What Is The Optimum Level Of Immigration To The United States?

crowdnationalmallThe above question presumes that there is a rational immigration policy that serves the national interest. But, there isn’t. What serves as a policy is a hodge-podge of disparate provisions that respond to particular interests. The largest of those interests is that of earlier immigrants who want to sponsor family members and other co-nationals. Employers in various sectors of the economy have vested interest in an increased supply of workers looking for work. Real estate developers and home builders are buoyed by a growing population fueled by immigration. And among these and many other special interests are those who simply believe the policy should be based on taking in the ‘tired and poor yearning to breathe free’ and one-worlders who reject the idea of borders.

All of those vested interests and ideological or religious positions fail to recognize a need for immigration limits – or at least a limit that would run counter to their position. Add to this mix of interests promoting mass immigration the fact that most politicians – at both the local and national level – see immigration as a political issue on which they can accommodate constituent interests by supporting increases in various categories of immigration.

FAIR is one of the few organizations that advocates for an immigration policy in the national interest. Our view that there must be rational limits to immigration is not unique, however. The last time a national commission was established to study immigration policy and make recommendations was when the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (USCIR) was established in the early 1990s. It issued a series of reports between 1994 and 1997. Among its recommendations, “It concluded that the current immigration system’s core element of chain migration [family–sponsored preferences] was not in accord with national interests and urged the adoption of a new system scaling back significantly on overall immigration levels. See U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. The recommended base annual level was set at 550,000 immigrants per year. That was about a third lower than the level of entries at that time, and much lower than the current rate of more than a million new legal immigrants per year. The Commission also found that admitting unskilled immigrants sponsored by an employer made no sense because of the competition with the nation’s own unskilled workers, and it found no justification for continuing a visa lottery to promote greater diversity in the flow of immigrants.

FAIR supported the recommendations of the Commission, although they did not go as far as necessary, in FAIR’s opinion, in reducing immigration as would be necessary to bring immigration policy into line with long-term national interests.

What is the long-term interest? That focus is consistently missed in the plethora of speeches and policy papers and studies focused on immigration policy, including the reports of the USCIR. The long-term focuses on the fact that we live in a world of limited resources – land, food production, fresh water, hydrocarbons (wood, coal, petroleum, etc.), minerals, etc. The world’s rapidly growing population is increasingly challenging those limits. That is the consensus of national and international experts including those of the United Nations Population Division. There is international consensus on the need to stop the rapid population growth currently projected to result in a global population of about 11 billion people by the end of the century – up from about 7.2 billion today. That projection has dire implications for all of the reasons related to limited resources – especially food production.

The United States is much better able to cope with dwindling world resources than other countries because we are endowed with a vast area and natural resources, but that does not mean that we can ignore the fact that we too face finite limits. The country is already facing fresh water scarcity in large areas of the country and currently enhanced petroleum extraction does not mean that finite national supplies are limitless.

The U.S. population soared from less than 180 million persons in 1960 to 319 million today according to Census Bureau statistics. That is an increase of nearly 80 percent in 54 years. Immigration is the largest component of that increase. At the present time about 75 percent of U.S. population increase is due to new immigration and the children born here to those new immigrants. That share of overall population increase has been steadily rising and is projected by the Pew Hispanic Center to rise to about 82 percent by 2050, based on current immigrant intake. But Congress has been considering a so-called ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ proposal – passed by the U.S. Senate last year – that would vastly expand the volume of immigrant arrivals.

The proponents of this ‘comprehensive’ measure represent the same collection of vested interests that has resisted the reform recommendations of the USCIR and has asserted that the reforms that would benefit them would be in the country’s interest. They ignore entirely the issue of long-term limits. That is one of the key why FAIR has opposed this legislation even though it includes a few of the policy changes recommended by the USCIR.

So what would be the immigration limits that would be in the U.S. national interest and why?

Obviously, the United States cannot stop world population growth by limiting U.S. population growth, but it can contribute to it. By working towards a stable U.S. population at a level that is sustainable in the long term, the country will be increasing its capability to assist other countries that are not as fortunate in natural resources.

