Border War

Immigration Is a Political Minefield. Can Environmentalists Have a Reasoned Debate on the Issue?


photo of a fence perpendicular to a beach, the fence continuing into the sea; sign on fence in Spanish and English: danger, objects under

Suburban sprawl eating up wetlands and woodlands. National parks crammed with enough visitors to block out the scenery. Highways jammed with greenhouse gas-spewing vehicles. Wildlife driven into cities or becoming endangered as their habitats disappear.

The environmental impacts of a growing US population are increasingly alarming to conservationists who have dedicated their lives to preserving and protecting the natural world. In October 2006, the US officially passed the 300 million mark. If current trends continue, the country will be home to more than 400 million people before mid-century.

Many environmentalists say the US simply cannot handle a continually growing population. At the local and regional levels, more people means a greater burden on scarce freshwater resources, more sprawling development, worsening air quality. On a more macro level, a greater number of Americans threatens to exacerbate climate change, deforestation, overfishing, and a host of other environmental problems, given US residents’ high consumption rates. The argument appears straightforward enough: The US will be hard-pressed to sustain its growing population at current consumption levels.

The discussion, though, is complicated by the fact that about 80 percent of the population increase in coming decades is expected to come from immigration. Since US birthrates have been holding steady at roughly 2.1 children for the past three decades, any attempt to stabilize US population growth would have to focus on severely reducing immigration.

And that is a highly contentious proposition. Immigration has become the new third rail of US politics, threatening to shock anyone who touches it. In a nation founded by immigrants – but also with a long history of nativist sentiment – the issue is intensely emotional. Debates about immigration typically degenerate into ad hominem attacks, with xenophobic demagogues like Lou Dobbs warning of a loss of “American” identity as immigrant rights groups accuse their opponents of being “racists.” The explosive arguments about how many people should be allowed into the US – which people, and how – make most other controversial political topics look tame.

Amid all the name-calling, a consortium of prominent conservationists hopes it can launch a reasoned, respectful debate about immigration and the environment. The Apply the Brakes network (which includes Lester Brown and Dave Foreman, among others) advocates immediate moves to stabilize the US population both through lowering fertility rates and strictly limiting immigration. The coalition was started three years ago at a meeting in Oregon, prompted by a feeling that many large green groups, fearful of being branded as “politically incorrect,” were neglecting the connection between environmental destruction and US population growth.

Afraid of appearing politically incorrect, many green groups avoid working on immigration.

“Immigration has been ignored or pushed to the side by the environmental community,” says Don Weeden, whose family foundation (started by his grandfather to help preserve biodiversity), provided modest seed money to launch Apply the Brakes. “Within the environmental community, social justice has come in as an important part of what environmentalists do. The immigration issue has become a human rights issue for many. So environmentalists have a cognitive dissonance. They know population growth is running counter to many of the efforts they’re making on the environment. But they don’t have it in their hearts to say we should reduce immigration as a result. It’s a political minefield.”

Immigration has been a touchy topic in the environmental movement for years. Many large green groups try to keep their distance from the issue. The Natural Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation, for example, scrupulously avoid work on immigration.

These groups’ studied neglect likely stems from a desire to avoid the controversy that nearly fractured the Sierra Club. The Club – founded by famed naturalist John Muir, a Scottish immigrant – long had a neutral stance on US immigration policy. But in 1998, some Sierra Club members launched a petition drive calling for the Club to adopt a strict anti-immigration platform, creating a bitter debate that simmered for a number of years. In 2004, a slate of five outspoken anti-immigrant activists – including former Colorado governor Dick Lamm – ran for the Sierra Club’s 15-member board of directors. Sierra Club spokesman Oliver Bernstein says the candidates were strategically exploiting a since-altered policy allowing someone to run for the board immediately after joining the organization. “These very well-documented anti-immigrant, extremist, racist groups were really defeated quite handily by the membership,” he says.

Since then, the Sierra Club’s International Program has sharpened its focus on addressing the root causes of migration, including free trade, lack of reproductive rights and women’s rights, and social inequality in poorer nations. The platform recognizes overpopulation as a problem, but addresses it in the framework of “Population Justice,” stressing “sustainability, economic security, human rights, viable ecosystems and environmentally responsible consumption,” according to the group’s Web site.

