Immigrants and the Environment

The anti-immigrant Right has appealed to those who value the environment, blaming immigrants for problems of pollution, overcrowding, energy shortages and the very quality of life in the United States. Sometimes the arguments are subtle; sometimes groups make provocative claims. Well-funded anti-immigrant groups have produced slick, full-color publications filled with statistics and graphic images related to population and natural resources issues. They have appeared in the media as friends of the environment, broadening their base of appeal, but their message remains clear: we must do more to limit immigration or we will suffer serious environmental consequences. The Political Ecology Group called this approach, "The Greening of Hate." In 1996 and 1998 members of the Sierra Club voted on a position linking immigration with environmental problems. Both times the measures were defeated.1


Population Growth

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Virtually all the anti-immigrant organizations and spokespeople use population growth in the United States as a keystone in their views about immigrants. They say:

  • Paul Ehrlich was right (The Population Bomb, 1968) when he forecast an environmental crisis as a result of overpopulation.
  • Rapid immigration growth is a main cause of the population problem in the United States.
  • Overflow from developing countries, which have by far the fastest population growth rates in the world, contributes to the United States' "out of control" growth rate.
  • We have far exceeded the optimum population size for the United States, and we are now too crowded.
  • We can't solve the world's population problem by "being nice" and accepting more immigrants.
Examples: Roy Beck. (1996). The Case Against Immigration. New York: W.W. Norton. ch. 1, "A Nation of (Too Many) Immigrants?"; "Why Excess Immigration Damages the Environment." (1992). Balance DATA, no. 27a, June. Washington, DC: Population-Environment Balance; Jason Din-Alt. (1997). "The Environmental Impact of Immigration into the United States." Focus, v. 4, n. 2. Washington, DC: Carrying Capacity Network.

Response

Many different approaches to studying population issues exist, and economists, geographers, natural scientists, and demographers are all engaged in a lively debate about the best way to deal with population growth. Most anti-immigrant spokespeople tend to be influenced only by one perspective, that of environmentalists like Ehrlich who focus exclusively on population's effect on natural resource depletion.

Such groups discount other factors that influence population levels and their impact on the environment such as poverty, women's education levels, technology, human adaptability or even the idea that population growth is an influence, not a central cause, of environmental degradation. They distort the arguments that feminists, scientists and social scientists construct into a simple cause and effect formula that serves their purpose of blaming immigrants for complex, global phenomena.

Furthermore, most anti-immigrant groups focus only on the United States, and they do not examine global population trends thoughtfully. Immigration patterns are the result not just of receiving countries' policies, but of multiple factors including transnational business practices, social unrest and economic instability in other areas of the world. The United States influences or controls some of these factors itself, contributing to the influx of immigrants to this country.

Even if overpopulation were the single most important factor, it would need to be dealt with on a global level through broad reforms such as increasing women's rights and their access to education and family planning services all over the world. It will not be solved by simply decreasing immigration to the United States.

Finally, even if they say the issue is solely about numbers, groups that oppose the immigration of people of color are exploiting racial fears. Two examples of such techniques are using images in their publications that depict only people of color and highlighting statistics that show that most immigrants to the United States come from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Diminishing Resources

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Many anti-immigrant groups remind us that the United States currently suffers from environmental degradation and diminishing resources. They blame immigrants for virtually all of these problems. They say:

  • The United States has one of the highest rates of per capita resource utilization in the world, and immigrants adopt these consumerist habits when they arrive here.
  • States with the highest numbers of immigrants, like Texas, Florida, New York and California, also experience the worst environmental problems, like rolling blackouts and high levels of air and water pollution.
  • National parks and other public lands are overcrowded because of increased immigration.
  • Illegal border crossers have no regard for the environment, trampling delicate desert areas and littering the landscape.
Examples: David Simcox. (1992). "The Environmental Risks of Mass Immigration." Immigration Review, no. 12, Fall. Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies; John Cairns, Jr. (2001). "Topics for Public Debate: Immigration, Sustainability, and the Precautionary Principle," The Social Contract, vol. XI, no. 4, Summer, pp. 239-248.

Response

The United States is a major cause of global environmental degradation, refusing to sign on to the Kyoto Agreement, having more lax environmental regulations than most other developed countries, and only weakly pursuing corporate polluters, while exempting its own military from environmental regulations.2 These are all arguably more significant than any individual's behavior.