The first objective of a rational long-term immigration policy should be one that contributes to U.S. population stability. That does not mean stopping immigration, but it does mean bringing the quantity of newcomers admitted into line with the number of U.S. residents leaving the country to live abroad. That level at present is estimated to be about 350,000 persons annually. That level is significantly higher than the average annual immigration intake between1925-1975. Clearly with a reduced level of immigration, the policy should assure that those arriving are those invited to join our society rather than those who arrive in violation of our immigration law.

Longer term, immigration policy should be tied to the country’s ability to support the population, i.e., its carrying capacity. Within that limit, it is fair for the vested interests that benefit from immigration to make their case for their interests, but only within the limits dictated by the overall long-term interests of the nation.

A succinct academic look at the issue of international population increase and carrying capacity is here.    

About Author


Jack, who joined FAIR’s National Board of Advisors in 2017, is a retired U.S. diplomat with consular experience. He has testified before the U.S. Congress, U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform and has authored studies of immigration issues. His national and international print, TV, and talk radio experience is extensive (including in Spanish).


  1. avatar

    Excellent, first-write article, Jack.

    Where are the liberals on this? And for that matter, where are the conservatives?

    Why does the MSN refuse to acknowledge America’s looming immigration and population disaster?

  2. avatar

    After a five year moratorium, no more than 200,000. Take away abortion on demand and maybe we can eventually sustain this unwanted influx. As it stands now, it’s overwhelming and damaging to our quality of life, our standard of living, our resources and our infrastructure. Congress MUST be held accountable and NO president has the authority to issue executive orders in this matter.

  3. avatar

    According to data from the Global Footprint Network, America’s ecological footprint was running at over twice its carrying capacity in 2007. So it should be obvious to anyone who cares about our future that we must reduce immigration to equal emigration as Mr. Martin describes, while at the same time reducing our personal consumption and stabilizing our population at a lower level.

    • avatar

      The Rockefeller Commission in the early 70s recommended that we stabilize our population at the then level of just over 200 million. They said there was nothing to be gained by further growth. Now we are on our way to 400 million and our politicians want to increase immigration, not decrease it.

      • avatar

        You are correct. Growth is a flawed model. Wall-to-Wall swarms of people in Dehili, India is not a survival mode. They have high growth and low quality of living.

  4. avatar

    The idea that mass legal and illegal immigration of millions of people into a country automatically equals stronger economic performance is not supported by facts. As mentioned above, the current US population is 319 million. In 2013 the US ran a current account deficit of $360 trillion, which consists of the balance of trade, net factor income (earnings on foreign investments minus payments made to foreign investors) and net cash transfers. US net foreign liabilities at last count were a shocking $4,277 billion. In 1960 when the US population was 180 million people the US had a positive current account surplus and was a creditor nation.

    Contrast our poor recent economic performance with Germany and Japan. Neither have mass immigration into their country and both of their country’s populations are much smaller than the US. The population of Germany is roughly 82 million. The German current account surplus for 2013, likely to have exceeded €200 billion ($270 billion) in 2013, was a world record. A current account surplus record with the United States is also expected for 2013.


    Germany’s net foreign assets, at $1,437 billion recently, rank among the world’s largest.


    Japan in 2014 has a population of 127 million. Japan’s net external assets rose to a record 325 trillion yen ($3.2 trillion) as of the end of 2013 as a weak yen boosted the value of overseas holdings, making the country the world’s biggest creditor nation for 23 years in a row, the finance ministry said.


    Other factors are also at work other than immigration and population growth, but the point is that increasing a country’s population by millions of people does not automatically equal economic success.

    • avatar

      Correction on my above post: the US ran a 360 billion dollar current account deficit in 2013. Sorry.

  5. avatar

    Actually there ARE “other countries not as fortunate in natural resources”. But that does not always mean anything. Israel is the most modern society in the region and has none of the oil wealth of some of it’s neighbors. Iraq for one. It has some of the biggest deposits of oil in the world, and it’s a dysfunctional society, like many of it’s fellow Muslim countries. They are killing and oppressing each other all over the region due to religious feuds from 1500 years ago. But we have to “respect” them, right? First, make yourself respectable and you might get some respect.

    On another issue, that of guest workers, the International Monetary Fund is saying that world economic growth may never return to pre crisis levels. And that is exactly what we see in this country. Except when you ask big business and they get out their crying towels about how they can’t get enough workers to pay minimum wage to.