In This Review

How Many Is Too Many?: The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States
How Many Is Too Many?: The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States
By Philip Cafaro
University of Chicago Press, 2015, 336 pp

Although supporters of immigration are reluctant to acknowledge it, most in the United States would like to see less immigration than it has at the present. The nation admits roughly one million legal immigrants each year, more than any other country in the world. Over the past decade, polls taken by Gallup consistently show that 35 to 50 percent of Americans say that they would like to see immigration reduced, while the number favoring higher immigration has never exceeded 23 percent. But decreasing the numbers is an issue that is rarely on the agenda in Washington. There are heated—and so far, inconclusive—debates over whether the United States should admit more highly-skilled immigrants, how to further reduce illegal immigration, and whether to legalize the more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the country. Aside from a few lonely exceptions such as Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama who wants a slowdown in what he calls “surging migration beyond any historical precedent,” there are no real champions for lowering immigration.

There should clearly be a market then for a carefully reasoned argument in favor of significant reductions in immigration. Unfortunately, Philip Cafaro’s How Many Is Too Many? is not that book. Cafaro, a philosopher and professor of environmental sustainability at Colorado State University, deals with the right issues: Any immigration policy, he points out, will have winners and losers. No sensible policy can emerge unless some reasonable effort is made to acknowledge and balance the interests of all sides. Cafaro’s prescriptions, however, are no help in getting there, and his vision for the future is one that few Americans would share.

Given the level of popular support for reduced immigration, it is odd that the restrictionist movement has yet to find a coherent philosophy. Instead, it seems to serve up what can only be described as a series of conjectures about the nature of modern immigration: Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington notes correctly that immigration from Mexico today is still smaller proportionally than immigration from Germany and Ireland a century ago, but also suggests that Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking immigrants are unusually resistant to assimilation. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (the intellectual locus of restrictionism), wrote The New Case Against Immigration, which builds on Huntington’s assertion to argue that advances in communications technologies allow immigrants to remain in contact with the language and cultures of their former countries, and have thus eroded the assimilation process. For this and other reasons, Krikorian argues, “mass immigration is incompatible with a modern society.” Oxford University researcher Paul Collier’s book, Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World, makes the claim that migrants necessarily carry their cultures with them, and that those fleeing poor countries therefore export their “dysfunctional social models” to wealthier countries they now call home. Each argument begins with the premise that immigrants today are “not like us” and unlikely to become so. But the United States was built by diverse immigrants who melded together in the amazing variety of ways came to embody the nation, and there is, at best, weak evidence that this has changed with the current immigration wave.

US Immigration and the Environment
Illegal migrants from Guatemala, deported from the U.S., hold their brown bag lunches as they wait to provide their particulars to authorities at an air force base in Guatemala City, March 19, 2015.
Jorge Dan Lopez / Reuters

Cafaro’s argument has a different starting point: How many people does the United States want within the country? Anyone who has traveled in Asia knows that this is quite a reasonable question. One of the great joys of life in the United States is how uncrowded it remains in so many places. When one tires of the traffic jams in Washington D.C., for example, West Virginia, with its clean air in a blissfully underpopulated countryside, is just a few hours away. Cafaro argues that to build and maintain a fairer, more livable country—in particular, one with less income inequality, less use of natural resources, and greater respect for other living creatures—much lower levels of immigration are necessary. Under current projections, the U.S. population will reach roughly 500 million by 2100, an increase of about 180 million people due nearly entirely to immigration. Cafaro wants instead an immediate halt to all immigration until unemployment falls below five percent and remains there for three years, after which future legal immigration would be limited to no more than 300,000 people per year, which would stabilize the U.S. population at fewer than 400 million by the end of the century.

It is tempting to write Cafaro off as the latest in a long line of neo-Malthusians whose predictions of population pressures have missed their mark. Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb whom Cafaro cites approvingly in his own book, famously lost a $10,000 wager to economist Julian Simon, who accurately predicted that the cost of natural resources would decline due to technological advancement, despite a growing population. But this is actually where Cafaro finds his strongest ground: He does not question that technology can reduce the environmental impact of human beings. Solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles will all reduce use of carbon fuels, for example. But there certain resources that human beings inevitably need and want more of, especially water and land, as the current drought in California has brought home. Across the country, the inexorable push for new housing has led people into mountains and wetlands while crowding out other living creatures that have nowhere else to go. It is difficult to argue with his conclusion: “You would be hard pressed to find a single environmental problem that would not be easier to solve with a smaller population than a larger one.”

