Professor offers progressive arguments for reducing immigration

A Colorado State University faculty member’s new book shows that views on immigration don’t always break neatly along political lines: He uses progressive positions to argue for reducing immigration into the United States.

photo of Phil Cafaro
Phil Cafaro says immigration should be curtailed because of its effect on the environment and wage inequality. (Click to enlarge.)

Philip Cafaro, a CSU philosophy professor, develops both environmental and economic arguments to make his case that the rapidly growing U.S. population needs to be curtailed by restricting the primary source of that growth: the influx of people from other countries.

At current immigration levels, the U.S. population is on track to double by the year 2100. In How Many is Too Many: The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States, Cafaro argues that population growth leads to sprawling development, greater crowding, more pollution, increased greenhouse-gas emissions, and less room on the planet for other species. In the book, recently published by the University of Chicago Press, he also provides evidence that flooding labor markets with immigrants drives down workers’ wages, undermines unionization efforts, and increases economic inequality.

The book has a Colorado focus — it features dozens of interviews with residents of the Centennial State: workers and employers, immigrants and natives, and environmentalists from across the state.

President Barack Obama and Congress are still at loggerheads over the issue following Obama’s Nov. 20 announcement of executive actions prioritizing deportation of “felons, not families,” and granting up to 5 million undocumented immigrants permission to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation. Immigration promises to be a big issue in the 2016 election, and Cafaro says the desire to curtail it is not just a conservative value.

book cover
(Click to enlarge.)

“Progressives who care about protecting the environment and increasing wages for workers and the middle class, who want a more sustainable and egalitarian society, should support reduced immigration,” he says. “Lots of progressives oppose this position, but at some basic level I think many of them know that the immigration status quo is harmful to progressive political goals.”

According to Cafaro, current immigration levels undermine efforts to achieve a more economically just and ecologically sustainable society. In How Many is Too Many? he argues that a growing population uses more resources and generates more pollution, and that mass immigration increases the wage gap between rich and poor Americans.

He suggests shifting enforcement efforts away from border control and toward employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. He also proposes aid and foreign policies that will help people create better lives where they are. And he supports amnesty for those who have already built their lives here.

Cafaro says he is not targeting any particular immigrant population, and isn’t even focused on undocumented immigrants.

“Most immigrants come here legally,” he says, citing Census Bureau statistics that there are approximately 1.3 million immigrants coming into the U.S. each year, and only about 200,000 of them are undocumented.

Cafaro acknowledges getting backlash for his position, being a long-time registered Democrat, but he says he also gets kudos for bringing up some uncomfortable issues that need to be addressed. A Jan. 19 essay on the topic that he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education generated 120 comments.

“I’ve been called names,” he says. “You have people thanking you and people cursing you.”

Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, a Democrat, says of the book: “Cafaro provides convincing arguments that Americans cannot create an ecologically sustainable society with twice as many people, or successfully combat growing economic inequality while flooding labor markets with millions of poor and desperate job seekers.” Lamm calls the book “a wake-up call for progressives to rethink immigration matters and support policies that further the common good.”

Note to reporters: To request a review copy of the book, contact Ryo Yamaguchi at University of Chicago Press at