Commentary

FAIR Ads Unfairly Blame Immigrants for Urban Sprawl, Traffic Jams

By Daniel Griswold
This essay was distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder/Tribune news wire.
Television ads airing in a number of cities are trying to blame immigrants for suburban sprawl and traffic jams. One spot playing in northern Virginia, where I live, opens with a pastoral scene of a horse farm and then cuts to a bulldozer tearing up the earth for another subdivision. The ad invites viewers to call “to learn more about what we can do to stop the runaway population growth that’s fueling sprawl.”

The sponsor of the ad campaign, the Foundation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), provides a simple but flawed solution: drastically cut immigration to the United States. It would be the wrong answer aimed at the wrong problem.

To begin, it mangles the truth to claim that the United States is experiencing “runaway population growth.” America’s population growth has actually been trending downward for decades. According to the Census Bureau, the population of the United States is growing at just under 1 percent a year. That is slower than the average rate of 1.3 percent during the last century, and far below the peak rate of 1.7 percent in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Our population growth rate is not running away but running down.

Even immigration rates, the real target of the FAIR campaign, are far below their historic highs. During the 1990s, the United States admitted just under four immigrants per year per 1,000 in population. While that rate has been increasing in recent decades, it is still far below the annual rate of 10 immigrants per thousand reached during the Great Migration of 1900-1914. Most of America’s modest population growth today is fueled not by new immigrants but by newborn babies.

If you still think your own community is growing too fast, the reason is probably not immigration from abroad, but migration from other cities or states. In fast-growing Loudoun County, Virginia, for example, the Washington Post reports that only about 7 percent of newcomers to the county in the 1990s were immigrants. The other 93 percent were U.S. residents who had moved from elsewhere in the region or country.

Immigrants add to the economic vitality of communities where they locate. Why is that a problem? They promote local business expansion by raising demand for products and by providing labor, technical skills, entrepreneurial talent, and international business connections. For existing homeowners, economic growth and expanding populations increase demand for housing, raising property values. Behind the pejorative label, “sprawl” is just another way of describing the growth of jobs and incomes and the resulting rise in demand for new single-family homes.

For all these reasons, attracting immigrants has become an important part of state and local development plans, especially in more rural regions where population growth has slowed or even reversed. In Iowa, for example, it has become an official part of the state’s economic development strategy to promote immigration. For most communities in the United States, economic growth is not a problem to be solved, but a blessing to be sought.

As for traffic congestion, the real problem is not too many immigrants but a government-managed transportation system that is slow to respond to changing needs. Bureaucracy, politics and costly labor regulations and domestic purchase requirements all conspire to delay completion and drive up the cost of highway improvements. A more market-driven transportation system, not controls on growth or immigration, should be the preferred response to traffic congestion. After all, Rome and Tokyo suffer from terrible traffic even though immigration rates in Italy and Japan are among the lowest in the world.

Opponents of immigration are tangling themselves in contradictory arguments. They contend, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that immigration somehow lowers wages, pushes Americans out of jobs, and reduces property values, hurting local economies where immigrants settle. Yet they also argue that immigrants fuel growth and development, and all the problems that supposedly come with them.

The truth is that immigration has been a great blessing, to America as a whole and to the local communities where immigrants make their homes. If the people behind the FAIR ads have their way, America will face problems far greater than too many new jobs and new homes.

Daniel T. Griswold is the associate director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.