© Richard Grossman MD, 2009
Immigration is an important part of the study of human population. It is a part that I have tried to ignore because I have strong, but conflicted, feelings about it.
In December 2007 a large package arrived from our son Bryan and daughter-in-law before Christmas. They were here for its opening—and what a surprise it was! We marveled at a copy of a ship’s manifest dated August 28th, 1906, showing the names of my father (age 4 years) and grandmother. They had traveled to Ellis Island, New York aboard the SS Potsdam.
My father didn’t talk much about his childhood. Growing up an Orthodox Jew, he was disowned by his family when he married my mother, a Christian. Despite their rocky start, my parents were together sixty years. I am happy that our country had an open immigration policy last century.
Our family received another benefit from immigration when our son Bryan e-mailed us that he was “the luckiest person in the world.” Previously hesitant to share details of his personal life, he had just met Ianina, his future wife. He traveled to Ukraine partly because that is where “Papa Lou” (his grandfather) had been born.
Bryan returned to Ukraine a few months after his first visit with an engagement ring. It took several months to negotiate our country’s immigration laws, but Ianina received a 90-day fiancée visa. She flew alone to New York, where Bryan greeted her at the airport. It was the first time she had ever been on an airplane, and the first time outside of her native land.
The first time we talked with Ianina we knew why Bryan considered himself so lucky. She had just started to study English and still had a heavy accent, but she was outgoing and charming. In those first weeks in New York, Ianina improved her English by traveling around the city with a camera. She would stop strangers on the street and ask them to take her picture, and then strike up a conversation.
Immigrants coming to the USA bring with them many wonderful characteristics. We are lucky to be able to enjoy many different authentic foods and other aspects of diverse cultures. Recent immigrants perform much of the menial work that citizens are loath to do; just look in the kitchens of Durango restaurants. People who leave their native lands often are more enterprising than those who stay behind; my father was a good example. You can thank (or curse) him if you have ever had a root canal done, because it was he who perfected that technique.
Many rich countries are facing a problem caused by decreasing population growth rates. They lack people to do strenuous labor, and some countries even import “guest” workers for this reason. Although our government doesn’t approve of illegal aliens, parts of our economy depend on them.
There are several categories of foreigners who are granted legal admission to the USA. They include children coming to be adopted, a family member rejoining a family, people with needed skills (such as physicians), refugees and asylum seekers, and spouses or fiancé(e)s such as Ianina.
The down side of immigration to the USA is that already we are the most overpopulated country in the world, in a sense. We are not able to nurture all the people who would like to move to the USA. Yes, the land can hold more people, but our extravagant consumption has made our numbers unsustainable. The Ecological Footprint of the average person in the USA is the largest for any country, and it is many times that of a person in a developing country.
When people move to our country they usually increase their consumption, thus their impact increases. Fortunately, they also tend to have smaller families than they might in their home country.
Allowing some immigrants to enter the USA certainly serves our country’s purposes. Currently over a million people enter the country legally every year, and perhaps the same number enters illegally. What is the correct number of immigrants? I don’t know, but it is certainly fewer than the current million. The last time I wrote on this subject was 1998 when we allowed in 800,000 immigrants. I suggested that 300,000 would be a reasonable limit, and it still seems that way.
The United States does not have a population policy, but it clearly needs one if we are going to live within sustainable limits. Slowing immigration would be an important part of such a policy.
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