Population and Immigration Myths: Fallacies, Falsehoods and Facts

All of the people on the planet fit in Texas (or the Grand Canyon).

Overpopulated living

Indeed, technically, they would, although extremely uncomfortably. In fact, all of the people on the planet can fit on home plate; we just need to stack them 7.5 billion high.

But, of course, it’s not about space, and it never has been.

The impact of humans, our ecological footprint, extends far beyond our living space.

We build highways, homes, shopping centers, power plants and more. We drill for oil in the land and sea. We use forests, meadows, grasslands and deserts. In fact, we use 40 percent of the planet’s land just to produce food for humans, and we consume an additional 12 million acres for agriculture each year. The result is less space for other critters. Scientists say our planet is now in the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals, caused this time not by crashing asteroids, but by human activity, primarily the depletion of habitat for other species.

Beyond the environmental degradation, what do we gain from an ever-growing population? What can humanity accomplish with 9 or 10 billion souls that it cannot achieve with 7 billion? More people results in more crowding which means less open space and a lower quality of life. Who needs that?

We are a nation of immigrants; we’re all immigrants except for American Indians.

We are a nation of immigrants – as are all nations of the world – if one examines an appropriate period of history. No one on this planet can trace her or his ancestry back the 200,000 years of human existence within the confines of a present nation-state. American Indians, like all Americans, like all peoples of the world, are descendants of immigrants. Their ancestors immigrated across the Bering Strait at some point in history. The fact that various peoples have migrated at various times in history offers us little insight into how to manage migration in a modern world of nation-states on a crowded planet rapidly heading to 8 billion people. America has the world’s most generous immigration policy, but no country in the world allows unlimited immigration.

Moreover, we are largely a nation of native-born citizens, a nation governed by the laws we enact. Until this current surge, each wave of high immigration was followed by a period of low immigration. From 1925 to 1970 – a period in which the United States overcame the Great Depression and fought and prevailed in WWII – immigration to this country averaged only 200,000 per year. Since then, Congress has raised the level to 1 million per year, not including illegal immigration. The 2013 Senate immigration bill (S.744) would have increased that even more significantly, by another 50 percent.

A lax immigration policy might have made sense in 1900 when the U.S. population was 76 million and there was plenty of open space. It makes no sense in this century when America – the third most populous nation after China and India – has a population that is more than four times as high at 325 million (per U.S. Population Clock).

Immigrants – illegal or not – are needed to do the work Americans won’t do.

Farm workers in Bakersfield, Calif.

Anytime someone says, “Immigrants do work Americans won’t do,” ask that individual to finish the sentence – “Immigrants do work that Americans won’t do AT THE WAGES OFFERED.” The solution to labor shortages is to increase wages, not to import cheap, foreign labor. That is how a market economy works. That is what built the American middle class. Massive immigration has flooded the labor market, contributing to 40 years of wage stagnation in America. Since the 2007 recession, all the employment gains have gone to immigrants. The number of native-born Americans working remains well below 2007 levels.

A similar argument is, “We need illegal immigrants for farm work. Otherwise, lettuce would cost $5.00.” A study by Philip Martin, agricultural economist at UC-Davis, found that labor costs comprise only 6 percent of the price consumers pay for fresh produce. Thus, if agribusiness increased farm wages by 40 percent, enough to bring in native workers, and if all the costs were passed on to consumers, the cost to the average household would be about $8 a year. That $1.15 lettuce would be $1.18, not $5.00.

Racism is the motivation behind limiting immigration.

It’s the modern American way – when you are losing an argument, call your opponent a racist. The fact is that hundreds of millions of people from all over the globe, including millions from Europe, would like to immigrate to America. A Gallup poll found 3 million just in the UK, yet you don’t hear groups of British-Americans saying, “Let my people in.” The paramount issue of immigration policy is the how many, not the who. Massive immigration leads to a strain on resources and society, regardless of who they are.

In 1999, Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal ruled that its constitution allowed 1.6 million mainland Chinese to immigrate to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government immediately asked China to overrule the court. In 2014, Swiss voters approved a referendum to place immigration quotas on European Union citizens. The very European citizens of Switzerland – the country has four official languages – opted out of the EU’s free movement of people policy.

Chinese limiting the immigration of Chinese, Europeans limiting the immigration of Europeans – it probably isn’t about racism. But the racial ambulance-chasers aren’t interested in such inconvenient facts.

Economic well-being depends on growth; illegal immigrants strengthen the U.S. economy.

Population growth and immigration increase population size, which increases total GDP, but that does not increase per capita GDP. It seems that many reporters and politicians failed high school math and cannot understand this simple distinction. For instance, one often reads a glowing economic report that the U.S. gained 100,000 jobs last month, ignoring that the country’s population grew by 200,000.

Economics is hardly a precise science, and economists still are debating the cause of the Great Recession. With an annual economy in the U.S. of $18.5 trillion, immigration is not a major driver of economic issues, and its impact on the economy should not form the core of the debate about immigration. Still, several prestigious studies have repudiated the “growth is good” economic argument:

  • An OECD study of 27 industrialized countries found that, on average, the fiscal impact of immigration was slightly negative. The U.S. was among those countries where immigration had a negative fiscal impact.
  • A UC-Berkeley demographer and University of Hawaii economist concluded, “Encouraging more childbearing today would make everyday Americans worse off now and in the future.
  • The Heritage Foundation found that the amnesty of the Senate bill “would generate a lifetime fiscal deficit (total benefits minus total taxes) of $6.3 trillion.”

While there is debate about the economic impact of immigration-driven population growth, it is clear who suffers most. Harvard Professor George Borjas, described by both Business Week and The Wall Street Journal as “America’s leading immigration economist,” put it succinctly, “Affluent Americans gain; poor Americans lose.” Massive immigration floods the labor market, increasing unemployment and depressing wages for low-income workers. During the recessionary years of 2010-2013, unemployment in the U.S. averaged 8.5 percent. In the low immigration countries of Germany and Japan, it averaged 5.9 and 4.5 percent, respectively.

Overpopulated globe illustration