Cafaro roots his argument in human rights, equality, economic security, and environmental sustainability—hallmark progressive values. He shows us the undeniable realities of mass migration to which we have turned a blind eye: how flooded labor markets in sectors such as meatpacking and construction have driven down workers’ wages and driven up inequality; how excessive immigration has fostered unsafe working conditions and political disempowerment; how it has stalled our economic maturity by keeping us ever-focused on increasing consumption and growth; and how it has caused our cities and suburbs to sprawl far and wide, destroying natural habitats, driving other species from the landscape, and cutting us off from nature.
In response to these hard-hitting truths, Cafaro lays out a comprehensive plan for immigration reform that is squarely in line with progressive political goals. He suggests that we shift enforcement efforts away from border control and toward the employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. He proposes aid and foreign policies that will help people create better lives where they are. And indeed he supports amnesty for those who have, at tremendous risk, already built their lives here. Above all, Cafaro attacks our obsession with endless material growth, offering in its place a mature vision of America, not brimming but balanced, where all the different people who constitute this great nation of immigrants can live sustainably and well, sheltered by a prudence currently in short supply in American politics.
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How Many Is Too Many?
The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States
By Philip Cafaro
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Good People, Hard Choices, and an Inescapable Question
How many immigrants should we allow into the United States annually, and who gets to come?
The question is easy to state but hard to answer, for thoughtful individuals and for our nation as a whole. It is a complex question, touching on issues of race and class, morals and money, power and political allegiance. It is an important question, since our answer will help determine what kind of country our children and grandchildren inherit. It is a contentious question: answer it wrongly and you may hear some choice personal epithets directed your way, depending on who you are talking to. It is also an endlessly recurring question, since conditions will change, and an immigration policy that made sense in one era may no longer work in another. Any answer we give must be open to revision.
This book explores the immigration question in light of current realities and defends one provisional answer to it. By exploring the question from a variety of angles and making my own political beliefs explicit, I hope that it will help readers come to their own well-informed conclusions. Our answers may differ, but as fellow citizens we need to keep talking to one another and try to come up with immigration policies that further the common good.
Why are immigration debates frequently so angry? People on one side often seem to assume it is just because people on the other are stupid, orimmoral. I disagree. Immigration is contentious because vital interests are at stake and no one set of policies can fully accommodate all of them. Consider two stories from among the hundreds I've heard while researching this book.
* * *
It is lunchtime on a sunny October day and I'm talking to Javier, an electrician's assistant, at a home construction site in Longmont, Colorado, near Denver. He is short and solidly built; his words are soft-spoken but clear. Although he apologizes for his English, it is quite good. At any rate much better than my Spanish.
Javier studied to be an electrician in Mexico, but could not find work there after school. "You have to pay to work," he explains: pay corrupt officials up to two years' wages up front just to start a job. "Too much corruption," he says, a refrain I find repeated often by Mexican immigrants. They feel that a poor man cannot get ahead there, can hardly get started.
So in 1989 Javier came to the United States, undocumented, working various jobs in food preparation and construction. He has lived in Colorado for nine years and now has a wife (also here illegally) and two girls, ages seven and three. "I like USA, you have a better life here," he says. Of course he misses his family back in Mexico. But to his father's entreaties to come home, he explains that he needs to consider his own family now. Javier told me that he's not looking to get rich, he just wants a decent life for himself and his girls. Who could blame him?
Ironically one of the things Javier likes most about the United States is that we have rules that are fairly enforced. Unlike in Mexico, a poor man does not live at the whim of corrupt officials. When I suggest that Mexico might need more people like him to stay and fight "corruption," he just laughs. "No, go to jail," he says, or worse. Like the dozens of other Mexican and Central American immigrants I have interviewed for this book, Javier does not seem to think that such corruption could ever change in the land of his birth.
Do immigrants take jobs away from Americans? I ask. "American people no want to work in the fields," he responds, or as dishwashers in restaurants. Still, he continues, "the problem is cheap labor." Too many immigrants coming into construction lowers wages for everyone—including other immigrants like himself.