The problem of diminished resources is not restricted to the United States; it is global. Setting severe limits on immigration to this country will not improve the overall global environmental situation, which still has the same number of people living on the Earth worldwide. While it is true that people living in the United States consume far more resources than other countries, this is the result of consumer choices by all of us, not explicitly immigrant behavior. In fact, immigrants who are poor actually consume fewer resources in the United States than those of us who are not poor.

Immigrants are not the cause of the environmental problems we experience. In fact, many newly-arrived immigrants live in areas of the United States where they suffer disproportionately from environmental injustice. The greatest polluters of our cities are not urban dwellers but corporations that violate environmental regulations.3 Blaming immigrants for our environmental problems is scapegoating and shifts the responsibility away from all of us to improve how we address environmental challenges. These arguments are designed to turn environmentalists against immigrants.

In addition, many immigrants are escaping human-caused environmental disasters at home. In a 1997 Natural Heritage Institute study, researchers found that Mexican dryland degradation resulted from overgrazing and overharvesting, lack of irrigation, and no access to technology, resulting in migration to the United States.4 The causes of these problems are related to pervasive poverty. In other parts of the world, shifts from subsistence farming to agribusiness have harmed the environment on a large scale. Immigrants have also been blamed for power shortages such as the rolling blackouts California and other states experienced in 2001. Such problems are clearly the result of high consumption rates across the board, and not any one group's use, nor are they the result of "overpopulation." Solving the problems of the electrical supply involves more than fingershaking and will take the combined efforts of careful utilities planning, adequate financial support and deliberate conservation campaigns.

Sprawl

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Several anti-immigrant groups on the Right focus on the phenomenon of urban, or more accurately, suburban sprawl, the effect of populations spreading out from cities to rural areas. They say:

  • When immigrants come to this country, they often settle in urban areas, creating overcrowding and undesirable conditions, and forcing others to move to the suburbs.
  • As a result, immigrants are to blame for sprawl and its annoyances: traffic, noise, pollution, litter and unsightly commercial areas.
  • Some immigrants are now settling in surburbia as well, invading the lives of people who moved there to avoid urban blight.
  • The only way to preserve our national heritage and open space is by limiting immigration.
Example: Scipio Garling. (1999). The Environmentalist's Guide to a Sensible Immigration Policy. Washington, DC: Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Response

While it is true that housing developers create sprawl by building on former farmland and open space, this environmental issue is not caused by immigrant population growth. Immigrants are not the ones who are encouraged to move in droves into suburban developments, although some communities are beginning to experience higher numbers of first generation immigrants. New suburbanites move away from cities for many reasons, including the desire for open space, home ownership or upward social mobility, as well as wanting to escape from some ills of urban life such as crime or under-resourced schools. In addition racism, not the mere presence of immigrants, results in "White flight."

Many less desirable aspects of city life are the result of poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth. In fact, immigrants are blamed and scapegoated for the actions of others by a deliberate attempt of some anti-immigrant groups to shift the blame for sprawl away from its actual causes.

Developers create suburban sprawl by capitalizing on former urban dwellers' desire to live away from the city. They also are lured by often more favorable construction costs and profit potential in suburban than in urban environments. Much of the frustration suburban residents experience as a result of sprawl is the result of inadequate regional planning and unrealistic or snob-appeal expectations for their communities of choice.

Anti-sprawl campaigns are designed to play on the fears of suburban residents who value the environment and who wish to protect their own communities from problems they associate with urban areas. When they link increased immigrant population in cities to sprawl, these campaigns are also appealing directly to racial resentment.


End Notes

1. The 1998 ballot results were a resounding 20 point spread: 60 percent in favor of no policy on immigration and population and 40 percent for a measure supporting population control and immigration reduction.

2. See information from the Military Toxics Project, http://www.miltoxproj.org/.

3. Ricahrd Caplan, Polluters' Playground: How the Government Permits Pollution, (Washington, DC: USPIRG Education Fund, 2001).

4. Natural Heritage Institute, Environmental Degradation and Migration: The U.S.-Mexico Case Study, (Berkeley, CA: by the author, 1998).

This article first appeared in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.

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