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Immigration and Population Growth By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, August 21, 2002

I hear people refer to America as a nation of 200 million people all the time. Well, I’m sorry, but we now have an official population of 287 million, so we’re a lot closer to 300 million. What this reveals is that a lot of people just don’t think (as I’ve written before) about immigration and population issues in a quantitative way. They should.Let’s start by taking a look at the following chart comparing US population growth by decade in the past century:

There are three things likely to catch the eye about this chart: first, the “birth dearth” during the depression decades. Second, the Baby Boom of the fifties, which carried on into the early sixties. Third, the fact that our population growth in the past decade was out of control. Let’s analyze the reasons for these growth figures, decade by decade.


The first Great Wave of immigration began around 1880 thanks to the appearance of cheap railroads and steamships. It exploded into peak numbers during the first decade of the century. The massive influx of immigrants warped America’s historically middle-class character and created vast urban slums and a European-style antagonism between rich, fattened on cheap labor, and poor. This decade saw more growth than any previous decade in U.S. history, and it also saw the peak of American socialism. The rapid population growth also threatened the country's once bountiful natural resources, leading to the establishment of federal systems of parks and other preservation programs.


World War I slowed immigration considerably during the middle of the decade, as German U-boats made the Atlantic crossing lethal. But high immigration at the beginning and end, and high immigrant and native fertility, kept total population growth high.


Americans of every social class and political persuasion rose up in revulsion at the incredible pace of change and congestion caused by the previous two decades of immigration-driven population growth, and in 1924, Congress curtailed immigration. This legislation, though flawed by the ethnic prejudices of its time, enabled the Great Pause in immigration that set immigrant communities on the road to Americanization. Deprived of cheap labor, wages boomed. Annual population growth rate at the end of the decade was roughly half that at the beginning. But very high immigration during the first half, plus the momentum caused by the high fertility of the enlarged population, helped the 1920s to set yet another record for population growth.


The 1924 immigration law and the Great Depression kept immigration below traditional levels. With up to a third of the nation unemployed, America was hardly a land of opportunity for foreigners. Native Americans greatly reduced their fertility in response to the dire economic times, cutting total population growth for the decade nearly in half compared to the previous three decades.


After the end of World War II, immigration grew back toward traditional levels and Americans began to create very large families. This great spike in fertility came to be known as the Baby Boom, a demographic phenomenon that changed every aspect of American society and that continues to drive a lot of the social and political agenda to this day. This was America’s last significant burst of native growth.


This was the peak of the Baby Boom, adding nearly the equivalent of the entire U.S. population at the time of the Civil War. Combined with other factors, this led to an enormous conversion of farmland and natural habitats into sprawling suburbs. This record population growth was a special phenomenon reflecting pent-up pressures from the Depression and the war.


Exhausted from years of frantic efforts to expand the nation's infrastructure to handle its large families and burgeoning population, Americans rapidly reduced their fertility through the last decade of the Baby Boom. The growth rate at the end of the decade was a third lower than at the beginning. A bipartisan social and political movement emerged calling for Americans to keep their fertility to a replacement level rate to enable the country to eventually stabilize its population. If not for later immigration, it would have.


The native population of America reached demographic maturity, with the fertility rate falling to replacement level in 1972. This meant we would have a stable long-term population, and without any coercive government intervention. Demographers predicted that each decade would see lower and lower population growth until early in the 21st century there would be no growth at all.


Despite continuing below-replacement-level fertility, population growth continued at the level of the previous decade. The reason: Congress had in 1965 created a system of chain migration that snowballed and doubled annual legal immigration over traditional levels as immigrants brought family members into the country. Further adding to the population, Congress for the first time ever rewarded illegal aliens -- about 3 million of them -- with a legal path to citizenship. Federal immigration policy was negating the results of native Americans choosing to have smaller families.


