Population, Immigration and Global Ethics

Jonette Christian*
May 2000*


There is a Chinese proverb which says: if you continue to go in the direction you are going, then you will end up where you are headed. This is a talk about population and immigration and where we are headed as a nation.

The United States was founded by a group of English colonists who thought long and deeply about the choices before them in the l8th century and how those choices would impact the lives of their descendants. George Washington used the word posterity" nine times in one speech. Two centuries later, we are the very fortunate beneficiaries of their exceptional wisdom. Like our forefathers, we are gathered together today for posterity. The work we do in this room is mostly for future generations. In the midst of our enormous wealth many of us are troubled about the future and we have doubts about whether the direction we are headed will leave a nation to our descendants as beautiful as the one which was left to us.

Nations are like families. We need to have conversations about our affairs which are not altogether comfortable. For a "nation of immigrants" —and everyone of us is either an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant immigration policy has become a very touchy subject. We want everyone in the world to have the opportunity to live as well as we do. We are sensitive to the disparity in wealth between ourselves and others, and we are afraid that the racism which has plagued our history might be masquerading as immigration reform. And for all these reasons and others we avoid this discussion.

The immigration debate, which we are not having, is about what level of immigration best serves the long-term interests of this nation and the rest of the world.

But even before we commence this conversation, we must decide —are we a family of people with an obligation to ourselves and our descendants to plan for the long term well being of our nation —thereby setting an example for the rest of the world, or are we simply a rapidly expanding international mass?

A mass is not a family.

Where are we going? And how will the way we think about ourselves impact our descendants and the rest of the world?

Last year, in a speech on immigration, President Clinton stated, "No other nation in history has gone through demographic change of this magnitude over so short a time" . . . he went on to say, "Mark my words: Unless we handle this well, immigration of this sweep and scope can threaten the bonds of our union."

"Threaten the bonds of our union." A remarkable statement from our president, greeted by the press with virtual silence.

Post l970 immigrants and their descendants have added between 35 and 45 million people to America's population.(1) This is the equivalent of absorbing all of Central America in less than 30 years. If current immigration levels are not changed, then we will double our population in less than 70 years and 90% of this growth will be due to recent immigrants and their descendants. These are the numbers from the US Census Bureau which account for Clinton' s sobering words.

Can any of us imagine living in America when every city has double its present population, and is still growing? Double the traffic, double the number of houses, schools, prisons, etc?

Is this the future we want to leave to our children? The America people were never asked if we wanted to bring this enormous growth upon our families and ourselves.

We were never consulted.

Immigration levels are determined solely by Congress, and Congress is free at any moment to alter the number of immigrants. For example, the current level of immigration is about four times greater than we averaged throughout most of this century. Immigration laws have usually been written in response to the demands of special interests who profit in some way from this policy. Their profit is extremely expensive for the rest of us. Many immigrants and recently naturalized citizens are using: Medicaid, SSI, Social Security, subsidized housing, fuel assistance, food stamps, TANF, bilingual education, subsidized legal aid, and earned income tax credits. The disparity between what immigrants pay into these programs and what they use in services runs into billions of dollars every year.

As a family therapist I work with that class of Americans who clean their own houses, who mow their own lawns, and who wash their own clothes —I see an overworked, overstressed sector of our society— in which two people must work long hours in order to provide a modest living for only two children. Adjusted for inflation, real average weekly earnings of working class Americans have dropped 20% since l973, as a function of the law of supply and demand in the labor market.

The enormous costs of mass immigration are falling upon their shoulders. We should not be surprised if they become irritable and unsympathetic to the cause of bringing in millions and millions of outsiders. Advocates for illegal immigrants and mass immigration often use stirring words like "social justice" and "resisting oppression" and "building community" to justify their views. But building community begins with respect for your fellow citizens. They deserve to be consulted.

Enthusiasm for embracing outsiders has made advocates for immigrants oblivious to the burdens they place upon their fellow countrymen-and this is no way to build community.

Discussion about where immigration policy is leading us is often dismissed with the remark, "Oh, but we're a nation of immigrants" —Human beings have been migrating for 10,000 years and every nation in the world was formed by migrants. We are a nation of immigrants and so is everyone else. But lets take a brief look at our history of immigration and the unadorned truth about what happened during this period.

In l870 American wages were 136% the wages of Europeans, and from this position of strength labor unions began to organize.(2) In response to the labor union movement, capitalists and factory owners decided to import European workers in order to expand the labor pool and flatten American wages. They began by advertising American jobs in Europe and paying steerage for those workers to come to America. What began as a trickle rapidly became a deluge when the disparity of wages was fully appreciated in Europe.

