Washington — Amnesty for illegal aliens today -- a population explosion tomorrow? Hal Daub, a congressman from Omaha, Neb., has been expressing concern about this possibility for months. Now it appears that a few people in Washington are beginning to listen.
Between 3 million and 12 million illegal aliens are estimated to be living in the United States today. Recent proposals in Congress have called for blanket amnesty for most of them -- amnesty that could eventually lead to US citizenship.
Mr. Daub, a Republican and an immigration lawyer, warns that there is a hidden problem in this amnesty issue. Amnesty could trigger new, repeating waves of immigration that could set off a major population boom in the US over the next 10 to 15 years.
It could happen like this:
After three to five years, each alien who had been given amnesty would be eligible for citizenship. Once a US citizen, that person could, under current law, bring in immediate relatives, spouses, minor children, and parents from other countries. Other relatives, such as brothers and sisters, would also get priority treatment as immigrants.
These new immigrants, in turn, could become citizens, and bring in additional relatives. Leon Bouvier, vice-president of the Population Reference Bureau, observes: ``The potential there is unlimited.''
No one here claims to know exactly how many people would be added to the US population over the next 10 to 15 years by amnesty. There are no definitive studies on the subject, either in Congress or the Reagan administration.
One difficulty is that no one knows how many illegal residents are in the US today. While estimates go as high as 12 million, most people guess that the number falls into the 4 to 6 million range.
There are other uncertainties as well. If there are 5 million illegal aliens here now, for example, how many of them would apply for citizenship? And once they became citizens, how many relatives would each bring into the country?
There is one case study that may be of some help in this -- the Cubans who came to the US in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Immigration officials who have worked with the Mariel refugees in Florida say each is expected to bring over an average of three relatives once they become citizens.
Using the Cuban example, it is possible to make some rough calculations. For example, if there are 6 million illegal aliens in the US today, and if half of them became citizens, and if each brought three relatives into the country, that means some 9 million new immigrants would be added to the US population over the next five to seven years after amnesty.
Then, as those 9 million new immigrants became US citizens, they could also bring in additional family members.
Congressman Daub says his studies show there are at least 10 million illegal aliens in the US today, and that the long-term impact on US population would be surprisingly large. Says Mr. Daub: ``Within 10 years of the date of amnesty, we would have at least 70 million new physical human beings in the continental United States.''
Other estimates of the long-term impact range from as low as a few million to as many as 30 million.
Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City says it's virtually impossible to make a good estimate of the impact of amnesty. There are too many variables.
Even so, says Dr. Teitelbaum, the ``echo effects'' of amnesty ``could be very considerable, indeed.'' The numbers added to the US poplulation would ``likely be in the millions.''
The issue has been avoided by some lawmakers, he says, because it is ``something of an inflammatory issue. The Senate has tried to avoid raising passions.''
The Environmental Fund, which is one of the few organizations that has looked into the population effects of amnesty, estimates that ``between 6 and 12 million illegal immigrants, if not more are already living in the US. Government agencies expect 36 percent to 64 percent of these will apply for amnesty. This means that between 2.2 million and 7.7 million people could receive amnesty and thereafter become permanent legal residents.''
If the actual number is 6 million, notes an Environmental Fund study, and each brings in three relatives, that would quickly add 18 million people to the US population. In later years, the echo effects would raise that number much higher.
Even advocates of amnesty concede the population impact could be great. Says an aide to a Hispanic congressman from California: ``There is, I will admit, a pyramidal effect on immigration.''
If a new surge of immigrants did result, the primary impact would be in the Sunbelt. Dr. Teitelbaum notes that the majority of Mexican immigrants now settle in the Southwest and in Chicago.
The Environmental Fund has expressed concern that millions of new residents in the Southwest would create new strains on US resources, especially water supplies. The fund notes that the Southwest, which includes California, is already responsible for 31 percent of all US water use, yet is the source for only 6 percent of the US water supply. Major declines in groundwater supplies are already notable in California, southern Arizona, and Texas, the fund reports.
Congressman Daub has other concerns about the impacts of amnesty as well.
First, it sends the wrong signals to other nations. It tells people in other countries that if the US granted amnesty once, it will do it again.
Second, it will put severe strains on state and local governments, which will find costs for education, welfare, and other benefits soaring.
Third, the US economy is moving toward high technology -- ``computerization and robotization,'' in Daub's words -- that requires great amounts of education and training. Absorbing large numbers of unskilled workers from abroad would require a different kind of economy from the one emerging in the US today.
Daub also makes one other point. Amnesty, he says, tells the world that the way to get into America is to break the rules and cheat. There are millions waiting to get in through legal avenues. Some have been waiting for years. Amnesty will tell them: waiting is foolish.