An Environmental Impact Statement for Immigration

By Meredith Burke
Volume 3, Number 4 (Summer 1993)
Issue theme: "What makes a nation?"

The Clinton-Gore administration is viewed by both friends and foes as far more environmentally friendly than its predecessor. Among its goals is safeguarding and passing along an ecologically healthy and physically attractive environment. Yet to date (an admittedly early one) none of its members has linked this goal with its necessary precondition, an environmental impact statement for population growth.

Lacking such a reference map, the Clinton administration may unwittingly compromise America's demographic future by regarding population growth, especially that due to immigration, as simply a matter of dollars and cents. Earlier this year, when President Clinton told the California Economic Summit that the federal government should help states burdened by immigration, he clearly had financial aid in mind. But just as until December the Census Bureau discounted immigration's effects on fertility and population growth, so, too, elective and appointed officials have ignored both the localized and the qualitative effects of immigration.

Realistically, the U.S. as a whole does not receive immigrants. California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Florida and New Jersey do 82% of the total. These states have long passed the point where additional population is desirable. Lake Okeechobee, Florida's largest lake and the heart of South Florida's natural free-flowing drainage system, is now encircled by a dike, assaulted by more than 1,500 miles of canals and levees, and the daily recipient of 1.5 tons of phosphorus waste from cattle-raising, hastening its biological death. The Everglades is dying from both drainage and human construction. The National Agricultural Lands Study projects that at the current rate of conversion of agricultural land to nonagricultural uses, Florida will lose all its prime agricultural land by the year 2000.

In the 1950s Los Angeles County led the nation in the value of agricultural production; its four neighboring counties were agriculturally based. Today this irreplaceable fertile land is asphalt-covered. While pollutants emitted per car have been cut in half, the doubling of the population in the past 30 years has wiped out nearly all the potential air quality gains. Its current residents look out upon a degraded natural setting unrecognizable as the beautiful combination of beach and mountains that enchanted the servicemen and factory workers of World War II.

In the past four decades the San Francisco Bay Area has lost one-third of the total pasture and crop acreage that once existed. The Greenbelt Alliance predicts there will be virtually no fertile cropland left in this area by the year 2000.

'While pollutants emitted per car

have been cut in half,

the doubling of the population

in the last thirty years

has wiped out nearly all

the potential air quality gains.'

Texas lost more than 600,000 acres of prime farmland to permanent nonagricultural uses just between 1977 and 1982.

Yet foes of immigration control, and the demographically ignorant, erroneously attribute high levels of popular support for tighter immigration limits to xenophobia and short-term economic interests. They deem citizen concerns about the quality of life for themselves and their children self-indulgent. Consider the keynote speaker at a recent World Affairs Council immigration conference in Palo Alto, California. An official in the State Department's Bureau of Refugee Affairs, he ignored the disproportionate effects of both refugee and immigrant admission upon California and shrugged off audience concerns about the environment. I asked, 'What size population would you consider too much for California?' (Its 1970 population of 20 million has grown to more than 30 million.)

'Oh, 100 million or so,' he replied airily. 'Look,' he instructed me, 'eventually it will get unpleasant enough that people will start to move out and the situation will resolve itself. That's the free market solution.'

'...inhabitants of an industrialized

country are responsible for

pollution at locales far

from their homes.'

I deplore several assumptions embodied in his reply. One is the 'slash and burn urbanization' tenet It is OK to despoil one area and just move on. Staying put and fighting to preserve one's habitat is questionable behavior.

Another fallacious assumption is that the resource problem is solved through dispersal of population. He fails to see that inhabitants of an industrialized country make demands upon resources and are responsible for pollution (by products they consume) at locales far from their homes. The acti-vist group Population-Environment Balance defines 'carrying capacity' as the number of people who can be sustainably supported in a given area without degrading the natural, social, cultural and economic environment for present and future generations. When migration becomes imperative, clearly the base population has exceeded this capacity.

His reply also places a much lower value on access to rural and wilderness areas than does the American public. Perhaps as an attribute of a society that so recently enjoyed a 'frontier,' Americans cherish small towns and open space and stubbornly resist high-density housing. But undeveloped coast-line and wilderness areas are crumbling under popu-lation pressures. Ironically, were it not for the post-1970 immigration input, population in California and other high-growth states would soon be leveling off.

We know from Immigration and Naturalization Service figures where immigrants of different origins settle. If Vice President Al Gore and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt are serious about protecting American's physical fabric, they should work for legislation requiring Congress to estimate the environmental and public goods burden of proposed immigration quotas. In no other manner can we impose demographic accountability on our national legislators, who so far have found it impossible to withstand the importunings of individual pressure groups. Any legislator who can straightfacedly tell Californians, New Yorkers, Floridians and so forth that their carrying capacities can indefinitely absorb tens or even hundreds of thousands of new immigrants annually should be challenged.

Results from the 1990 Latino National Political Survey (which also surveyed non-Hispanic whites) were recently released. Three-quarters of both Anglo and Mexican-American citizens agreed there were too many immigrants, as did 73% of Cuban noncitizens and 84% of Mexican noncitizens. Only our popularly elected legislators resist the people's message that the time has come for a demographi-cally mature America to narrow if not close its gates. If Messrs. Clinton and Gore can acknowledge this reality, they will both reassure the populace that 'Washington listens' and take a giant step toward the environmental future to which Americans aspire. ;