Is immigration reform an environmental issue?


The question of whether humanity can expand indefinitely without running roughshod over the very environment it depends on once stood at the center of the American environmental movement. Public concern reached a fever pitch after the Sierra Club published Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling The Population Bomb in 1968. Within that debate quietly lurked questions about how to address immigration control.

Those questions have slipped from public discourse, as immigration reform – a key player in future U.S. population – has become a flagship liberal issue and as both sides of the political spectrum focus on the social and economic dimensions to border control issues, rather than environmental. (Read Ray Ring’s feature story “Border out of control” from our latest print issue for more on environmental degradation at the U.S.-Mexico border, focusing on U.S. Border Patrol’s impact.)

But a few conservationists continue to beat the drum about the ecological perils of immigration-fueled population growth. One is Leon Kolankiewicz, who has taken on the task of answering the question: What will happen to the U.S. and its environment when the national population jumps from its current 306 million to close to 500 million by 2100? Kolankiewicz, a Virginia-based environmental consultant, has worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Forest Service and several other federal agencies and is creating an independent environmental impact statement on immigration.

Part of why population stabilization isn’t as mainstream as it used to be is because it has unsettling ties to xenophobia at the root of the American conservation movement. The early 20th century movement to save Redwood trees in California, for instance, was plagued with eugenicist sympathizers. A former head of the Sierra Club’s population committee, John Tanton, has fielded accusations of racism for decades. In 1988, the eco-rabble rouser Ed Abbey wrote that, “it might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally morally-generically impoverished people.”

Today a number of population stabilization groups are as committed as ever to stopping comprehensive immigration reform. They oppose bills like the one that passed in the Senate last year that would provide eventual citizenship to 12 million undocumented people in this country and streamline the path to citizenship. Washington DC-based NumbersUSA – a pro-stabilization group that has 1.5 million people on its email list and almost 800,000 Facebook fans – blitzed senators with phone calls and faxes during President George W. Bush’s 2007 push for immigration reform, which failed. The group has been cited as a key player in grassroots campaigning during last year’s battles of immigration reform as well.

To find out more about the history of the stabilization movement and what it looks like today, I spoke separately with Kolankiewicz and Phil Cafaro, a professor of philosophy who focuses on environmental ethics, consumption, population and wild lands preservation at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Cafaro just finished a new book, How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States (University of Chicago Press), which is due out in December. Below is a combination of those two conversations.

HCN: The population stabilization movement was once a strong current within environmentalism. When and why did the shift away from population concerns happen?

Cafaro: It hasn’t always been taboo to talk about population. There was a lot of talk about population in the '60s and '70s. My sense is that the main thing that changed is that immigration went from being a relatively small part of U.S. population growth to being the main driver. But the same people who tend to be progressive on other things and care about the environment – they believe in diversity. They don’t feel comfortable with the idea of telling poor people from over seas they can’t come here and make another life. (Advocating for population stabilization) makes it sound like you don’t want brown-skinned people here. It might put you in bed with strange bedfellows like Tom Tancredo.

I think it rubs liberals the wrong way. We’ve got an environmentalism that isn’t comfortable talking about limits. On the conservative side, (they) don’t talk about limiting economic growth. There’s something about America in that we’re not comfortable talking about limits.

Kolankiewicz: When I was a kid, population was a major concern of environmentalists. There was a lot of hoopla in the media; (Paul Ehrlich, author of the Population Bomb of 1968) appeared on the Johnny Carson show. He wanted to spread the word. But then people began to drop off the radar. Later on, the birth rate dropped so much in the U.S. since the baby boom of the 50s. By the early '70s, it dropped to “replacement” – about 2 (kids per woman).

I was in my late teens and my own concern went away because globally, the population problems seemed to be solved. Ehrlich was rightfully criticized; he wrote that book in such a polemical style – predicting there’d be mass starvation by the ‘70s and it didn’t happen. I think it’s a question of his timing having been off.

HCN: What groups used to be leaders in the population stabilization movement?

Cafaro: Zero Population Growth was very strong on limiting immigration into the U.S. In the ‘70s they got a new executive director and his take was, “We need to focus more on the international stuff. It makes us look bad to talk about limiting immigration.” ZPG was one of the most well known names for a non-profit in the country, and they changed their name to Population Connection. They literally just ensured their irrelevance to avoid the issue.

HCN: Many progressives say that merely stopping people from coming into the U.S. doesn’t do much to help global environmental problems like climate change. Are the ecological issues we face today too global in scope to be addressed as problems of one country or another?

Cafaro: That’s an interesting argument. I think it’s one of the stronger ones. But I think it’s misguided for a number of reasons. I think we have a responsibility in Colorado not to see the Front Range paved over, not to suck all the water out of the Colorado River. We also have more opportunities to preserve those things where we are.

Another part is just that when you move people from Mexico or Vietnam to the United States, they and their descendants generate much more (emissions and waste). When you turn someone from a Guatemalan into an American, you’re increasing the overall stress on the environment.

HCN: Population stabilization advocates have been criticized for greenwashing because they aim to partner with environmentalists in order to further a different cause – limiting immigration to the U.S. What's your response to that?

Kolankiewicz: On the subject of so-called “greenwashing,” our opponents have it ass-backwards. Immigration restrictionists have not been trying to infiltrate or “hijack” the environmental movement in any great numbers. If so, we have failed utterly. Rather, the nascent modern environmental movement actually gave birth to the modern immigration restriction movement in the 1970’s, as the source of U.S. population growth began to shift from the birth rate to the immigration rate. It would have been irresponsible or delusional for those concerned with U.S. population stabilization, and environmental sustainability more generally, not to shift our focus in response to the changing demographic reality.

HCN: What’s the future of the population stabilization movement?

Cafaro: If you ask the average person in the U.S. – they can’t necessarily tell you the population within 100 million people. If you ask how many people immigrate into U.S. each year, they don’t know that. Part of it is just attrition. I’m 52, but when I have talked in recent years to people about this, it’s striking how I might be the youngest person in the room. People of Ehrlich and David Brower’s generation talked about it.

No one is currently taking the lead at the national level. You need a strong environmentalist who is also on top of population issues. Those guys and gals have disappeared in recent decades.

In Colorado there are two senators who are (known for) environmental voting, but at the same time, they’re all for greatly increasing immigration into the United States. Senator Bennett was a lead writer of the 2013 senate immigration bill. There’s a real disconnect there. I’ve talked to a number of their staffers and they can understand (concerns with population growth). At the same time there’s a sense they don’t want to get it too much.

Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News. She tweets @taywiles.

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