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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

US Immigration Debate

Air Date: Week of

The impact of new arrivals to the US on the economy and on government spending is already a hot topic. But now the Census Bureau is projecting that immigration will help push the US population up by half, to at least 400 million by the year 2050. That kind of forecast has many who are already here arguing that our environment can’t sustain such growth, and that immigration should be curtailed. Betsy Bayha of member station KQED in San Francisco reports on this increasingly fractious debate.


CURWOOD: Despite our high rate of teen births, the biggest contributor to domestic population growth is immigration. The Census Bureau projects that immigrants will help the US population grow from 260 million today to 400 million by the year 2050. The impact of new arrivals on the economy and on government spending is already a hot topic. But now, some descendants of previous immigrants are fighting immigration because of environmental concerns. Betsy Bayha of member station KQED in San Francisco reports.

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BAYHA: Traffic jams. Suburban sprawl. Water wars. The effects of population growth are taking a substantial toll on California's environment. Twenty years ago the state population was less than 20 million. Today it's 32 million and rising. Last year, more people actually moved out of California than moved in from the rest of the US, but that loss was more than offset by more than 319,000 immigrants from outside the country. In recent years California has absorbed more immigrants than any other state, putting it at the leading edge of the anti-immigration movement.

MEHLMAN: Largely as a result of immigration, the United States is on an exploding population track.

BAYHA: Ira Mehlman is the California spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, one of the largest and most controversial groups calling for reductions in immigration.

MEHLMAN: The Census Bureau in 1993 projected that by the year 2050, the population in this country will reach 392 million people, and that almost all of that growth will be as a result of immigration that took place after 1990. In other words, immigrants and subsequent children that are born here. That's a track that I don't believe most Americans really want to be on.

BAYHA: FAIR's emphasis on immigration grew out of the population control movement of the 1960s and 70s. A number of other environmental groups are now starting to take on the immigration question as well.

ABERNETHY: The message is simply this: when we have more people, there is more pressure on the natural environment, both in resource use and also in terms of pollution.

BAYHA: Virginia Abernethy, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, is a leading thinker on population and the environment. She says the environmental consequences of population growth are particularly acute in the United States.

ABERNETHY: Every person, conservationists among us, add our little bit of pollution to the environment. Every time we drive a car, every time we open a packaged good. Every time we eat a fruit which has been grown with mechanized agriculture and transported to us with a truck or even a train, we are adding our bit to the pollution. And that is a function of population size.

BAYHA: Abernethy says whether they're immigrants or native-born, more people demand more resources like fossil fuels, and aggravate problems like urban sprawl. But, she says, immigrants pose the greatest threat because they are the fastest-growing segment of the US population. Nationwide, FAIR's Ira Mehlman says the US is absorbing new immigrants equal to the population of San Francisco every 6 months.

MEHLMAN: Think about the city of San Francisco. How many schools does it require to educate kids? How many teachers? How much health care is required? How many jobs? How much infrastructure? What kind of stress does the city of San Francisco place on the environment? How much water is consumed? How much other resources are concerned?

SASSEN: To put this much weight on immigration in a country that produces such a large share of the garbage in the world, a country that has had policies in its economy that have been devastating to the environment, that has exported environmentally destructive industries, I repeat: to then put the blame on immigrants seems to me a real displacement.

BAYHA: Saskia Sassen is a professor of urban planning at Columbia University in New York. She says the immigration debate ignores the root causes of our environmental problems: namely, our disproportionate levels of consumption. For instance, the US accounts for only 6% of the global population, yet we consume 35% of the world's energy resources.

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BAYHA: The immigration debate has hit a particularly raw nerve among ethnic minorities and groups like the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. At a recent APEN event, Deputy State Attorney General Clifford Lee, a Chinese-American, spoke out about his concerns.

LEE: Immigrant bashing is now no longer the domain of people like Patrick Buchanan or the Federation for American Immigration Reform,
FAIR. We have seen unfortunate anti-immigrant positions from people as diverse as Governor Pete Wilson and to senators in the State of California. The newest participants, though, to this xenophobia, have been a small but growing group of environmentalists. Anti-immigrant forces in this country are using the environmental cause as a stalking horse for nativism and xenophobia.

BAYHA: Lee calls the immigration debate "the dark side of the environmental movement." Adding fuel to the fire is an increasingly intolerant public. An initiative on this fall's California ballot would deny education, health care, and other basic services to illegal immigrants; and the state's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, who faces a tough re-election bid, is using the immigration debate as the centerpiece of his campaign. One of his television ads used grainy black and white footage of Mexicans illegally crossing the border. Critics described it as inflammatory.

COMMERCIAL VOICE-OVER: They keep coming. Two million illegal immigrants in California. The Federal Government won't stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them. Governor Pete Wilson sent the National Guard to help the border patrol, but that's not all. ...

ANTHONY: I think if these were white children coming across the border, I think we'd have a totally different picture. I think the people would say oh, gee they're immigrants, they're having a hard time. Why don't we open our arms to them?

BAYHA: That's Carl Anthony, president of San Francisco's Earth Island Institute, and one of the founders of the Environmental Justice movement. He says turning immigrants into scapegoats isn't going to solve our environmental problems. Even if immigration stopped today, Anthony says, we would still have to deal with the environmental consequences of using a disproportionate share of the world's resources.

ANTHONY: If we have a situation in which 35% of the world's resources are being consumed by 6% of the population, we think that maybe 35% of the world's population ought to be living here to help consume those resources.

BAYHA: In addition to consumption patterns, Anthony says the debate over immigration and the environment should look at what's pushing immigrants across our borders. In many cases, he says, it's our own economic policies abroad which encourage export agriculture and industrialization at the expense of traditional economies. Anthony says we have to reevaluate our role in the developing world. And on that point, at least , Virginia Abernethy agrees. But there's precious little room for both sides to explore that common ground, and as the volume of the rhetoric increases, the opportunity for an honest debate about the issues may be lost. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club have stayed out of the fray, at least in public. But within the ranks a bitter debate over immigration has raged for the past 2 years. Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope says he would like the club to embrace the middle-ground, a call for combining immigration curbs with reduced consumption and new economic policies abroad. But he doesn't think that's possible.

POPE: When anybody pops up their head and dares to articulate a middle ground, they get their head chopped off and handed to them on a platter. Both sides of this debate seem more comfortable with a polarized debate.

BAYHA: And with a polarized debate, it will be hard to find solutions to the population puzzle, those complex, long-term, structural solutions that can't be summed up in a catch phrase and for now, at least, aren't being heard above the din of the debate. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha reporting.



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