By the early l900's after decades of massive numbers of new workers, American wages had lost half the pay advantage relative to European wages. This period was known as "The Great Wave", and many of us have ancestors who came during this period. Our cities were crowded with slum tenements; the middle class was shrinking; we had glaring disparities of poverty and wealth, and anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments were heard from many sectors of our population, including the Black leadership.

Blacks could see that immigration was destroying their chance at the good entry-level jobs.

Legislation to limit immigration was introduced yearly —and three times during this period, legislation controlling immigration was passed but vetoed by presidents whose sympathies lay with the wealthy who profited from cheap abundant labor.

With the arrival of World War I, the flood was naturally stemmed and by this time the public demand to shut the door had reached such intensity that a series of laws were passed to restrict immigration. It was during this period from about l925 to l965 when we averaged no more than 178,000 immigrants a year that our newest citizens, who had arrived during the Great Wave, finally got their chance to enter the main stream. The labor shortage which resulted in higher wages for everyone, allowed unions to grow, and promoted a solid middle class. By l960 our feelings toward immigrants had completely changed —we elected the grandson of an Irish immigrant to the White House and for the first time, we began to describe ourselves as a "nation of immigrants".

It was during this period of low immigration that American blacks got their first chance at middle class wages. Northern factory owners were now forced to recruit black workers from the South. In l940 22% of blacks had middle class incomes and by l970, 71% of blacks had incomes in the middle class.(3) These tremendous gains were mostly accomplished BEFORE the Civil Rights movement or affirmative action, and in the face of Jim Crow laws, and institutional racism.

Since l970 due to changes in our immigration laws we have received millions of new workers, and that number 71% has just slightly improved; and 30% of Hispanics live below the poverty line. These are stunning numbers when you consider the enormous wealth this country has created since l970 and the determined efforts we have made to rid ourselves of racism. Even so, nearly one third of our black population continues to struggle to get into the middle class, forced to compete with a flood of foreign workers. The unemployment rate for blacks and other minorities continues to be much higher than it is for whites today, and the absolute number of people living in poverty continues to grow.

According to Dr. George Borjas, Cuban immigrant and Harvard economist, our nation's leading scholar on the labor impact of immigration, (one of the authors of the National Academy of Sciences study on the economic impact of immigration) our current immigration policy results in a $160 billion dollar yearly transfer of wealth from unskilled workers into the hands of their employers due to the availability of immigrant labor.(4)

In other words, our current immigration policy is making it increasingly difficult for our most vulnerable populations —blacks, minorities, recent immigrants, and the poor to earn a living wage.

Immigration on our current scale has been hugely profitable to certain sectors of our population, but never have we seen such disparity between rich and poor as we see in America today.

The benefits which massive immigration brings to immigrants and to their employers has been the exclusive focus of our media. We are presented with numerous human interest stories about the success of individual immigrant families who left dreadful circumstances, and we are often told, in glowing terms, about the booming prosperity and growth of diversity in our communities. We are told that more and more diversity is always good for us, and it has been virtually impossible to discuss any negative impacts.

For instance, our media rarely mentions the enormous fiscal costs which immigration on this scale places upon receiving communities and the middle class who must fund the social services of rapidly growing immigrant colonies, predominately poor and with many children who require special education and bilingual classes, nor the long term environmental impact of such massive population growth, nor the negative impact on jobs and wages for the working poor, nor the ethnic conflict which such rapid demographic change causes.

We have characterized thoughtful discussion about the negative impacts of massive immigration as racist or xenophobic.

Many Americans feel that bringing in millions of mostly impoverished people from third world nations is a generous and ethical thing to do, a way to share the wealth. But this generosity is having unintended consequences which are very destructive to this country and to the rest of the world, and it does nothing to empower third world people to solve the problems in their native land.

Saving people is not the same thing as empowering people to save themselves.

If we are motivated by true compassion for mankind, then it is time to step up to the plate —forego the empty humanitarian gesture of "saving" a handful of outsiders— and commit ourselves to a world in which all people are empowered to provide for their families. This is the future we want —so where do we begin to focus our attention?

Today there are 6 billion people on the planet and we are adding a billion more every 12 years. According to UN projections, world population will grow at least another 3 billion in the next century. We will leave to our descendants the awesome task of feeding, housing, educating, and employing at least 9 billion people and with far less farm land and less ground water than we have today.

