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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Immigration Inflation

An ad running in San Diego and on MSNBC claims immigration will cause a rise in U.S. population equal to that of the American West within 30 years. That’s not true. The increase is projected to be substantial, but nowhere near that high, even counting the children and grandchildren of newly arriving immigrants, legal or illegal.

A group called Californians for Population Stabilization began running the ad April 17, pegging it to Earth Day, which is April 22. It argues that because the average U.S. resident uses more energy and generates more carbon emissions than residents of less-developed countries, controlling immigration is “part of the solution” to global warming.

That’s a matter of opinion, which we won’t debate one way or the other. It’s based on a 2008 study from the Center for Immigration Studies, which in turn is based on figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Those show that U.S. residents, per person, produce more tons of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels than the less-developed nations from which many U.S. immigrants arrive.

The ad makes one factual claim that is badly wrong, however.

CAPS narrator: Left alone, immigration will drive a population increase equal to the entire American West in just 30 years.

Different people have different ideas about which states are part of the “American West,” but the CAPS narrator holds a map showing 18 states (including Texas and Louisiana). The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the population of those 18 states was 111,030,138 as of July 1 last year.

Will immigration really produce such a large increase in just 30 years? It won’t, according to the very population expert whose research CAPS cites in support of its claim. Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Research Center co-authored a 2008 study projecting that 82 percent of U.S. population growth between 2005 and 2050 will be accounted for by newly arriving immigrants and their descendants. It projected that immigration would add 117 million people to the population, including 67 million immigrants, 47 million children and 3 million grandchildren.

That’s a lot, surely. And the 117 million total exceeds the current population of the 18 states shown in the ad. But Passel estimates it would take 45 years — not 30 — to reach that figure. “It makes a big difference,” Passel told us in a telephone interview. “A lot of the additional population is children and grandchildren of the new arrivals.” Allowing 15 years less time for bearing children and grandchildren produces “a lot smaller number,” he said.

At our request, Passel calculated the same figures for a 30-year period, starting in 2005. He figured that the growth would be 66 million, including 23 million children and grandchildren of new arrivals. That’s a large increase to be sure — but not as dramatic or shocking as the CAPS ad would have you believe.

And even that 66 million figure may be too large. Passel said in a message to us: “It’s also worth noting in passing, that for the first 7 years of the projection, 2005-2011, the actual levels of immigration have fallen short of what was projected (largely because of the Great Recession). A new projection for 2050 would likely be a bit short of what we previously projected.”

— Brooks Jackson