The rest of the book, however, is on much shakier ground. Cafaro devotes two early chapters to the economics of immigration, citing familiar (and disturbing) statistics on growing income inequality and wage stagnation for all but the most highly educated. He concludes—based almost entirely on the work of Harvard’s George Borjas and the Center for Immigration Studies—that immigration is the main culprit for these woes, although the consensus among economists is that the negative wage effects of immigration are either very small or non-existent, even on Americans with less than a high school education. Cafaro makes no mention of trade, technology, the decline of unions, runaway pay packages for CEOs, or any of the other usual culprits cited for rising inequality. Nor does he look beyond American shores for lessons. Wage growth has been far more sluggish in Japan, for example, despite extremely low levels of immigration. Germany, which Cafaro cites approvingly for controlling immigration (despite hosting the third-highest number of migrants worldwide), has seen a similar wage slowdown.

Environmental lifeboat ethics might work when it comes to conserving water, trees, bears, and wolves, but it will do nothing to save humanity from an overheated planet.
How Many Is Too Many? offers a particularly unusual economic case against immigration because, as Cafaro makes clear, he disapproves of economic growth. Solid evidence of immigration’s positive effects on economic growth would only make him more likely to oppose it. Following the “zero growth” philosophy that was briefly popularized in the early 1970s by books like E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, Cafaro argues that economic expansion simply results in environmental degradation, urban sprawl, and mass unhappiness. But to paraphrase his claim about population and the environment, one would be hard pressed to find a single distributional problem that would not be easier to solve with a growing economy than a zero-growth one.

Where does the rest of the world fit in as the United States transitions to this low growth, low immigration future? Here, Cafaro moves to what can only be called willful distortion. He claims, for example, that through falling birth rates, Americans have chosen to have a smaller population, while citizens in developing countries have made different choices and should therefore live with the consequences. But even a cursory study of demography shows that, with a few exceptions such as China due to its one-child policy, birth rates are largely a function of a country’s wealth. As income rises, birth rates fall. In Mexico, for example, the birth rate has dropped from close to seven children per woman in the early 1960s to just over two today, such that the issue in Mexico may soon be labor shortages rather than job scarcity.

US Immigration and the Environment 3
Cuban migrants trying to reach the U.S. coast in Florida ride in and on a 1951 Chevrolet truck, converted into a marine vessel with air-filled drums for flotation and a propeller driven off the driveshaft for propulsion, July 16, 2003
U.S. Coast Guard-Handout / Reuters
Cafaro also claims that the United States provides a population-based safety valve for other nations, saying, “America’s permissive immigration policies appear to enable demographic and ecological irresponsibility and continuing social injustice in these countries.” Cutting off immigration would not force other countries to lower their birth rates, but “[the United States] can at least stop encouraging their demographic excesses.” He cites Guatemala, where the birth rate remains near four, as a prime example of irresponsibility, while overlooking horrific violence that serves as the primary driver of emigration. Guatemala has the sixth highest murder rate in the world, much of it at the hands of drug gangs that are serving the U.S. appetite for cocaine and heroin. A brief visit to North Korea where, by his logic, restrictions on emigration should therefore have built a democratic paradise, would have enhanced Cafaro’s research.

The book’s least defensible claims are, ironically, on an issue that the author should know well: global warming. Cafaro is especially angered by the large U.S. contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. His solution, accordingly, is to make sure there are fewer U.S. residents, thereby reducing the number of energy hogs. But Cafaro is certainly aware, and notes in passing, that China has surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and that India is gaining ground quickly. Less immigration would reduce U.S. emissions, but will do little to address the broader global problem. Cafaro hopes that by embracing a zero growth, low energy future, the United States could become a model for other countries to emulate. This, however, is unlikely: It is one thing to embrace zero growth in a country where per capita income is $55,000 (as in the United States) and quite another in a country where it is just $5,000 (in India, for example). Environmental lifeboat ethics might work when it comes to conserving water, trees, bears, and wolves, but would do nothing to save humanity from an overheated planet.

The nearly half of Americans who favor lower immigration would likely agree with little of what Cafaro offers in this book. The restrictionists—agree or disagree with them—deserve something better.

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  • EDWARD ALDEN is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and was project director for the 2009 Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy.
  • More By Edward Alden