(Note: This essay, abridged, was originally published at thehill.com on February 25, 2019.)
The Republicans and Democrats have reached a compromise on the border issue. President Trump, not happy with the mere $1.38 billion in the compromise bill for his wall, has declared a national emergency so that he can use other appropriated funds for this wall. However, the real national emergency is not keeping people out with a wall; rather, it is getting the right people to come to America to counter its very low fertility rate.
In the long term, human economic and personal insecurity and climate change will increase the flow of migrants and refugees from points known but also unknown. Now that the U.S. fertility rate has dropped to 1.76, well below the replacement rate, America’s challenge—if it wants to remain a superpower—is not to build walls and restrict migrant flow excessively, as the Trump Administration has, but rather to manage properly a more generous migrant flow so that its population continues to grow, with all the attendant benefits.
The World Migration Report for 2018, authored by the UN International Organization for Migration, estimates a total of 244 million migrants, including over 40 million internally displaced persons and 22 million refugees. The report cites the reasons for the recent increase in displaced people, including conflict, persecution, environmental change, and a lack of human security and opportunity.
Focusing on the United States, the PEW Research Center in November 2018, presented data on migration to the United States. The U.S. has more immigrants that any other country, about 40 million, about 20% of the world’s immigrant population, people born in another country, with just about every other country in the world represented. They make up 13.5% of the U.S. population. A total of 10.7 million are unauthorized or illegal (23.7% of U.S. immigrants). Unauthorized migrants tripled in size during the period 1990-2007, and then declined after the Great Recession of 2008-2009. In the period 2007-2016, unauthorized migrants from Mexico declined while those from Central America increased. Since 2010, more Asian than Hispanic migrants have arrived each year. Regarding refugees, in FY 2017, almost 54,000 were resettled in the U.S.; the largest came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Myanmar.
Several factors suggest that migrant flow to U.S. borders will increase in the future. Just beyond Mexico lie the three countries from whom the highly publicized “caravans” of migrants have come in recent years. Over the past five years Stephanie Leutert, writing in Foreign Affairs, indicated 875,000 migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have come to the U.S. border, driven mainly by rampant gang violence and economic hardship. However, without a job or family in the U.S. these migrants, most moving in family groups, have no legal pathway into the U.S. Until the factors, pushing these migrants to leave, are dealt with, we can expect this migrant flow from Central America to continue.
A second factor which will increase migrant flow to the U.S., a land in what Thomas Friedman calls the “zone of order” , is climate change, an issue in which the U.S. once led but now, under the Trump Administration, dawdles and denies. Over three years ago at a Commencement for the Coast Guard Academy, President Barak Obama sketched the risks ahead. “Around the world, climate change increases the risk of instability and conflict. Rising seas are already swallowing low-lying lands, from Bangladesh to Pacific islands, forcing people from their homes. Caribbean islands and Central American coasts are vulnerable, as well. Globally, we could see a rise in climate change refugees. … Elsewhere, more intense droughts will exacerbate shortages of water and food, increase competition for resources, and create the potential for mass migrations and new tensions. All of which is why the Pentagon calls climate change a “threat multiplier.”
The Trump Administration has disallowed the Department of Defense from addressing the impact of climate change in any meaningful way, deleting it from the official list of national security threats. However, a recent DOD report maintains that it is, stating: “The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations.”
Climate change is manifesting itself in sea level rise here in the U.S. and beyond. Almost three years ago The New Scientist, using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, indicated that the sea level will rise 1.8 meters by the year 2100, probably displacing over 13 million people in the U.S.
Internationally, the effects of climate change were addressed at the two-week UN climate conference in Paris in December 2015. Sewall Chan’s reporting on the conference indicated that warming, in addition to other effects, can cause violence leading to the large-scale displacement of people. The conference’s report noted that between 2008-2014, an average of 26.4 million people were displaced each year by floods, storms, earthquakes, and other natural disasters (although most moved within their own countries). The accord called for developing recommendations “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”
William Lacy Swing, a retired American ambassador who now leads the International Organization for Migration, said that climate change was adding to a “perfect storm” of “unprecedented human mobility,” a result of the quadrupling of the world’s population over the last century and wars, conflicts and persecution.
The world’s many glaciers continue to melt, a clear result of global warming. Dr. Twila Moon, University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote of this in the journal Science in May 2017: “The evidence is overwhelming: Earth is losing its ice. Much of this loss is irreversible and the result of human-caused climate change,” Glaciers all over the world are disappearing and should be the subject of “international concern.” Among other effects, millions of people will be forced to leave their homes by rising seas, crucial sources of water will run dry and wildlife will lose sources of nutrients and shelter. The US Geological Survey has reported that the Glacier National Park in Montana has lost more than 120 glaciers in the last century. And Dr. Moon said this was a pattern repeated all over the world from the Antarctic Peninsular to Patagonia, Kilimanjaro, the Himalayas, Greenland and the Arctic.
Also in the journal Science, in December 2017, a team of scientists, studying weather variations from 2000-2014 in 103 countries and their effects on asylum applications to the European Union concluded that “weather-induced conflicts in developing countries spill over to developed countries through asylum application.” “Our findings support the assessment that climate change, especially continued warming, will add another ‘threat multiplier’ that induces people to seek refuge abroad.”
The final factor arguing for a less restrictive immigration policy is the dramatic fall in the U.S. total fertility rate. This rate has dropped since the Great Recession of 2008 to 1.76 births per woman in 2017, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 needed to keep a population stable. Despite this drop, the Trump Administration has moved to restrict immigration.
This trend has significant negative implications for our Social Security and Medicare programs. As medical experts John Rowe, Dana Goldman, and S. Jay Olshansky have indicated: “The significant reduction in fertility in the U.S., if not offset by enhanced immigration or greater worker productivity, puts these programs at risk.”
The white population has a very low fertility rate among all groups within the U.S. population. Therefore, it is the minority groups who are contributing the most to the U.S. population. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution has demonstrated where future gains will likely come. “The likely source of future gains among the nation’s population of children, teenagers, and young working adults is minorities—Hispanics, Asians, blacks, and others. Also Statista reported that Hispanics in 2017 had the highest fertility rate among significant minorities. (Native Hawaiians/Other Pacific Islanders had the highest.)
Military might, economic prowess, and natural resources have always been measures of a state’s power. Today we can add such things as technological capability and innovation, entrepreneurial talent, cybersecurity and strength. It is surprising that in an Administration filled with so many “realists,” including President Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton, there is such a lack of concern with one of the most fundamental sources of a state’s power—population.
The trends discussed above suggest that the U.S. will continue to be a magnet for immigrants, pulled to our borders by order and economic opportunity, and pushed by violence and climate change in their home countries. With the dramatic drop in the U.S. fertility rate over the past decade, it would be wise for the United States—rather than overly restricting immigration—to streamline its immigration policies to accept the right combination of skilled and unskilled workers, innovative entrepreneurs and also families who can give us young Americans.
Fred Zilian, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of “From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter @FredZilian.