Unless there's a dramatic change in Washington's attitude toward legal immigration, a half century from now our nation will have to confront the daunting challenges of providing for a population that is at least twice as large as it is today.
The population of the US has almost doubled since the end of World War II, and it is headed for another doubling by the year 2050, when it could exceed half a billion. The engine driving this unprecedented growth is immigration. Natives of other lands who have settled here since the 1970s and their offspring account for half the population increase we have experienced in the last quarter century. And the effects of immigration will be even more dramatic in the future: By 2050, more than 90 percent of our annual growth will be attributable to immigrants who have settled here since the early 1990s.
As recently as 1990, the Census Bureau predicted that US population would peak and then level off a few decades from now. In 1994, however, because of unexpectedly high rates of immigration, the bureau changed its projections and now sees our population growing unabated into the late 21st century, when it could reach 700 million, 800 million, or even 1 billion Americans.
Until just a few months ago, it was widely expected that Congress would pass legislation this year that would reduce the number of legal (as well as illegal) immigrants entering the United States. The Clinton administration had proposed such reductions, and both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees' versions of immigration-reform legislation contained them. All three proposals were based on the well-considered recommendations of the immigration-reform commission headed by the late Barbara Jordan, which had proposed a decrease in legal immigration of about 300,000 a year.
Illegal-immigration reform passed easily in both the House and the Senate. But both chambers, with the Clinton administration's blessing, rejected including new limits on legal immigration in those bills. Although it is not too late for this Congress to consider legal immigration changes on their own, it won't happen without a strong new political push.
Supporters of the status quo on legal immigration say we need and want those who immigrate legally, and that our only real immigration problem is the large number of people who are settling here illegally. But the fact is, both types of immigration determine how many newcomers our communities have to absorb, how fierce the competition for jobs is, and how much our quality of life is affected. Three-quarters of foreigners who settle here do so legally, so their impact is actually far greater than that of illegal immigrants.
Back in 1972, a Nixon-appointed commission on population growth concluded that, "We have looked for, and have not found, any convincing economic argument for continued national population growth," and recommended that immigration levels not be increased.
Sadly, neither President Nixon nor anyone else paid much attention to the commission's findings. Today, we admit about twice as many legal immigrants as we did in 1972 and, of course, the problem of illegal immigration has increased greatly as well. Currently more than 1.1 million immigrants settle in the US permanently each year - over 800,000 legally, and about 300,000 illegally.
The faster our population grows, the more difficult it is to solve our most pervasive and onerous environmental problems: air and water pollution; trash and sewage disposal; acid rain; depletion of water resources; topsoil erosion; loss of agricultural lands; and destruction of forests, wetlands, and fisheries, to name the major ones.
And the threat to our environment is not the only one we face from a rapidly growing population. When our communities - particularly those in large coastal urban areas that are magnets for immigrants - are already straining to meet the needs of the people who are here right now, there can be no doubt that our ability in the future to provide a sufficient number of jobs, adequate housing and enough food, water, education, health care, and public safety is certain to be tested in ways we cannot even imagine.
However we look at it, failing to reduce our rate of immigration clearly means that our children and grandchildren cannot possibly have the quality of life that we ourselves have been fortunate enough to enjoy. With twice as many people, we can expect to have at least twice as much crime, twice as much congestion, and twice as much poverty.
Americans take great pride in our tradition of welcoming those who come to the United States to better their lives. But there are millions who want to come here, and there are very real limits on how many more we can accommodate. Do we want to continue to admit as many immigrants as we currently accept every year, or do we want to try to provide a reasonable quality of life for our children and grandchildren? We cannot do both.
President Clinton and Congress need to reverse course and revive efforts to reduce legal immigration - before it's too late.