Still, the issue continues to cause conflict within the organization. In 2006, Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, quit the Sierra Club’s board because he reportedly was upset that it was, in his view, ignoring the immigration issue. (Bernstein couldn’t confirm this, but said it is a possible explanation for Watson’s departure.)

Immigrants’ rights proponents say the idea of tackling environmental issues via immigration controls is, at best, a misguided belief that ecological issues can be addressed within national borders in our global world, and at worst, a “greening of hate,” wherein immigrants become scapegoats for a host of ills caused by Americans’ own overconsumption and ill-conceived foreign policies. They says anti-immigration groups or activists with few bona fide environmentalist credentials appear to be using environmental arguments as a way to further agendas that are actually seated in racism.

Vicki Cervantes, a longtime Latin America solidarity activist based in Chicago, is afraid that in some cases, dedicated environmentalists who may not fully understand the immigration issue are being manipulated by those with a veiled xenophobic agenda.

“There are all these different groups out there, and each one is appealing in a different way to the same fundamental fear people have – that fear of things being different, of the world not being how they remember it,” she says.

A chunk of the anti-immigration movement within environmental circles can be traced back to John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist whom the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) describes as an “erstwhile liberal activist who loved beekeeping and the rural life,” and an active member of the National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and other groups in the ‘60s and ‘70s. While few doubt Tanton’s love of the environment, his warnings about the country’s “rapid cultural and linguistic transformations” and his prominent role with ProEnglish – an organization dedicated to “protecting our nation’s unity in the English language” – reveal a strong nativist undercurrent in his agenda. According to SPLC investigations, Tanton and his colleagues have spawned a network of anti-immigrant groups, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Numbers USA (also funded by the progressive Weeden Foundation), which have worked closely with members of Congress (mostly Republicans) to put in place strong border controls. In recent years, these groups have made the environment a major plank of their anti-immigration arguments, especially in trying to appeal to liberal or middle-of-the-road audiences. They have run full-page ads in national newspapers and magazines, including liberal-leaning publications like The Atlantic and The Nation. One ad shows a white man in a business suit at a crossroads; another depicts a bulldozer knocking down trees. According to the SPLC, FAIR and other anti-immigration groups that sponsored these ads have ties to or often associate with obviously racist groups, including the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (whose leader Barbara Coe has called Mexicans “savages”) and the Council of Conservative Citizens.

“Mexico has sustained populations for 4,000 years. There’s no reason it can’t sustain its own now.”

Apply the Brakes members stress there is no race-related element to their opinions. They say they are equally opposed to waves of immigrants from Europe or Mexico, and see no ecological difference between an engineer on a legal visa and someone who sneaks across the border to do manual labor. They say their immigration-reduction vision includes improvements in human rights and economic situations in would-be immigrants’ home countries so that they are not encouraged or forced to leave.

“Mexico has sustained populations for 4,000 years. There’s no reason it can’t sustain its own population now,” says Brock Evans, president of the Endangered Species Coalition, whose bio on the Apply the Brakes Web site notes that his wife’s last name is Garcia. “America implicitly or explicitly tells other countries we’re open, we’re here. I want everybody to have a better life, but eventually that will mean more subdivisions and strip malls. We can keep on being a safety valve, but I don’t think that will even be the kind of life people will want when they move here.”

Most conservationists calling for population stabilization see the US’s current crisis as two-pronged: too many people and too much consumption.

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) posited in an August 2008 report that immigrants to the US increase their carbon footprint four-fold. Legal immigrants emit more carbon than illegal immigrants since they have a higher standard of living, the CIS report says. In general, immigrants’ consumption levels are lower than that of citizens; on average, new arrivals emit 18 percent less carbon than US-born residents.

“Immigrants practice a lot of environmentally friendly practices induced because of poverty,” notes Arnoldo Garcia, immigrant justice program director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “They will turn off the water heater at end of day, walk and bike or take public transportation instead of driving; they tend to have gardens. You can’t compare the ecological footprint of most migrants to someone who lives in the suburbs and drives to work every day.”

There is little doubt that overall, immigrants to the US make a bigger carbon and ecological impact than they would have in their home countries. For example, in Mexico, there are 211 cars per 1,000 people, compared to 787 cars per thousand in the US, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

“We’re being fed the line that our communities are being polluted by immigrants with their backward culture, that the reason we have such a mess, gridlock, pollution, bad water is because of immigrants causing overpopulation as opposed to overconsumption,” says Garcia. “Some people with good intentions say ‘they’ll become like us’ and don’t question the ‘us.’ They think this lifestyle is okay for five percent of the world’s population, but no more.”