As this future descends upon our children, public silence about these numbers is deafening. We are responding like deer with headlights in our eyes paralyzed, or else indifferent —and we would rather talk about almost anything else: urban sprawl, pollution, global warming, declining fish stocks, falling water tables, increasing energy consumption, over crowded schools, and ethnic cleansing —anything to avoid blunt speech about population numbers.

Speaking as a family therapist, this is the behavior of dysfunctional groups —they avoid conversation about the pink elephant in their living room at all costs, and they exhaust themselves in a flurry of helpful activity around peripheral matters. We have agitated, confused and deluded ourselves with the illusion that we are being overwhelmed by many many problems —when in fact, we have primarily only one.

But it is the one that terrifies us the most —and we handle that terror by chattering endlessly about everything else. Denying, obfuscating and minimizing population growth in l999 is a hate crime against future generations —and it must end.

Polls show that Americans were better informed and more worried about population in l970 during Earth Day, than we are today. For 30 years the impact of population has been minimized and all but ignored.

Population is glibly dismissed today as a "global problem" requiring a "global solution." It makes a good sound bite, but it is simply not true.

According to the Population Institute, better than 95 % of the world's growth comes from just 20 third world nations.(5) Population growth is driven by specific groups; it is not global. Regarding those mythical "global" solutions, they do not exist.

Human beings live in groups. We define ourselves by our group, and we solve our problems in groups. We do not solve our problems in a mass. In a mass, we are too many and too diverse to have meaningful conversation with each other-and the problems are more complex than simply "respecting diversity" or "learning to share".

Each country must put its own house in order. The kind of public debate that people need to have to stabilize their growth in a country like Pakistan will not be the same as the conversation in a country like Guatemala or the United States. But we cannot stabilize world population when cultures with astronomical growth are permitted to send their citizens into countries with stable fertility rates.

We often hear that population is just a "symptom" and that the real problems are poverty and economic injustice. This is the reasoning that caused us to minimize the importance of population growth over the past 30 years and to focus our efforts instead on correcting the disparity between haves and have nots. But our results are not encouraging. For example, western nations have poured massive aid into Africa over the previous 3 decades, and today the per capita protein consumption is LESS than it was in l970 and the population-doubling rate is 28 years.

By contrast, China, during the same period and with virtually no Western aid at all, dramatically ended hunger, lowered infant mortality rates, increased life expectancy and delivered basic education and health care to 1.2 billion people. China —in contrast to most third world countries— isolated herself from the West, confronted her situation, and forged solutions which were acceptable within her culture.

Western involvement in other people's problems has not been notoriously successful, even when we meant to be generous. Many experts are now conceding that we gravely misunderstood the fundamental cause of third world poverty.

Poverty, overpopulation, slavery and high infant mortality rates pervade societies in which women and children have few rights. These societies are patriarchal, rigid, organized around tribal and ethnic loyalties, and lacking democratic values. How you treat women and children is not a minor consideration —it affects every aspect of a society. According to the Christian Science Monitor, l00 million children have been sold into slavery or prostitution mostly by their own relatives and many have been maimed in order to make them more pitiful when they beg. We are often told that people have large families in order to solve the problem of poverty in their old age simply because they are poor.

There is another possibility. When selling your children or maiming them is NEVER an acceptable option to begin with, then you are forced to arrive at other solutions long before you come to the point of desperation —you must think differently and every choice that society makes all along the way for generations will be affected by this fundamental value. Not all poor people choose to solve their poverty by having many children.

Overpopulation is a sorry excuse for the collective failure to plan for the well being of ones descendants —having children is not the same thing as valuing children.

In l945 Japan was a basket case —a third world economy by any definition of poverty, bankrupt, humiliated, suffering a famine. Yet this tiny densely populated island, with few natural resources and no oil, stunned the world in just 25 years with an economic miracle which left us breathless and which seemed to defy reason. Today Japan is the second largest economy in the world. What many people do not realize is that this miracle began in part with a mutual decision by the Japanese people to have smaller families.

In the late 40's the Japanese realized that in order to compete with the West they would need to produce a generation of Japanese with superior health and a superior education. In order to maximize their limited post war resources, they would need to have a much smaller number of children. The media openly discussed this matter and Japanese fertility rates took a dramatic decline. Today, Japanese children are the healthiest and best educated children in the world, and the

Japanese population is expected to shrink dramatically in the next century, which is a great gift to the world from a nation of high consuming people.

In Japan we see the difference between a society which confronts poverty by seeking to improve conditions for their children, as opposed to a society that uses their children to solve their poverty. The difference is in the value placed on children —and that is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.

