« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Immigrants aren’t the real threat to public lands

Population growth isn’t the problem. Look to the American lifestyle and economy instead.


California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West. 

One day back in 2010, I sat in a foldout camping chair next to a volunteer for Border Angels, a nonprofit group that advocates for humane border enforcement. We were on Bureau of Land Management land in a nondescript part of the Southern California desert, less than a mile away from the border but far from the port of entry and the beefed-up infrastructure and security. We sat waiting for hours, just in case any border-crossers appeared — but no one passed by.

Not far from where we were, however, dozens of people had crossed recently: Scattered piles of trash, old clothes and even a rusty bicycle littered a nearby path. This is fairly common along some parts of the Southwestern border — especially the more remote, sparsely populated stretches where migrants typically make their way through shrubs and cacti, sometimes with the help of a coyote, or smuggler, sometimes unaided.

For many champions of stricter border enforcement, the trash and haphazard trails left behind merely hint at a much bigger problem: the environmental impacts of unauthorized immigration. This is an argument that has been made for years by people ranging from the environmental activist and author Edward Abbey to Jim Gilchrist, the California-based founder of the Minutemen Project. “It’s a network of ground-pounded vegetation,” Gilchrist told an interviewer back in 2007. “If we were to cure the literal lack of immigration law enforcement, we would cure the environmental problem.”

A couple of months ago, I received a message on social media from a self-described “disgruntled environmentalist” and population activist based in Colorado. “Why don’t you write about the environmental damage due to mass immigration-driven population growth in the West?” he asked, saying that a football-field’s-worth of wild lands was lost to human development every 2.5 minutes and that 86 percent of projected U.S. population growth is due to immigration.

In response, I looked into his claim, which echoes Gilchrist’s and is often repeated today, amid President Donald Trump’s loud calls for a border wall and stepped-up deportations.

According to the Pew Research Center, the numbers don’t hold up. Pew estimates that immigrants and their descendants will make up 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2065. The rest of the growth will come from native-born Americans. (Of course, most Americans are, by definition, originally from somewhere else, regardless of their race or ethnicity.) About one in three Americans will most likely be a recently arrived immigrant or the child of one, compared with one in four today. At this rate, it is inaccurate at best to blame immigrants and their kin for most population growth and the urban and other development that is destroying public lands.

An aerial shot overlooks sprawling development stretching to the horizon of Bakersfield, California.
Adam Reeder/CC Flickr

I wrote back to my disgruntled environmentalist, who pointed to a report by the liberal Center for American Progress, The Disappearing West, which spells out the impacts of development on our region, including the U.S.-Mexico border deserts, as well as our forests, grasslands and wetlands. Today, human settlements and their associated infrastructure cover more than 165,000 square miles, or “the size of 6 million superstore parking lots,” though the authors don’t specifically link the development to population growth.

The modern American West is the most urbanized region in the country (and also the whitest, ethnically speaking). This is the latest chapter in a history that began in the early 19th century with the arrival of Anglo-American settlers, who killed and displaced Native populations and set the stage for resource extraction and development in the pursuit of progress.


Few qualified researchers are eager to wade into the controversial topic of immigration and the environment. In fact, the available evidence suggests it’s not immigrants but the American lifestyle and economy that are responsible for the loss of habitat. “Each person in the U.S. contributes more to the global phenomenon (of natural resource consumption) than other people,” said Victoria Markham, author of the U.S. National Report on Population and Environment. According to Conservation Science Partners, agriculture and forestry have caused the greatest damage to ecosystems, followed by oil, gas, coal and other energy development. Meanwhile, housing and commercial sprawl are responsible for about half of the open space that was lost in the West between 2001 and 2011. Yes, demographic changes are partly to blame, but the West has urbanized due to a more complex mix of economic and cultural shifts driven by society as a whole.

Immigrant shaming is not new. Immigrants have long been an easy target in America, blamed for population growth, violent crime and the loss of American values, with established settlers always rejecting the ones who come after them, whether they’re Italian and Irish immigrants or today’s undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans. But these accusations typically rest on shoddy data. Behind them lies a much simpler and uglier sentiment that goes back generations, to the time when white people first settled the American frontier and sought to establish supremacy over Native peoples and nature itself. Perhaps the real fear has less to do with the trash left behind by migrants than with the loss of supremacy that might accompany a future, not too far off, when those migrants’ children and grandchildren go to college, get jobs and move into your neighborhood.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify that immigrants and their descendants will make up 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2065, not 30 percent of U.S. population growth. 

Ruxandra Guidi is a contributing editor at High Country News. She writes from Los Angeles, California.