"The American people say, all Mexicans the same," Javier says. He does not want to be lumped together with "all Mexicans," or labeled a problem, but judged for who he is as an individual. "I don't like it when my people abandon cars, or steal." If immigrants commit crimes, he thinks they should go to jail, or be deported. But "that no me." While many immigrants work under the table for cash, he is proud of the fact that he pays his taxes. Proud, too, that he gives a good day's work for his daily pay (a fact confirmed by his coworkers).
Javier's boss, Andy, thinks that immigration levels are too high and that too many people flout the law and work illegally. He was disappointed, he says, to find out several years ago that Javier was in the country illegally. Still he likes and respects Javier and worries about his family. He is trying to help him get legal residency.
With the government showing new initiative in immigration enforcement—including a well-publicized raid at a nearby meat-packing plant that caught hundreds of illegal workers—there is a lot of worry among undocumented immigrants. "Everyone scared now," Javier says. He and his wife used to go to restaurants or stores without a second thought; now they are sometimes afraid to go out. "It's hard," he says. But: "I understand. If the people say, 'All the people here, go back to Mexico,' I understand."
Javier's answer to one of my standard questions—"How might changes in immigration policy affect you?"—is obvious. Tighter enforcement could break up his family and destroy the life he has created here in America. An amnesty would give him a chance to regularize his life. "Sometimes," he says, "I dream in my heart, 'If you no want to give me paper for residence, or whatever, just give me permit for work.'"
* * *
It's a few months later and I'm back in Longmont, eating a 6:30 breakfast at a café out by the Interstate with Tom Kenney. Fit and alert, Tom looks to be in his mid-forties. Born and raised in Denver, he has been spraying custom finishes on drywall for twenty-five years and has had his own company since 1989. "At one point we had twelve people running three trucks," he says. Now his business is just him and his wife. "Things have changed," he says.
Although it has cooled off considerably, residential and commercialconstruction was booming when I interviewed Tom. The main "thing that's changed" is the number of immigrants in construction. When Tom got into it twenty-five years ago, construction used almost all native-born workers. Today estimates of the number of immigrant workers in northern Colorado range from 50% to 70% of the total construction workforce. Some trades, like pouring concrete and framing, use immigrant labor almost exclusively. Come in with an "all-white" crew of framers, another small contractor tells me, and people do a double-take.
Tom is an independent contractor, bidding on individual jobs. But, he says, "guys are coming in with bids that are impossible." After all his time in the business, "no way they can be as efficient in time and materials as me." The difference has to be in the cost of labor. "They're not paying the taxes and insurance that I am," he says. Insurance, workmen's compensation, and taxes add about 40% to the cost of legally employed workers. When you add the lower wages that immigrants are often willing to take, there is plenty of opportunity for competing contractors to underbid Tom and still make a tidy profit. He no longer bids on the big new construction projects and jobs in individual, custom-built houses are becoming harder to find.
"I've gone in to spray a house and there's a guy sleeping in the bathtub, with a microwave set up in the kitchen. I'm thinking, 'You moved into this house for two weeks to hang and paint it, you're gonna get cash from somebody, and he's gonna pick you up and drive you to the next one.'" He seems more upset at the contractor than at the undocumented worker who labors for him.
In this way, some trades in construction are turning into the equivalent of migrant labor in agriculture. Workers do not have insurance or workmen's compensation, so if they are hurt or worn out on the job, they are simply discarded and replaced. Workers are used up, while the builders and contractors higher up the food chain keep more of the profits for themselves. "The quality of life [for construction workers] has changed drastically," says Tom. "I don't want to live like that. I want to go home and live with my family."
Do immigrants perform jobs Americans don't want to do? I ask. The answer is no. "My job is undesirable," Tom replies. "It's dirty, it's messy, it's dusty. I learned right away that because of that, the opportunity is available to make money in it. That job has served me well"—at least up until recently. He now travels as far away as Wyoming and southern Colorado to find work. "We're all fighting for scraps right now."
Over the years, Tom has built a reputation for quality work and efficient and prompt service, as I confirmed in interviews with others in the business. Until recently that was enough to secure a good living. Now though, like a friend of his who recently folded his small landscaping company ("I just can't bid 'em low enough"), Tom is thinking of leaving the business. He is also struggling to find a way to keep up the mortgage payments on his house.
