.S. population continues to increase by about two and a half million people a year, the result of an excess of births plus in-migrants over deaths plus out-migrants. While population growth rates in less-developed countries are larger, America's numbers and growth have a disproportionate impact on the environment, on natural resources, on global warming, on air and water pollution.

Since 1981 the Club has supported and testified in favor of bills in the House and Senate that would declare population stabilization to be the goal of the country, and that would call for the preparation of an explicit population policy that leads to the achievement of population stabilization. The motto, "Stop At Two" (children), was easily achieved in the 1970s, as average family size in the U.S. dropped below 2 children per woman. Yet this proved insufficient to achieve stabilization due to substantial immigration. The Club never clarified its policy to indicate what specific family size and immigration levels would achieve this goal. This lack of clarity placed the Club in an awkward position, calling for a policy but unable to explain what that policy should be!

The Club's Population Committee began discussing this issue at its April 1988 meeting, taking advantage of the then-newly-released set of Census Bureau population projections that, for the first time, examined the effect of alternative combinations of both fertility and migration. The result of the committee's discussions was an interpretation of Club policy to cover immigration, the first time the Club has dealt with this issue in a quantitative way: Immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S. This interpretation was confirmed by the Club's Conservation Coordinating Committee this past July [1988].

Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization urges Congress to reduce overall immi-gration numbers as needed to stabilize our population as soon as possible

A large number of Sierra Club members feel very strongly that to be environmentally responsible, we must address immigration levels because there is no hope of stabilizing our population at anything approaching a sustainable level without doing so. We have continued in our efforts as individuals despite the neutrality policy on immigration adopted by the Sierra Club Board of Directors in 1996: ("The Sierra Club, its entities, and those speaking in its name will take no position on immigration levels or on policies governing immigration into the United States.")

We (SUSPS) recognize that although different reasons may be given to INS, most people move to the U.S. for economic opportunity and the American style of life and consumption. So there will be immigration pressure unless all countries "achieve" the same level of consumption as the U.S. (which would require two and a half Earths' worth of resources, according to some) or U.S. consumption decreases to those of developing countries. Neither alternative is realistic in the foreseeable future.

As the National Academy of Sciences stated in July 1997: "As long as there is a virtually unlimited supply of potential immigrants, the nation must make choices on how many to admit."

Many other environmentalists support the SUSPS position of balancing both reproduction and immigration to reach a stable and sustainable population level in the U.S.

The following individuals endorsed our position that a comprehensive population policy for the United States needs to be adopted that includes an end to U.S. population growth at the earliest possible time through reduction in natural increase (births minus deaths) and net immigration (immigration minus emigration).

  • Al Bartlett, Professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Anthony Beilenson, U.S. Congressman 1977-1996; 100 percent from League of Conservation Voters; Congressional leader for international family planning
  • John R. Bermingham, ZPG Board member, President Colorado Population Coalition
  • Nicholaas Bloembergen, Nobel Laureate, Harvard University
  • Lester Brown, co-founder and President, Worldwatch Institute; co-author State of the World series
  • William R. Catton, Jr., Professor Emeritus, Washington State University, author Overshoot - The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change
  • Maria Hsia Chang, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Nevada, Reno
  • Benny Chien, Past President, Californians for Population Stabilization; U.C. San Diego School of Medicine
  • Herman Daly, co-founder International Society for Ecological Economics; co-author For the Common Good
  • Elaine del Castillo, founder, Save Our Earth
  • Brock Evans, Executive Director, Endangered Species Coalition; former Sierra Club Associate Executive Director; former Vice-President Audubon Society; former Sierra Club director; John Muir Award (read his statement at
  • Dave Foreman, co-founder Earth First!; former National Sierra Club Director (read his statement at
  • Lindsey Grant, author, Juggernaut; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment and Population Affairs
  • Dorothy Green, founding President, Heal the Bay; President Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council
  • Marilyn Hempel, Executive Director, Population Coalition
  • Huey D. Johnson, former Secretary of Resources, State of California; President, Resource Renewal Institute
  • George Kennan, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union; Presidential Medal of Freedom; Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
  • Doug La Follette, Wisconsin Secretary of State; Board Member, Friends of the Earth
  • Martin Litton, former National Sierra Club Director; John Muir Award; former senior editor Sunset magazine (read his statement There They Go Again at
  • Jan Lundberg, President of Fossil Fuels Policy Action
  • Dan Luten, past President Friends of the Earth; author, Progress Against Growth
  • Tom McMahon, former Executive Director Californians for Population Stabilization
  • Monique Miller, Executive Director, Wild Earth magazine
  • Frank Morris, Sr., former Executive Director, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation
  • Farley Mowat, author, Never Cry Wolf, A Whale for the Killing, Sea of Slaughter
  • Norman Myers, Senior Advisor, United Nations Population Fund; Senior Fellow, World Wildlife Fund
  • Gaylord Nelson, founder Earth Day; U.S. Senator 1963-81; sponsor, Wilderness Act; Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • Tim Palmer, river conservationist; author, California's Threatened Environment
  • Dr. David Pimentel, Professor of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University
  • Marcia Pimentel, Senior Lecturer (ret.) Nutritional Science, Cornell University, author
  • Charles Remington, co-founder Zero Population Growth; Professor of Forestry, Environmental Science and Biology, Yale University
  • John F. Rohe, author, A Bicentennial Malthusian Essay
  • Galen Rowell, nature photographer and author, Mountain Light, Bay Area Wild, The Vertical World of Yosemite
  • Claudine Schneider, U.S. Congress, 1980-90; champion of biodiversity, tropical rainforests, and endangered species
  • Maria Sepulveda, Executive Director, Population-Environment Balance
  • George Sessions, Professor of Philosophy, Sierra College; author, Deep Ecology and Deep Ecology for the 21st Century
  • Beth Curry Thomas, Sierra Club National Population Committee; founder, Planned Parenthood, Hilton Head, South Carolina
  • Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior 1961-69; Counselor Grand Canyon Trust; author, The Quiet Crisis
  • Casey Walker, Publisher, Wild Duck Review
  • Paul Watson, co-founder Greenpeace; founder and President Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
  • Carole Wilmoth, Past President Audubon Council of Texas
  • E.O. Wilson, Conservation Biologist, Harvard University; author, Diversity of Life
    Affiliations for identification purposes only

