Washington — The long shadow of Thomas Malthus is casting itself over the drafting of a new immigration policy for the United States. The question of immigration's impact on the population and resources of the United States and of the rest of the world is proving to be one of the most controversial issues for the President's Select Commission on Immigration Policy.
"i think this is going to be one of our most difficult subjects," says Nina Zolarz of the commission staff. "We are not the President's commission to emerge with a population policy [no such commission exists], and yet it is very hard to ignore population."
Issues such as national identity cards, alien amnesty and border-patrol crackdowns are hot enough. But in these areas Mrs. Solarz says she expects the commission's report, due out early next year, to have strong arguments behind its recommendations.
The toughest issues to address may prove to be the evergrowing pressure of population on world resources -- as 18thcentury British economist Malthus predicted to be dismally inevitable.
Overseas energy and resource exploitation by Americans may contribute to immigration pressure at America's door, one population specialist points out.
And given the very high consumption of the US, another points out, it is possible that world resources would suffer much more if the US increases its annual immigration quota to 750,000 or more "as is being discussed by commissioners) than if these people lived elsewhere. Moreover, increased immigration might also decrease America's ability to export its surplus food.
"By any reasonable standard . . . this country is overpopulated now," population specialist Anne H. Ehrlich of Stanford University said at a commission consultation July 9.
Growing environmental awareness might mitigate the impact, Mrs. Ehrlich says, and lowering American consumption levels might help relieve migratory pressure. But she advocates making US immigration policy "part of a national population policy, which in turn reflects understanding of the limits of our national resources."
At present, the commission is giving most of its attention to a hypothetical immigration policy model that sets an arbitrary ceiling of 750,000-plus persons a year in three categories: family reunification, refugees, and independents. Given the current American fertility rate, such a net influx would result in population stability by the year 2030 at slightly less than 300 million Americans.
But critics of this model point out that each immigrant who is admitted and eventually becomes a citizen then has the right under current law to bring his spouse, children, and parents into the country. Furthermore, members of the extended family of this new citizen have substantial preference over other potential immigrants. This "multiplier effect" would boost US population considerably higher.
These considerations, plus the recent tides of Cuban and Haitian refugees, are causing important rethinking of immigration policy on Capitol Hill. The academic atmosphere in which the commission first convened 18 months ago seems to have been overtaken by events. Immigration and refugee policy is becoming a high-priority issue.
A June 18 "sense of Congress" amendment, to the Senate's authorizations bill for the Department of Justice, sets a limit of 100,000 refugees and immigrants in the fourth quarter of fiscal 1980, excluding immediate family members of US citizens. The total legal immigration for 1980 then will be close to 850,000.
An aide to Sen. Walter Huddleston (D) of Kentucky, contends the 100,000 -person fourth-quarter limit indicates the Senate is in favor of a yearly quota of about 400,000 rather than 750,000.
Select commission insiders indicate these political developments are not lost on those frafting the new policy. "When we first sat, it looked like illegal aliens and 'boat people' were the issues we needed to address," says one staffer. "But now we are under pressure to take a broader turn."
Still, the commission is not officially charged with looking at population policy. But if cannot escape addressing population and its impact on resources at this point, says Roger Conner, director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform Mr. Conner says FAIR (a product of the zero- population growth movement) favors a limit below 650,000.
A quota may not remove the shadow of Malthus from the world, say population experts, but it may help control US population and signal other countries that the US cannot absorb all the world's excess people.