When I was growing up back in the l960's, a paper mill near our town was polluting our air. A group of concerned women in our community organized themselves and began to demand that the company put scrubbers on those smokestacks. Some people were annoyed by these uppity women who went house to house stirring up public debate. But they kept at it, and the scrubbers were eventually installed. We know that if you let things slide, the problems just accumulate —and there's no one to save us, but ourselves.

And we raise our children with this conviction. In nations with predominately western cultures this is a common story. Our country was founded by people who took action to solve their problems, who questioned the prevailing beliefs, —as we are today in this conference— activism runs in our blood and in our history, and even in our marriages, men and women are having conversations with each other which would not be tolerated in other cultures. We have endless petition drives, referendums, concerned citizen groups, talk shows, and neighborhood coalitions.

WE don't expect government —even when freely elected— to solve our problems without our continual involvement. And we know that all of us are responsible for the common welfare. Largely due to this work, these traditions and these attitudes which distinguish our unique cultural heritage, we have the prosperity, the social justice, and the democracy which accounts for our amazing success.

I never really appreciated this remarkable quality about us until I experienced a Latin culture. For three generations, my family have been friends with a middle class family of well educated Mexicans —and we have exchanged children over the summers. On a recent visit I noticed that the river which used to run through their city with many bridges over it had completely disappeared. No one seemed to know or to care what had happened to their river. They simply weren't interested.

I was astonished! Can you imagine that any American community would allow a whole river to simply disappear —with so little interest from the people?

Are we surprised that Mexicans are now sending their people to find employment throughout America? A culture which allows a river to disappear might just as easily find itself without jobs for their children. The wealthy and the educated who might have been organizing an environmental movement in Mexico, who might have been organizing a war on poverty or political corruption, or a conference like this one which challenges the prevailing doctrines on growth have instead decided to promote the migration of their many poor and uneducated citizens into American communities. And are we truly a good neighbor by collaborating with this solution?

In l940 Mexico had a population of only 19 million. Today her population is l00 million, not including the millions which have already immigrated to America. The population-doubling rate is just 32 years.

The poverty, environmental degradation, and human suffering which this astronomical growth produces was not caused by American racism, social injustice, capitalism, or even corporate greed —but far more common human failings: procrastination, denial, and the failure of an entire culture to examine itself and make changes on behalf of their descendants.

Culture is fundamental in understanding poverty and high growth. Authoritarian cultures, not surprisingly produce authoritarian governments, and these nations are especially vulnerable to economic domination from outsiders. For instance, multinational corporations can obtain unfair advantages in a country like Guatemala, which would never be tolerated in a country like Denmark. The ruling elites of Latin America have had little interest in protecting the welfare of their own people.

But the problem lies within the culture. In Latin societies there is no code of conduct that calls for social responsibility or citizen activism outside of the family.

Consequently, very few political leaders in Latin America leave office without amassing tremendous wealth for themselves and their relatives. Latin presidents do not turn to their people and say, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

Patriotism of this order is sadly missing. Political corruption, nepotism and petty thievery pervade these nations, and there is barely a whisper of protest from the people. The awesome price for generations and generations of citizen passivity and neglect for the common welfare is painful indeed.

It is not an accident that America has given the world the game plan for modern democracy and the example of a culture which continually works to improve itself: a labor movement, a woman's movement, a civil rights movement, an environmental movement, a war on poverty, an anti-war movement, a human rights movement, and a men's movement. Where else would you find "Promise Keepers" and a "Million Man March"? Even the clean clothes campaign and the movement to end world hunger did not begin with the educated elites in poor nations, who currently flock to America for high paying jobs, but with middle class western people who were moved by the plight of desperate suffering in third world nations and who funded the many organizations working on these causes.

We are a culture that is continually examining ourselves and making changes, setting new standards for human rights for the whole world, and inviting everyone to participate in this work.

In my state of Maine we have teenagers who go house to house with the Maine People's Alliance, lobbying for health care, environmental protection, and campaign finance reform. My daughter worked for the Alliance when she was l8 years old, canvassing the state of Maine with a group of youth all of whom were under the age of 25. The result is that Maine has one of the best campaign finance laws in the country. She discussed these issues with the heads of the households, many of whom were men 2 and 3 times her age. Can you imagine that an 18 year old girl in El Salvador or Pakistan would be given the right to do this work? And what difference does it make to a nation when the intelligence of a young woman is treated with respect?

These differences in the way we treat each other —the way we treat women and children, have enormous bearing on the outcome of a society.

From that remarkable group of English colonists who founded this nation, we inherited a tradition of citizen activism and social responsibility that has formed one of the most creative and tolerant societies in the world —and it is not surprising that we have also produced phenomenal wealth. Immigrants from many cultures have come here and been able to create wealth which they could not create in their native land.