Apply the Brakes members say all Americans must seriously change their lifestyles to become more sustainable. But decreasing consumption is not enough, they say, if the population continues to grow.

“Population and consumption are two sides of the same coin. You need to deal with both,” says Andy Kerr, an environmental consultant with the Larch Company. “If you just stabilize population, and consumption continues, that’s not sustainable. If you stabilize consumption but not population, that’s not sustainable.”

It is hard to argue against the idea that current population and consumption trends in the US are unsustainable environmentally and economically. The main question raised by Apply the Brakes and those with similar philosophies is: To what extent can population be addressed solely within the confines of US borders, both pragmatically and ethically?

Brock Evans acknowledges that there is a plethora of environmental and human rights problems worldwide, but he has dedicated his life to what he sees as the most pressing issue in the US: the plight of endangered species and the destruction of wildlife habitat. In his view, protecting wildlife and preserving natural spaces means limiting immigration. He describes himself as a “keeper of the door,” trying to conserve wildlands into the next era through regulation, litigation, or other actions.

photo of people and refuse in an arid landscapeREUTERS / Daniel AguilarGiven that the US’s wealth is built largely on exploiting the
resources and labor of people in developing countries, can
the US deny those same people the right to a higher
standard of living here?

“It’s my duty – my job – to do what we can in the context of our own times and our own culture,” he says. “My job – self-appointed – is to shove every acre and every species through that door.” Sprawl and development are the biggest threats to species and natural spaces, he says, and he sees them as a direct result of immigration.

“More people means more strip malls, more highways,” he says. “And it means that much more consumption of resources to build houses and all the rest of it.”

Since consumption levels are disproportionately high in the US, Kerr and others argue, someone living in Mexico or Brazil is making less of an ecological impact than they would if they moved to the US. They say this holds true even given that the US has better recycling, clean energy, and environmental regulation policies than most developing countries.

“Making more Americans, whether we breed them or import them, has the worst global impact,” says Kerr.

Severely limiting immigration and hence the number of people in the US should indeed reduce suburban sprawl, crowding, localized pollution from municipal sewer systems or industry, and the like. But these problems can also be addressed to a large extent by zoning, regulation, and urban planning; most European countries and Japan manage much denser populations than the US with a high standard of living and lesser environmental impacts. There is also the complication of globalization. If one views greenhouse gas emissions and overconsumption on a global level, it is hard to address population growth and sustainability within the borders of any given country.

Even if it is true that people’s global environmental impact multiplies when they cross the US border, it raises the ethical question of whether this is valid cause to keep people out, especially given that the US’s wealth is built largely on decades of exploiting the resources and labor of people in developing countries. Can the US really deny those same people the right to a higher standard of living here?

Members of Apply the Brakes argue that the possibility of immigrating to the US creates a “safety valve” that impedes economic and political advancement in developing countries. When people can leave their country and find jobs and a higher standard of living in the US, Evans and Kerr argue, they are less likely to strive for political change or economic advancement at home.

On this point, however, one must consider how US policies often encourage immigration. To take just one example, the US involvement in the multiple civil wars in Central America in the ‘80s spurred a wave of migration from El Salvador and Guatemala. More recently, US-backed free trade policies like the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA) are blamed for driving migration from Latin America, since they have disenfranchised and displaced small farmers and rural communities through markets flooded with cheaper imports and mass development projects.

“Our responsibility in this country is two-fold,” says Latin America solidarity activist Cervantes. “We’re responsible for the policies of our own country – the economic and political policies, war, NAFTA – and we’re responsible for working in solidarity with people in other countries fighting to improve their situations.”

Members of Apply the Brakes generally agree, and say a strict immigration policy should be paired with economic and social aid to developing countries to help stabilize and support those populations. Promoting equitable development and removing corrupt leaders are among the most effective ways of stemming the number of immigrants.

“We should change our governmental and corporate policies so we’re not contributing to the conditions that make people refugees in their own countries, so they don’t feel pressure to leave them,” Kerr says. “Free trade, subsidizing our cotton and selling cheap cotton overseas – we shouldn’t be doing those kind of things. It needs to stop.”

