People pressure: Is immigration an ecoissue?

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Q: Why are some environmental groups jumping on the immigration issue? What does immigration have to do with the environment?
Ginna Jones, Darien, Conn.

A: What to do about booming legal and illegal immigration rates is one of the most controversial topics on Americans’ political agendas these days. More than a million immigrants achieve permanent resident status in the United States every year. Another 700,000 become full-fledged American citizens. The nonprofit Pew Research Center reports that 82 percent of US population growth is attributable to immigration.

Meanwhile, the US Census Bureau estimates that our nation’s population will grow from 303 million people today to 400 million as early as 2040. While many industrialized nations, including Japan and most of western Europe, are experiencing population-growth slowdowns due to low birthrate levels and little immigration, the US is growing so fast that it trails only India and China in total population.

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Advocates for US population stabilization, including some environmental organizations and leaders, say that this ongoing influx of new arrivals is forcing the nation to exceed its “carrying capacity,” stressing an already overburdened physical infrastructure. David Durham of Population-Environment Balance says that Americans who care about the environment should insist on reducing immigration, to recognize “ecological realities such as limited potable water, topsoil, and infrastructure.” He also cites studies showing that a permissive US immigration policy drives up fertility rates in the sending countries “which is the last thing these sending countries need.”

To others, the problem is larger than immigration. “People don’t just materialize at our border, or at any border,” says John Seager of Population Connection. “When you talk about immigration, you’re talking about the second half of a process that begins when people decide to leave their homes.” And they are usually leaving their homes because of hunger, lack of work, oppression, or any number of other often-desperate reasons. Mr. Seager and many others argue that by helping poor nations better address the economic and family-planning needs of their citizens, Americans can not only help improve the lot of millions of people living in dire poverty, but also slow down the tide of immigration.

Groups focusing on the immigration-environment nexus are eager to have their voices heard, but many mainstream green groups shun the highly divisive topic, preferring to encourage Americans – who are infamous worldwide for their huge homes, gas-guzzling cars, and extravagant consumption habits – to curb their unsustainable lifestyles. That, they say, is more fundamental to US environmental problems than population pressures. With just 5 percent of the world’s people, Americans use one-quarter of the world’s fossil fuels, own more private cars than drivers with licenses, and live in homes that are, on average, 38 percent larger today than they were in 1975. By scaling back, Americans can take a big bite out of pollution, sprawl, and other environmental problems, while also setting a good example for those who land in the US every year. And they’d be lowering the nation’s collective carbon footprint significantly in the process.

Got an environmental question? Write: EarthTalk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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