U.S. Worried About Population

At 11:03 on the morning of Nov. 20, 1967, a giant “census clock” in the U.S. Department of Commerce building in Washington marked the moment when the population of the United States reached the 200-million mark. The crowd in the lobby interrupted a speech by President Lyndon Johnson on American “greatness” to burst into applause. “’The bigger the better’ is almost an article of faith, as American as turkey on the Thanksgiving table,” wrote NEWSWEEK in its Nov. 27, 1967 issue.

When the population of the United States passes 300 million, probably some time later this week, there will be no elaborate official celebrations staged by the White House. At a time when about half the 1.5 million immigrants entering the United States are illegal, the Bush administration is not eager to call attention to America’s out-of-control borders. Many conservatives believe that unbridled immigration threatens to ruin the country. “This is an invasion, the greatest invasion in history,” writes Patrick J. Buchanan in his latest jeremiad, “State of Emergency.” Buchanan compares the United States to ancient Rome, sacked by alien hordes. Not everyone who fears illegal immigration is quite so rabid, but a clear majority of the country would like to find a way to staunch the waves pouring over the border. Even back in 1967, some Americans worried about unlimited population growth. Now that roughly half the population growth comes from immigration, the country is taking a turn towards nativism, away from welcoming the outsiders who traditionally provided the wellsprings of American dynamism.

What happened to America’s faith in boundless growth, in Manifest Destiny and the Melting Pot and all those triumphant clichés of a nation that once called itself an “Empire of Liberty”? It is disturbing to think that Americans may not be able to afford to welcome those “masses yearning to breathe free,” that openness and growth may no longer be American birthrights. But the problem—and the solution—are not quite as simple as the talk show shouters would have you believe. A little history is useful to bear in mind.

In a sense, we have been here before. Over a century ago, at an exposition in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, an historian named Frederick Jackson Turner gave a famous speech on the “closing of the American frontier.” The 1890 census showed that America was now “settled,” Turner said. He warned that the nation would run out of resources and land to accommodate the incoming hordes. The country at the time was in the throes of an enormous immigration boom. Millions of refugees from poverty and oppression in southern and eastern Europe were filling American cities. By 1915, America was about one-fifth foreign-born, about what it is today.

Many Americans responded with nativism and racism. Social Darwinism was in vogue. It was widely believed that certain races (the “Nordics”) were superior to all the rest. Allowing alien races to mix with pure-blooded Americans might cause “race suicide,” or so the theorists warned. The Ku Klux Klan, mostly dormant since Reconstruction after the Civil War, began to ride and burn crosses again. The highbrows were also alarmed. In the 1890s, the Immigration Restriction League was started by five Harvard graduates to urge that immigrants be screened by education and literacy to “separate the desirable from the undesirable.” Chinese immigrants had been excluded since 1882; in the early 1920s, Congress passed laws putting tight quotas on eastern and southern European immigrants.

The door stayed closed for 40 years, until the liberalizing 1960s, when Congress abolished the national quota system. Immigration began to boom again, especially from Asia and Latin America. Many of these new arrivals have happily assimilated. Asian immigrants earn more than the average income for the nation as a whole. They attain such educational heights that elite universities have been accused of setting informal quotas to hold down their numbers (not unlike the Jewish quotas of the early 20th century). Mexicans have had a harder time. Though they bring a strong work ethic, their income has been held down by fierce competition for low-wage jobs from illegal immigrants. (In 2000, the average wage for Mexican Americans was a little more than half the average for all U.S. workers.) In the Southwest especially, illegal immigration has strained social services.

Unsurprisingly, a backlash against illegal immigration has been growing year by year, with conservative talk radio and many Republican congressmen calling for a wall across the border and a crack down on enforcement. Liberals have cried racism and asked how exactly the authorities can arrest and deport somewhere in the order of 10 million people. The Bush administration has found itself uncomfortably in the middle, urging better enforcement, but also a guest-worker program and amnesty for many illegals. Some environmental groups warn that population growth will literally suck us dry. They note that the giant aquifer that runs underneath the Southwest is gradually being depleted, with no way to recharge. Sprawl is choking suburbia, forcing ever longer commutes by automobiles, which guzzle more gasoline, producing more greenhouse gases.

It is true that America is a gigantically disproportionate consumer of the world’s resources and creator of its waste. But relative to great swathes of Europe and Asia, America is hardly overpopulated. (There are 31 people per square kilometer in the United States, versus a global average of 48). America still has room to spread out. William Frey, an internationally known demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington, foresees some interesting new migration patterns. By 2030, he projects a “New Sunbelt,” with the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah experiencing more than 25 percent population growth. As the Southwest fills up and runs low on water, even some old “Rust Belt” states in the Midwest could reverse their population declines.

The political impact may be enormous. “I think a lot of the current Red-Blue State thing will soon go out the window,” says Frey. “I think a lot of this liberal versus conservative stuff will disappear.” Frey sees a rise in what he calls “purple states.”

That does not mean, however, that social tensions will go away. It is not clear how the influx of younger, browner voters will feel about paying for the care of older, mostly white retirees, or how much the older voters will want to pay to educate the children of the newcomers. Assimilation does still work; the children and grandchildren of Mexican immigrants do learn to speak English, just as the offspring of Russians and Italians did a century ago.

But there is some question about how quickly and easily America can absorb the waves of largely uneducated, unskilled immigrants who want to come to the United States. The fear of “the other” is always deeply rooted. “Diversity is something we claim to value, but diversity is difficult,” says Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley. “When diversity suddenly and rapidly increases in new ways, it is especially difficult.”

The racism and nativism of the anti-immigration movement of the early 19th century were deplorable. But it cannot be denied that curbing immigration for several decades in the early-to-mid 20th century gave America some breathing room; it bought time for the melting pot to work. NEWSWEEK columnist Robert J. Samuelson has written that, paradoxically, “to make immigration succeed, we must control immigration.” If we can, then maybe when the population passes the 400-million mark sometime around mid-century, the nation can celebrate again.

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