The push and pull of globalization also eclipses the work of trying to reduce fertility rates. Population control advocates say reducing birthrates of immigrants in the US and of people in developing countries is key, both to stabilizing the global population and reducing immigration. But micro- and macroeconomic, cultural, and political dynamics in the developing world are complicated enough that a net reduction in people by no means equates to fewer people leaving for the US. Arnoldo Garcia points out that the US receives only a tiny fraction of the world’s migrants – most people immigrate regionally within Latin America, Asia, or Africa – so a net reduction in world population would not necessarily have any impact on migration to the US.

photo of cars on a freeway, crowded together istockphoto.comIn Mexico, there are 211 cars per
1,000 people, compared to 787
cars per thousand in the US.

Don Weeden, who has worked for many years in global family planning programs, including for International Planned Parenthood, agrees.

“Conditions in Mexico may improve and population growth taper off, but given that so many Mexicans are currently living in the US, the desire to emigrate to the US to unite with family members is likely to continue to be significant,” he says. (Disclosure: Earth Island Institute sought support from the Weeden Foundation to underwrite this themed issue.) “Consider this: Russia, with a declining population, is a significant US immigration group, but Niger, with one of the world’s highest population growth rates and extreme poverty, has nearly zero US immigration. In such cases, it is largely about the availability or lack of networks within the US. Only a thin veneer of the world’s hardship appears at our border. The mix of sender countries may change over time as conditions improve in specific countries, but the pressure to emigrate to the US is unlikely to abate in the foreseeable future.”

Even though he doesn’t see reduced birthrates worldwide having a significant effect on immigration to the US, Weeden thinks family planning services are key to improving standards of living and conservation in other countries. Abortion is illegal or very limited in much of Latin America, even in countries with otherwise progressive governments, like Nicaragua.

As Weeden says, academic and anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly indicate that increases in women’s education, social empowerment, and economic independence lead to lower birthrates. Guatemala and Mexico – key providers of immigrants to the US – have seen sharp drops in birthrates in the last 50 years thanks to economic development and family planning initiatives. Mexico went from 6.7 children per woman in the ‘50s to 2.3 in 2008, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

Human and women’s rights advocates worldwide lauded the Obama administration’s revoking of the “global gag rule,” which blocked US aid to NGOs that provide abortion-related services in foreign countries. (The rule was originally created by President Reagan, reversed by President Clinton, and reinstated by President George W. Bush.) Many groups in the US and developing countries are eager for increased US aid for family planning and reproductive rights, whether under the auspices of decreasing immigration or not.

Still, many are also suspicious of any government-backed efforts to influence their reproductive lives, given past incidents in which various US government or pharmaceutical company programs involved the allegedly coerced sterilization of large numbers of Indigenous women and women of color, particularly Native American women in the ‘70s and Puerto Rican women in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“Critical to slowing growth is the continued decentralization of family planning services and improvement in female education and empowerment in general,” Weeden says. “Contraceptives fail; women require the safety net of abortion. Few countries have transitioned to low fertility rates without good access to safe abortion services.”

Many immigrants’ rights and environmental justice advocates hope movements to protect both human and immigrant rights and the environment can be fused if people better understand the bigger picture and the way forces such as corporate globalization, privatization, and neoliberalism harm humans and ecosystems. Garcia points out that the indirect or direct effects of environmental destruction are often a major driver of displacement and immigration to richer countries, and that once immigrants arrive in the US, they are disproportionately likely to end up in polluted areas and lack access to oases of nature.

Sierra Club’s Bernstein notes that both the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife are ardently opposed to the wall being constructed along the length of the US-Mexico border, which was fast-tracked without regard to environmental and other laws by the Bush administration. They see the wall as a symbol of both environmental destruction and human rights abuse. “Whether it’s natural disaster, lack of economic opportunity, or environmental degradation that causes migration, we’re interested in the root causes,” says Bernstein. “Clearly justice issues, human rights issues, and environmental issues are all linked. We need to make sure we are taking care of our neighbors and our communities in order to create the most meaningful environmental protections that we can.”

Kari Lydersen is a staff writer in the Chicago bureau of The Washington Post. She is the author of Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-US Immigration in the Global Age (Common Courage Press, 2005).

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