The dream of a stabilized — or even stabilizing — population was proven to be nothing but a fairy tale as U.S. population exploded with its biggest growth ever. The Baby Boom peak was exceeded — not by an increase in native Americans' babies, but because Congress further increased immigration to a level almost quadruple the traditional level. And federal decisions to stop enforcing most laws against illegal immigration in the interior of the country led to additional higher levels of illegal aliens in the country. Yet another cause of the boom was immigrant fertility. Although native Americans maintained a below-replacement-level fertility rate, immigrant fertility resembled Baby Boom fertility.

The key thing to grasp is that native Americans have, through the impact of millions of freely-made, private decisions, decided to stabilize their population. In addition to being a desirable outcome, (for reasons discussed below) it is fair to take this as an expression of the will of the American people. Mass immigration is upsetting this state of affairs.

I realize that some readers will question whether a stable population is a desirable goal. This is a complex question, and I have written before about the concept of national maturity that it represents. In accord with the fact that American conservatives tend to respect two things above all, the almighty dollar and almighty God, I would like to briefly dispose of two canards that are leveled against this position:

  1. “Population growth brings economic growth.” Yes it does, in the sense of increasing our aggregate GNP. But our prosperity does not consist of aggregate GNP, which would make impoverished India a richer country than tiny Switzerland. It consists of per-capita GNP, which is actually diluted by immigration, which currently brings overwhelmingly unskilled immigrants into the country and shares a limited capital stock among more workers.

  2. “God said we should be fruitful and multiply.” He may have, in which case we should certainly heed this command. But if 6.5 billion people and climbing, or 287 million Americans, isn’t “fruitful,” I don’t know what is. This may be one of the few heavenly commandments the human race has been pretty good about obeying.

The interesting thing is that, although the topic is not discussed much today, given the intellectual decline of the environmental movement, population stability was once a significant question in national policy discourse, and a strong consensus in its favor was reached in the early 70’s. For example, two months after the first Earth Day in 1970, the First National Congress on Optimum Population and Environment convened in Chicago.

This consensus embraced both ends of the political spectrum. In a key 1969 speech, President Nixon addressed the nation about problems it would face if U.S. population growth continued unabated:

"One of the most serious challenges to human destiny in the last third of this century will be the growth of the population. Whether man's response to that challenge will be a cause for pride or for despair in the year 2000 will depend very much on what we do today."

Having reached the year 2000, I wouldn’t quite say “despair,” but a certain regret over lost opportunities would seem appropriate.

On January 1, 1970, Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, which among other things established the EPA. In Title I of the act, the Declaration of National Environmental Policy began:

"The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man's activity on the interrelations of all components of the environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth..."

President Nixon and Congress jointly appointed environmental, labor, business, academic, demographic and political representatives to a bipartisan Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. Among its findings in 1972 was that it would be difficult to reach the environmental goals being established at the time unless the United States began stopping its population growth. (This little piece of common sense has been utterly forgotten by the environmental Left today.) The commission’s chairman wrote that

"gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the nation's ability to solve its problems."

Today, the Kyoto Protocol, which is a terrible treaty but whose fundamentals will almost certainly one day become law in some form, confronts the U.S. with this stark choice: either reduce the standard of living of existing Americans so more immigrants can come here and pollute, or violate the reduction in national pollutant output you have agreed to. Bringing in more immigrants thus inescapably puts pressure on existing Americans to curtail their lifestyles and accept increased government regulation.

Back in the 70’s, environmentalists envisioned making the transition to U.S. population stabilization within a generation. In 1969, the Sierra Club, urged

"the people of the United States to abandon population growth as a pattern and goal; to commit themselves to limit the total population of the United States in order to achieve a balance between population and resources; and to achieve a stable population no later than the year 1990."

Recently, this same organization, much corrupted by power-politics and political correctness in the intervening years, rejected an attempt to make immigration-reduction part of its platform. We should make it part of ours.

Note: Thanks to NumbersUSA.com for the material from which this article was adapted.

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