Charges of racism cloud immigration arguments

Early this month, ProjectUSA, a group advocating reduced immigration, entered its "Truthmobile" into a band festival parade in Mason City, Iowa. The mobile billboard proclaimed, "In your 20s? Immigration is doubling US population in your lifetime."

Seeing the sign, parade officials tried to force the senior woman driving the vehicle to leave. She refused.

Festival coordinator Vance Baird complained to the local paper later about this "type of racism and bigotry that this float emphasized."

The attack hardly surprised Craig Nelsen, director of the Astoria, N.Y.-based ProjectUSA. He's heard the charge before. Objecting to another of his billboards near the Brooklyn Bridge, a New York State assemblyman spoke of "the putrid stench of Nelsen's racism."

The signs were accurate.

But even an indirect hint that immigration should be limited can bring a vitriolic response.

"It's an easy way to cut off the argument and frighten people," says George Borjas, an economist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "It is a way to intimidate them."

For Messrs. Nelsen and Borjas, the issue is numbers, not race. "They could be green," and the skin color would still be irrelevant, says Borjas, who is a naturalized American from Cuba and perhaps the nation's leading expert on immigration.

Since the late 1990s, the US has been taking in more than 1 million legal and illegal immigrants a year, more than at any other time. Ten percent of the population is foreign born.

The 2000 census found the US has 281 million inhabitants, up 32.7 million, or 13.2 percent, from 1990.

Women born in the US have a fertility rate of less than two. They are not quite reproducing themselves and their mates.

Immigrants both add to the population themselves and have bigger families on average.

"When you talk about population growth, the story begins and ends with immigration," says Steven Camarota, an analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

The Census Bureau population clock says there are now 284.5 million living in the US. That's up 3.1 million since the 2000 census. That's about four San Franciscos a year.

When the bureau gets around to projecting the population in 2050 using the new census numbers, it will probably reckon 415 million to 420 million people, says Mr. Camarota.

That number frightens those trying to get immigration restrained. Teaching English in China for two years, Nelsen saw the burden of too many people. He figures so many people will mean more congestion on highways and in national parks, more urban sprawl, more environmental problems. Schools, especially in such immigration centers as California, New York City, and Florida, will face the challenge of a flood of children.

Natives and earlier immigrants at the bottom of the skill and income ladder have been especially hurt in recent years by job and wage competition from new immigrants, notes Borjas. The average immigrant has a lower education level than that of natives.

Those upper-income folks who employ immigrants for such tasks as tending their gardens benefit. So do firms hiring many immigrants.

Camarota suspects that the California power crisis has arisen because of immigrants. Without them, California's population would have stagnated and its energy demand fallen.

Sometimes those supporting the high level of immigration talk of the glories of "diversity" in America. Many appreciate that diversity. But Borjas says immigration is "less diverse than it has ever been."

Almost one-third of new arrivals come from Mexico. In the previous great wave of immigration into the US about 1900, the largest national origin groups were German (15 percent) and Russian (12 percent).

"What we are doing now is a great disaster," he says. Immigrants should be better educated, more skilled, fewer, and more balanced in their diversity.

The world has more than 6 billion people. This number grows by more than 80 million per year, mostly in poor countries.

Sending people to the US cannot solve problems stemming from rapid population growth, the experts say.

What is needed is greater population restraint abroad and more economic development to provide jobs at home. But the US is doing less to help.

Under the Bush administration's budget for 2002, US foreign aid will be $10.9 billion, well under the $13.4 billion average during the 1980s.

ProjectUSA's Nelsen expects racist allegations to continue. The New York Port Authority forced the billboard firm to take down his Brooklyn Bridge sign after 13 days, Nelsen says. He plans on suing that agency next month on grounds of violating the First Amendment freedom-of-speech provisions.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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