He does not blame immigrants, though. "If you were born in Mexico, and you had to fight for food or clothing, you would do the same thing," Tom tells me. "You would come here."
* * *
Any immigration policy will have winners and losers. So claims Harvard economist George Borjas, a leading authority on the economic impacts of immigration. My interviews with Javier Morales and Tom Kenney suggest why Borjas is right.
If we enforce our immigration laws, then good people like Javier and his family will have their lives turned upside down. If we limit the numbers of immigrants, then good people in Mexico (and Guatemala, and Vietnam, and the Philippines ...) will have to forgo opportunities to live better lives in the United States.
On the other hand, if we fail to enforce our immigration laws or repeatedly grant amnesties to people like Javier who are in the country illegally, then we forfeit the ability to set limits to immigration. And if immigration levels remain high, then hard-working men and women like Tom and his wife and children will probably continue to see their economic fortunes decline. Economic inequality will continue to increase in America, as it has for the past four decades.
In the abstract neither of these options is appealing. When you talk to the people most directly affected by our immigration policies, the dilemma becomes even more acute. But as we will see further on when we explore the economics of immigration in greater detail, these appear to be the options we have.
Recognizing trade-offs—economic, environmental, social—is indeed the beginning of wisdom on the topic of immigration. We should not exaggerate such conflicts, or imagine conflicts where none exist, but neither can we ignore them. Here are some other trade-offs that immigration decisions may force us to confront:
Cheaper prices for new houses vs. good wages for construction workers.
Accommodating more people in the United States vs. preserving wildlife habitat and vital resources.
Increasing ethnic and racial diversity in America vs. enhancing social solidarity among our citizens.
More opportunities for Latin Americans to work in the United States vs. greater pressure on Latin American elites to share wealth and opportunities with their fellow citizens.
The best approach to immigration will make such trade-offs explicit, minimize them where possible, and choose fairly between them when necessary.
Since any immigration policy will have winners and losers, at any particular time there probably will be reasonable arguments for changing the mix of immigrants we allow in, or for increasing or decreasing overall immigration, with good people on all sides of these issues. Whatever your current beliefs, by the time you finish this book you should have a much better understanding of the complex trade-offs involved in setting immigration policy. This may cause you to change your views about immigration. It may throw your current views into doubt, making it harder to choose a position on how many immigrants to let into the country each year; or what to do about illegal immigrants; or whether we should emphasize country of origin, educational level, family reunification, or asylum and refugee claims, in choosing whom to let in. In the end, understanding trade-offs ensures that whatever policies we wind up advocating for are more consciously chosen, rationally defensible, and honest. For such a contentious issue, where debate often generates more heat than light, that might have to suffice.
* * *
Perhaps a few words about my own political orientation will help clarify the argument and goals of this book. I'm a political progressive. I favor a relatively equal distribution of wealth across society, economic security for workers and their families, strong, well-enforced environmental protection laws, and an end to racial discrimination in the United States. I want to maximize the political power of common citizens and limit the influence of large corporations. Among my political heroes are the three Roosevelts (Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor), Rachel Carson, and Martin Luther King Jr.
I also want to reduce immigration into the United States. If this combination seems odd to you, you are not alone. Friends, political allies, even my mother the social worker shake their heads or worse when I bring up the subject. This book aims to show that this combination of political progressivism and reduced immigration is not odd at all. In fact, it makes more sense than liberals' typical embrace of mass immigration: an embrace shared by many conservatives, from George W. Bush and Orrin Hatch to the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and the US Chamber of Commerce.
In what follows I detail how current immigration levels—the highest in American history—undermine attempts to achieve progressive economic, environmental, and social goals. I have tried not to oversimplify these complex issues, or mislead readers by cherry-picking facts to support pre-established conclusions. I have worked hard to present the experts' views on how immigration affects US population growth, poorer workers' wages, urban sprawl, and so forth. Where the facts are unclear or knowledgeable observers disagree, I report that, too.