Among other environmental organizations, the Wilderness Society has exhibited the foresight and responsibility of adopting a U.S. population policy that calls for addressing immigration as part of achieving a stable population. As stated by the chairman of President Clinton's Population and Consumption Task Force: "We believe that reducing current immigration levels is a necessary part of working toward sustainability in the United States."

Myths propagated by others to mislead the public and policy makers on the relationship between U.S. population and the environment need to be recognized as such

One myth we hear often is that population is a global problem and we should only address it globally. Of course overpopulation is a global problem. But it is also a national problem in China, India, the U.S., and many other countries. We do live in one world, but borders and governments are relevant. We make decisions as nations, and will continue to do so. The U.S. government and people have a responsibility to be willing to stabilize our population, just as we need to look to the people and governments of China, India, et al., to do the same.

A second common myth is that the number of immigrants doesn't affect the U.S. environment because they are poor, live in inner cities, and take the bus etc. So, they don't consume, participate in sprawl, or clog the roads and pollute the air like everyone else.

This stereotyping of immigrants is inappropriate. Many people who move to the U.S. are not poor. They live in the suburbs and consume at American levels just like anyone else. Secondly, to the extent that some immigrants are lower income, they and their children aspire to the American standard of living and consumption, and generally achieve it in the second generation if not the first. In this respect lower income immigrants have a similar effect to that of births. Babies don't consume a lot either — but by the time they are young adults they certainly do.


Respected organizations such as the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society and many environmental leaders recognize that continued growth in U.S. population and our consumption is decimating the natural resources that we and future generations need to live healthy and satisfying lives. Open space, forests, wetlands, water availability, air quality, and endangered animal species are continually lost to satisfy the demands of a burgeoning human population. As responsible citizens of the U.S. we must act now on this issue that has such far reaching and serious consequences for future generations as well as ourselves.

We urge Congress to enact a comprehensive population policy for the United States that includes an end to U.S. population growth at the earliest possible time through reduction in natural increase (births minus deaths) and net immigration (immigration minus emigration)....

Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization is a network of members of the Sierra Club numbering in the thousands. We are guided by a steering committee consisting of long-time Sierra Club members.

We are concerned about the natural world being left to future generations at home and abroad. As with all priority Sierra Club programs, the first responsibility is to solve a U.S. problem, in this case that of U.S. population growth and consumption in accordance with "think globally, act locally." Although we are aware the U.S. is part of a world community, we also recognize the Club's relatively limited influence abroad.

We believe a comprehensive U.S. population policy must be a part of the Club's Global Population Program [for stabilizing world population]. We support a return to 1970-1996 Sierra Club U.S. population policy that advocates zero population growth, where births equal deaths and immigration equals emigration, or any reasonable combination that will achieve U.S. population stabilization as quickly as possible.

We reaffirm the 1970 Sierra Club policy "That we must find, encourage, and implement at the earliest possible time the necessary policies, attitudes, social standards, and actions that will, by voluntary and humane means consistent with human rights and individual conscience, bring about the stabilization of the population first of the United States and then of the world." (Sierra Club Board of Directors, 1970)

Our concern is with total numbers, not with any group or country of origin. We argue for an end to U.S. growth in numbers and consumption simply based on environmental limits. We advocate any reasonable combination of natural increase and immigration that can achieve a sustainable U.S. population.

As conservationists and loyal members, we work within the Sierra Club, advocating that it must:

  • Pro-actively inform, promote, and lobby to support policies and programs to end U.S. population growth.
  • Explicitly recognize rapid U.S. population growth among the causes of sprawl.
  • Fully support other organizations and programs focused on U.S. population stabilization.
  • Support reduction of consumption, especially in the U.S. and other high-consuming societies. Ending U.S. population growth in no way forecloses efforts to reduce U.S. consumption. Both are necessary as stated by the President's Council on Sustainable Development (1996).
  • Support incentives that encourage family planning in the U.S. and worldwide.
  • Support elimination of pro-natalist financial incentives.

Please see our website at for additional information.

About the author

William G. Elder is a retired health care management consultant. He is editor of the website in which conservation leaders urge Congress to stabilize U.S. population at a sustainable level. He was the chair of the SUSPS steering committee at the time the testimony was written and presented.