Pro-immigration advocates frequently make the point that with millions of baby boomers about to retire, we should be doing everything possible to expedite legal immigration into our country.
Not only do we need these immigrants to help do the nation's work now, goes the argument, but we also will need them to shore up our Social Security system in the future, because boomer retirements are causing a shortage of new contributors to the system.
But increased immigration has a downside rarely mentioned in the debate between pro- and anti-immigration forces: overpopulation. While we endlessly debate what our immigration policy should be, what's completely missing from the equation is any discussion of what our national population policy should be.
For some reason, the American public seems oblivious to the fact that the U.S., with the fastest-growing population in the industrial world (only China and India have more people than we do), is overpopulated. In the past 40 years, our numbers have grown from just over 200 million to over 300 million; if we continue to grow at present rates, we will be over 450 million by midcentury, with most of the increase - more than two-thirds - accounted for by future immigrants and their descendants.
Our population is already straining the nation's food, water and energy supplies ($5-per-gallon gas is likely just around the corner, and "rolling blackouts" have been mentioned as a possibility in Maryland). Given this, the prospect of another 150 million people should be keeping environmentalists and government officials awake at night. And it should be keeping the rest of us awake as well. Anyone who thinks another 150 million people won't profoundly change the way we live today is in a state of denial.
True, much of our resource depletion is a result of our wasteful lifestyle, but this is the same lifestyle aspiring immigrants seek to achieve. As Jared Diamond noted in The New York Times in January, each transfer of a person to a high-consumption society like ours drives up overall consumption. That means ever-greater depletion of our finite natural resources, ever-greater pressure on our deteriorating infrastructure, and ever-more pollution and global warming. The implications are daunting, to say the least.
Thankfully, we've begun to recognize the need for new efficiencies to curb our excessive consumption. The federal government, for example, recently required automakers to produce vehicles that get at least 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020. But this will do little if we have 35 million more cars on the road by then. And we will, if our burgeoning population continues to grow at the current pace.
Let's not forget that the millions of new immigrants who will be paying taxes and helping sustain Social Security will themselves be retiring someday. Will they require another mass influx of immigrants to keep the system afloat?
This is not an anti-immigration rant. Being a nation of immigrants, we must be sensitive to the needs of others who desperately seek a better life for themselves and their children. But if we don't recognize the seriousness of our population problem, continued growth at today's pace will prove disastrous for current U.S. citizens and new immigrants alike. As Robert Engelman noted in his recently published book, More, new arrivals tend to reduce wages not only of low-income Americans but also of immigrants who arrived just a little bit earlier.
Candidates for public office and government officials must understand and publicly acknowledge that unrestrained population growth is simply unsustainable, and that there is no way to effectively address our immigration problem - or our environmental problem, or our energy problem - without addressing our population problem. What we sorely need is a national population policy. With such a policy, reasonable people on both sides of the immigration debate might find common ground in balancing the legitimate needs of aspiring immigrants and the nation's finite capacity for sustaining a decent way of life for all.
One initiative of such a policy might be a noncoercive national program, supported with tax incentives, to encourage families to limit their childbearing to two children. This would be especially important with reference to immigrant groups whose fertility rates have traditionally been unsustainably high. Over time, such a program could stabilize the nation's population and reduce anti-immigrant fervor.
Al Gore called climate change an "inconvenient truth." The same should be said of unrestrained population growth. We must get control over both.
Howard Bluth is a retired Baltimore social worker. His e-mail is