Until recently, thinking and writing in dubious terms about immigration has been, well, something that polite and right-thinking folks just didn’t do. But now that taboo seems to be lifting, as evidenced by the recent publication of such books as George Kennan’s Around the Cragged Hill and Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the Twenty-First Century: both of these volumes feature forthright, unsentimental, and critical analyses of international migration phenomena. Among those calling for a reappraisal of our immigration policies is Virginia Abernethy, professor of psychiatry (anthropology) at Vanderbilt Medical School and editor of Population and Environment. In her fact-filled new book, Population Politics, she covers a wide range of topics relating to why so many of our planet’s people wish to emigrate to this country.

Abernethy’s interest in American immigration policy comes out of an overarching concern about growth in general and population growth in particular. She clearly is not of the Julian Simon-Cornucopian school, and she believes that we are approaching limits in many quarters. With the global population rising at a rate of 10,000 people an hour, 250,000 a day, 95 million a year, where, she wants to know, will the necessary natural resources be found and the resulting wastes go?

In the book’s opening section. Professor Abernethy deals with matters pertaining to demographics and the exhaustion of planetary riches. In the second section she focuses on one of her main targets, the hallowed theory of the demographic transition. In summary, this counterintuitive notion holds that in the developed world, birthrates dropped from historic highs because conditions improved; therefore, the way to lower birthrates in today’s less-developed countries is by improving economic conditions through various “development” schemes. Abernethy explains why the experience of the West is unique in the demographic history of mankind. She gives many examples of just the opposite effect occurring, where in hard times people had fewer children but then produced more when conditions improved. (Conditions do not actually have to be better: a sense of improvement accompanying some modernizing or developmental work, or the renewed propaganda of the “unlimited resources” school, is often sufficient to touch off a fertility boom.) In a singular contribution to the debate over the ethics of immigration policies, the author contends that even the prospect of emigration is pronatalist in its effect, focusing as it does attention away from local limits, the perception of which is antinatalist; she adds that emigration as an option forestalls attempts to deal with local problems and encourages would-be emigres to run away from them. How will pressing difficulties ever be resolved if those who can envision a better life somewhere else simply pack up and leave? As Professor Abernethy remarks, “Perceived opportunities to emigrate may be just as corrosive as large-scale aid. Immigration appeals to many of the most energetic people of a society—exactly those people who would be most likely to promote constructive reform at home.”

Skeptics of foreign aid will find much useful material in the third part of Population Politics, which details the failings of many international development schemes. Abernethy takes the position that foreign aid should at least not harm the countries it is intended to help—as did the drilling of water wells for cattle in the Sahel, which began the process of desertification. Abernethy’s review of counterproductive foreign aid projects brings to mind William and Elizabeth Paddock’s We Don’t Know How (1973), which recounts the failure of many foreign aid efforts in Latin America. Abernethy does suggest small-scale development projects of a type that does not overwhelm traditional controls on fertility or encourage unrealistic expectations. She makes a solid ease that fertility control depends mostly on motivation rather than on mechanics, and that motivation is tied to a strong sense of limits. A review of traditional methods of control, ranging from polygyny and sub-incision to delayed or foregone marriage, is one of the most valuable features of her volume.

In the book’s fourth and final section, Abernethy considers the demographic history of Europe and the United States, pointing out that low fertility characterized the Depression and that the baby boom was ignited by the remarkable post-World War II recovery—exactly the opposite of what demographic transition theory would predict. From there she launches into a no-holds-barred attack on current American immigration policy, stressing that slightly more than half of the 50 million-increase in our population from 1970 to 1990 (without which we would now be well on our way to stabilizing our numbers) is attributable to immigrants and their offspring. She addresses virtually every relevant economic, environmental, social, and cultural argument for and against a continuation of that policy.

Readers of this book may be especially interested in Professor Abernethy’s explanation of sustainability and carrying capacity, both based on the questions: What is an acceptable standard of living, and how many people can we support at that level without running down the resource base? Here Abernethy marshals an impressive array of evidence to support her contention that, should the United States fail to create a sustainable socioeconomic environment, the future is bleak, not only for this country but for those that are dependent upon our food surpluses: “by the year 2000, 64 out of 117 third-world countries will have become dependent on donated food, and a majority of these 64 will be unable to support as many as one-half of [their] projected numbers. . . . The United States will have ceased by then [sometime in the 2007-2025 period] to be a net exporter of food.”

Abernethy uses recent U.S. Census Bureau population projections, which have since been sharply revised—upward, of course. (In 1989, the Census had projected a United States population in 2050 of 303 million—it’s currently about 255 million; three years later they upped this to 383 million! This inflation is due chiefly to the increased immigration mandated by Congress in 1990, plus the high average fertility of immigrants.) She offers a particularly devastating comparison of immigration control efforts in other countries with the lack of such by the United States. One wonders if we haven’t permitted the Constitution to be transformed into a suicide pact.

The penultimate chapter, “Let Freedom Ring,” will interest those concerned with preserving personal liberty in America. As Abernethy observes, jamming more people into the same space is generally not conducive to maintaining personal freedom: “Many choices vanish when we live close to other people. Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” Congressional constituencies in 1790 amounted to 30,000 people; today they include 20 times that number. At a population of 435 million, which we could easily reach in the next century, the ratio would be 1 million constituents to one representative. What will be an individual’s chance of being heard amid such a mob? Or do we prefer Senator Eugene McCarthy’s proposal to double the size of Congress as a means of lowering that ratio?

Unfortunately, Professor Abernethy provides no information on the political structure of the immigration issue in Congress or the Executive Branch, nor any suggestions for what the now galvanized reader might actually do: there is no list of organizations one might join, no numbers of hot lines to call, no suggestions on what or when to write one’s congressman.

Still, the only major bone I’d pick with Abernethy is her characterization of the immigration policy she opposes as a liberal one. I believe that what she means by liberal is large-scale, lax, open-ended, open-door, or even promiscuous—but surely not liberal in the classic political sense of the term. By this application of the word, she invites confusion. We want our friends who see themselves as political liberals to join us in the quest for immigration reform without having to commit the apostasy of rejecting a liberal immigration policy. Let us eliminate that hurdle, then, by stigmatizing the opposition’s policy as something—anything—other than that.


[Population Politics: The Choices That Shape Our Future, by Virginia Abernethy (New York: Plenum Publishing Corporation) 300 pp., $26.50]