Our culture has produced one of the most successful systems in the world for generating economic and social opportunity. But our capacity to create wealth is NOT our most significant gift to the world, and it is NOT the most important statement about who we are as a people. Without discounting the greed of multinational companies and the past errors of our foreign policy, third world poverty is NOT caused by Western success.

Rather it is culture —the way people treat each other in a group that determines stability and well being above all other factors.

Despite falling birth rates, the current population doubling rate in El Salvador is 30 years, the Philippines, 31 years, India 37 years, and Pakistan is 25 years.(6) For 4 decades America has been lecturing other countries about stabilizing their population, but we have never been willing to do so ourselves. We are long overdue.

We consume more natural resources and produce more pollution on a per capita basis than any nation in the world, and the failure to stabilize our population is unethical and hugely destructive to this planet. In order to stabilize our population we must lower immigration because immigration is the predominant cause of our growth today. Talking about restricting immigration in America is about as controversial as talking about women's rights in Pakistan. But America and Pakistan need to have these uncomfortable political debates if either country is ever going to stabilize its growth.

Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans across all class and ethnic lines want immigration drastically reduced. 73% of blacks want it brought below 300,000 a year , according to the latest Roper Poll and according to the Hispanic USA Research Survey Group -89% of Hispanic Americans strongly support an immediate moratorium on immigration. But Congress remains indifferent to these sentiments-and our government continues to force us to accept millions and millions of new citizens.

Our media colludes with this policy by minimizing impartial debate and with holding an enormous amount of information about what is happening to this nation due to our immigration laws. Let us ask some questions about the ethics of what we do.

America exports $40 billion dollars in grain to countries who cannot feed themselves. If our growth continues at the current rate, then we will require every bit of grain produced in this country for our own people within 20 years.(7) What are the ethical implications of allowing our population to grow beyond the point that we can share food with others?

America is 4.7% of the worlds population, but we consume 23% of the natural resources and produce 23% of the pollution that is destroying the biosphere. (8) In l950 our entire economy might have run on domestic supplies of oil. By allowing our population to expand, we are now required to import 60% of our petroleum and we must invest billions in defense —largely to protect our access to foreign resources.

As we grow more populous —we grow more aggressive and more vulnerable— and we consume a much bigger share of the world's wealth.

Even at our present population, we are using our ground water for irrigating our crop lands faster than the rate of repletion in 21 % of our aquifers.(8) What are the ethical implications of pursuing growth policies now which leave our grandchildren with insufficient ground water?

Increasing numbers of well-educated immigrants are forsaking the problems in their native land in order to earn American wages.

For the first time in this century we are seeing increasing disparity between rich and poor, and massive immigration is largely responsible.

The world grew by 78 million people last year, most of it coming from impoverished and overpopulated countries. We took in l.4 million immigrants —legal and illegal. In terms of saving people, it was a trifle —a little something to alleviate our western guilt, which accomplished nothing for most of the world. The hubris that we are here to save the world is based on a grossly exaggerated view of ourselves, and it is a very dangerous piece of folly.

Ultimately the world must save itself, and it is a cruel hoax to promote the fantasy that we will take in the world's huddled masses, because we won't and we can't.

We all long for a world in which every child born has the chance to flourish. What are the choices we need to make which will move the world in that direction? We must consider those choices very carefully.

Saving people is not the same thing as empowering people to save themselves. If we fail to see this distinction, then we may cause enormous chaos. There is nothing more powerful than putting our own house in order, stabilizing our population, lowering our consumption, planning for the welfare of our descendants, and setting an example of enlightened self government for the world.


If you want to explore these issues in greater depth on your own, here are some Websites you may want to consult: Getting clear about the distinction between "saving people" (which is ultimately disempowering) and "empowering people" is basic to understanding the arguments for immigration reform in this country and ending hunger elsewhere.



(1) Beck, Roy "The Case Against Immigration"
(2) Beck, Roy pgs. 44, 157
(3) Hatton, Timothy "Migration and the International Labor Market 1850-1939"
(4) Borjas, George "Heaven's Door"; l999
(5) The Population Institute
(6) World Population Data Sheet, published by Population Reference Bureau
(7) Pimentel, David; Cornell University
(8) Abramovitz, Janet "Imperiled Waters, Impoverished Future: The Decline of Freshwater Ecosystems", World Watch papers; March, l996

[MFS note: works of several of the cited authors are available on the "Sustainability Authors" page here.]
* Used with permission of the author.
Longer version of speech originally delivered before the League of Women Voters.