This compendium on immigration by editors of the National Research Council (NRC) includes the work of 14 scholars, among them economists, demographers, and sociologists. At least one of the contributors is a strong advocate of high levels of immigration, while another has recently criticized current policy for ignoring the decline in skills and levels of education among recent immigrants.

Despite the balanced appearance of the report, its findings immediately became a political hot potato. The New York Times, always a reliable advocate of mass legal immigration and generous public benefits for immigrants (as well as the publisher of Abe Rosenthal’s occasional paean to illegal aliens) trumpeted the economic benefits of immigration—net additions to Gross Domestic Product in the range of one to ten billion dollars annually—while leaving it to other publications to put these figures in perspective: E Magazine and National Review have noted that one to ten billion dollars amount to a drop in the bucket of a $7.6 trillion annual economy. This net economic increment, moreover, is the residual of an annual wealth transfer of $140 billion to owners of capital, and $133 billion away from wage and salary earners. George Borjas has discovered that this redistribution of wealth is caused by wage depression and labor displacement effected by immigration, although the transfer of wealth from lower- and middle-class Americans to wealthy ones is plainly contrary to the trend of public policy over the last 60 years. A more recent study by the Rand Corporation of California, where about one-third of all immigrants are concentrated, finds that “1 to 1.5% of [California’s] adult native-born population has left the labor force or become unemployed because of immigration.” The NRC report, while citing few local labor market effects, acknowledges —as documented by William Fry of the University of Michigan — that many black and white displaced Americans have fled the state.

The fiscal effects of immigration are undesirable. California and New Jersey, as states with large immigrant populations, are the object of careful analysis by the NRC, whose report for 1994-95 shows an immigration-related, additional annual tax burden of $1,174 on every household in California headed by a native-born American. Assuming that the fiscal burden were shared nationally, the tax burden per native household would rise into the range of $ 15 to $21 for every million immigrants. This apparently means that the 27 million foreign-born persons now in the United States cost each native household $405 ($15 x 27 = $405) or more in added taxes (a figure, however, that does not correspond to the lower number reported on page 293 of the study). Overall, the NRC estimates immigration to impose an annual net fiscal cost of 15 to 20 billion dollars or more, if California’s expensive, state-mandated welfare benefits and its preponderance of Mexican and Central American immigrants, who average less than an eighth-grade education, are extrapolated nationwide.

Yet these figures are partial, and already outdated. The report assumed a reduction in immigrant welfare and supplementary income entitlements passed by the 1996 Congress and signed into law by President Clinton. But in 1997, lawmakers restored most of these cuts in transfer payments to all immigrants legally resident in the United States by August 1996. The NRC’s accounting of the fiscal burden chargeable to immigration also ignores the added social welfare spending on behalf of unemployed or “discouraged” Americans displaced by immigrants.

Additionally, the cost appears far greater if the accounting charge for public goods (which constitute 23.7 percent of all federal outlays, including national defense, public health, and other categories) are assigned on a pro rata basis to immigrant-headed households, as is standard practice with native households. The rationale for not doing so is that expenditures are fixed and do not vary with population numbers. Assuming the independence of these expenditures from the volatile immigrant population is, however, simplistic. Who would ignore the public health burden of a large foreign population whose members are much more likely than the native population to be infected with diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, and mosquito-transmitted malaria? Tuberculosis is a renewed threat in New York City, for example, where the cost of control has gone from close to zero in the early 1980’s to upward of $50 million annually.

The decision to exempt immigrants from a pro rata accounting charge for public goods seems overly facile, but the same cannot be said of a second major accounting strategy involving the cost of immigration throughout the immigrants’ expected lifetimes and those of their descendants. In fact, immigrant participation in Social Security has foreseeably negative consequences since today’s working immigrants will age and become beneficiaries of that system. Seventy percent of immigrants are less educated or less skilled than the average native-born American, meaning that their individual Social Security contributions are below average when compared with payments made by others in the labor force. Since Social Security is a redistributive system, people who contribute less receive a proportionately larger benefit relative to their contribution. It follows that the system incurs larger net liabilities for low-wage earners than for high-wage ones, and that immigrants as a category account for a particularly onerous liability because the vast majority are low-wage earners. Professor Donald Huddle estimates that immigrants contributed $ 12.66 billion (17 percent of their taxes) to Social Security in 1994, which made them eligible (under the current system) for up to $23.16 billion in benefits. Thus, the net Social Security liability attributable to immigrants in 1994 was $10.5 billion. Although the benefits-to-contributions ratio is likely to be reduced across the board, low-wage earners, such as most immigrants, will almost certainly continue to receive proportionately higher benefits relative to amounts paid in. If the influx of predominantly unskilled immigrants continues, privatization of Social Security might be more compatible with the national interest.

The report notes in passing several areas excluded from analysis. Among these are the decision not to “consider the possibility that immigrants impose fiscal costs indirectly, by causing native workers to become unemployed or to drop into poverty due to reduced wages.” Donald Huddle and David Simcox say these costs amount to billions of dollars. The report’s most glaring omission, however, involves immigration’s impact upon the environment. The authors appear to believe that, because these effects are gradual and difficult to quantify, the subject is of negligible importance. But the magnitude and cost of environmental damage caused by population growth are significant and can be apprehended through such phenomena as greenhouse gas emissions.

In November 1997, President Clinton proposed that the United States reduce these emissions by the year 2010 to 1990 levels. But few people—the President included—make the connection between population growth and the production of CO and other gases. In fact, U.S. energy use increased by 25 percent from 1970 to 1990, and 93 percent of that increase is attributable to population growth. Between 1990 and 1996, U.S. carbon emissions produced by burning fossil fuels (part of the greenhouse gas mix) increased 8 percent, and they are predicted to increase by 13 percent for the decade. Fred Meyerson has estimated that “over 70% of carbon emission increases in this decade can . . . be attributed to population growth,” and this figure may be low, since Meyerson uses the upwardly revised population census number for 1990 and therefore may be underestimating subsequent growth.

Using the Census Bureau’s unadjusted count of roughly 249 million people in 1990, the NRC report projects a U.S. population of 277 million by the turn of the century and an increase of 30 million people between 2000 and 2010 (assuming that present immigration trends continue). With 58 million more people in the United States in 2010 than in 1990, and population growth recently accounting for 70 to 90 percent of the growth in carbon emissions, how can Clinton or Core—or anyone—expect to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without per capita reductions in energy use so severe as to create an economic calamity?

The United States, by continuing to allow population growth at a rate faster than that experienced by any other industrialized country, is pursuing a suicidal course; population reduction would better suit the circumstances of looming environmental constraints. The NRC report, while falling short of this conclusion, does consider matters of population congestion, the redistribution of wealth, and the fiscal effects of immigration, all of which we must expect to produce growing national unease, perhaps in the near future.


[The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, edited by James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press) 448 pp., $49.95]