What the 2010 census does and doesn’t tell us

The 2010 census tells us our population grew from 282 million in 2000 to 309 million in 2010, a net increase of 27 million residents in a decade. The census tells us that 71% of that growth is attributable to two ethnic groups, Hispanics and Asians, who together made up only 16% of the population in 2000.

The roll out of census statistics has not yet told us how much of the increase is attributable to immigration, though a Pew Research Center study suggests that as much as 82% of our post-2005 population growth may be attributable to post-2005 immigration including the descendents of those immigrants. The census does not tell us how much of the increase is due to illegal immigration.

The census doesn’t tell us what our population will be in the future. But the same Pew Research Center study projects a total U.S. population of 438 million in 2050 if there are no policy changes, an increase of 129 million over the 2010 population.

Is that good? Is it bad? How do we decide? And what can we do to either increase or decrease the rate of population growth if we want to do so?

Population growth has consequences, both good and bad. Good consequences may include more people paying taxes to fund the costs of government. Bad consequences may include having to import more oil from the Middle East, drill more deep-water oil wells on the ocean floor, burn more coal to generate electricity, and install more nuclear power plants where we live. All these energy requirements are a direct function of population growth. And there are other challenges of providing enough good jobs, health care, educational opportunities, housing, and government services for a growing population.

The first question is whether we want to limit population growth by enforcing a numerical limit on immigration. Or, alternatively, if we want to abolish limits on immigration and allow the population to grow through unlimited immigration. This is what I call a binary choice. We have to choose one or the other, either numerical limits or no numerical limits.

A policy of limiting immigration requires us to rely on Congress to decide on what the limit should be, and what kinds of immigrants should be preferred to enter within the limit. A numerical limit means millions of would-be immigrants must be turned away, not because they’re bad people, but only because their admission would exceed our immigration limit. And if they enter in violation of our immigration law, they have to be deported, again not because they’re inherently bad people, but only because their presence as illegal immigrants violates the legal limit on immigration.

The current immigration deadlock is caused by politicians who want to set limits but not enforce them. Elected officials don’t want to do anything that might lose them any votes in the next elections. Too many of them have decided the optimum immigration policy in the interest of getting re-elected is to support a numerical limit, but oppose enforcement, and in fact to offer amnesty to all illegal immigrants.

If we’re not going to enforce our immigration laws through exclusion and deportation, we could save billions of dollars of enforcement costs by simply repealing the immigration laws and letting everyone in the world who wants to come here. But that’s also a political non-starter and vote loser.

The decennial census is a reminder that the choices we make, or don’t make, about immigration have consequences in population growth, and that population growth triggers additional requirements for energy generation, jobs, health care, education, housing, and government services including law enforcement.

See my article on page A2 of the Sunday, March 27, 2011, Philadelphia Inquirer.

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