This book is divided into four main parts. Chapters 1 and 2 set the stage for us to consider how immigration relates to progressive political goals. Chapter 2, "Immigration by the Numbers," provides a concise history of US immigration policy. It explains current policy, including who gets in under what categories of entry and how many people immigrate annually. It also discusses population projections for the next one hundred years under different immigration scenarios, showing how relatively small annual differences in immigration numbers quickly lead to huge differences in overall population.
Part 2 consists of chapters 3–5, which explore the economics of immigration, showing how flooded labor markets have driven down workers' wages in construction, meatpacking, landscaping, and other economic sectors in recent decades, and increased economic inequality. I ask who wins and who loses economically under current immigration policies and consider how different groups might fare under alternative scenarios. I also consider immigration's contribution to economic growth and argue that unlike fifty or one hundred years ago America today does not need a larger economy, with more economic activity or higher levels of consumption, but rather a fairer economy that better serves the needs of its citizens. Here as elsewhere, the immigration debate can clarify progressive political aspirations; in this case, helping us rethink our support for endless economic growth and develop a more mature understanding of our economic goals.
Part 3, chapters 6–8, focuses on the environment. Mass immigration has increased America's population by tens of millions of people in recent decades and is set to add hundreds of millions more over the twenty-first century. According to Census Bureau data our population now stands at 320 million people, the third-largest in the world, and at current immigration rates could balloon to over 700 million by 2100. This section examines the environmental problems caused by a rapidly growing population, including urban sprawl, overcrowding, habitat loss, species extinctions, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. I chronicle the environmental community's historic retreat from population issues over the past four decades, including the Sierra Club's failed attempts to adopt a consensus policy on immigration, and conclude that this retreat has been a great mistake. Creating an ecologically sustainable society is not just window dressing; it is necessary to pass on a decent future to our descendants and do our part to solve dangerous global environmental problems. Because sustainability is incompatible with an endlessly growing population, Americans can no longer afford to ignore domestic population growth.
Excerpted from How Many Is Too Many? by Philip Cafaro. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsChapter One. Good People, Hard Choices, and an Inescapable Question
Chapter Two. Immigration by the Numbers
Chapter Three. The Wages of Mass Immigration
Chapter Four. Winners and Losers
Chapter Five. Growth, or What Is an Economy For?
Chapter Six. Population Matters
Chapter Seven. Environmentalists’ Retreat from Demography
Chapter Eight. Defusing America’s Population Bomb—or Cooking the Earth
Chapter Nine. Solutions
Chapter Ten. Objections
Chapter Eleven. Conclusion
What People are Saying About This
“An articulate and readable book about a subject too long ignored, even considered taboo, in American public policy: overpopulation. Cafaro provides convincing arguments that Americans cannot create an ecologically sustainable society with twice as many people, or successfully combat growing economic inequality while flooding labor markets with millions of poor and desperate job seekers. A wake-up call for progressives to rethink immigration matters and support policies that further the common good.”
“Cafaro’s work is highly original, focusing on a question that most liberals, as well as libertarians, studiously avoid, and showing that it is the key question that they must be pushed to consider. At the same time it is balanced, drawing on the work of both supporters and detractors. Indeed, Cafaro’s treatment of this controversial subject is calm and even-tempered, deploying his few barbs only where they are truly justified.”
“Dealing with immigration to the United Stateslegal and illegalis of the utmost importance, because immigration is the biggest driver of our explosive population growth, which is the biggest plight we face. Cafaro is our most trustworthy thinker and writer about immigration matters, because he does not demonize immigrants but rather sympathizes with them, while clearly showing that continued high immigration will be deadly to American wildlands and wildlife, as well as to our culture of liberty and tolerance. Read How Many Is Too Many? to understand the tangled problem of immigration.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The author is a progressive who wants a sustainable US population size (for environmental reasons) and better wages for less-skilled workers in the US. He wants to reduce immigration for those two reasons, and others. The book is very easy to read, heartfelt and seems reasonable. The only downside is that his view of how things should be, as a progressive, is very appealing; I'm a Republican but I agree with nearly everything he says!