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California stands out in the immigration debate. Every hour, it adds 60 people. Between 1990 and 2000, California grew from 29.8 to 34 million people, an increase greater than the increase in all the northeastern states from Maine to Virginia in the same period. The rapid growth is fueled by the fact that, as the PRB reports, “Foreign-born couples tend to have more children than US-born couples. Foreign-born residents are in their prime childbearing years, and immigrants often come from countries with larger families.” Census data shows that Hispanics have an average of 2.9 children per woman, compared to 1.8 for non-Hispanic whites. This is a factor in the recent increase in the US fertility rate to a replacement level of 2.1, a 35-year high-—higher than that of any industrialized country.
The Environmental Argument
Why is immigration an environmental concern? The fact is that America’s rapid growth makes it nearly impossible to achieve sustainability. According to Population-Environment Balance (PEB), 93 percent of US increases in energy use since 1970 can be attributed to population growth. To house our growing numbers, we pave over an area the size of Delaware every year, the group says. Our population growth is a big factor in the endangered or threatened status of as many as 700 species of plants and animals. Another 9,000 species are at risk. And every day, we remove 3.2 billion gallons of water from aquifers that are not replenished by natural processes.
Although increased population has many other environmental effects (urban sprawl and the loss of open space, to name two), energy and climate effects are central and little understood. Any efficiency gains we make are being swamped by rapid population increases and their attendant increased energy demand.
The wasteful American lifestyle is one major culprit. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the US is the top consumer of 11 of the world’s top-20 traded commodities. We use a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel. We have more private cars than drivers with licenses, and, at least until recently, more than half of those sold were gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks. Between 1975 and 2002, the average American home grew 38 percent, even though household size declined. We have an impact disproportionate to our population, but the growth of that population exacerbates the problem.
“US population growth explains the preponderance of growth in our national energy consumption,” says Leon Kolankiewicz in a report for Numbers USA, which advocates lower immigration rates. In 1970, he points out, with the US population at just 200 million, a US awash in cheap electricity and driving huge gas-guzzling, inefficient vehicles used 67 quadrillion BTUs (quads) of energy and 14.7 million barrels of oil a day. In 2006, with 300 million people and after many energy-efficiency improvements, we used 100 quads of energy and 20 million barrels of oil a day. And the increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the US, which rose 13 percent between 1990 and 2000, closely mirrors the just-over-13-percent population increase.
Push and Pull
It’s hardly surprising that so many people want to come to America from the overpopulated developing world, and the “push factors” that cause them to seek a new life in the US are compelling. Who can blame a family mired in poverty for wanting a better future? According to Population Connection, the swelling numbers abroad create pressures leading to “increased poverty, hunger, land degradation, a lack of health services and limited social and economic mobility. These problems motivate people to leave their homeland in search of greater opportunities.” And what better place to go than the affluent, welcoming US, the destination for 20 percent of the world’s international migrants?
How do mainstream groups address these emigration pressures without calling for taboo mandatory caps on US immigration? Population Connection wants to combine action at home (ensuring contraceptive availability, defending reproductive rights) with foreign aid and diplomacy abroad. “If our neighbors to the South see real hope for better lives at home, they will feel much less pressure to emigrate,” the group says.
Such views have many supporters. “What would stop the illegal migration?” asks G. Jefferson Price III, a former Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent, now with Catholic Relief Services. “A reversal in the trends that have devastated the economies of the countries whose people feel they have no alternative but to leave. We are spending a lot of energy and wealth to keep immigrants out of the US. If we and the governments of the countries they are coming from were to devote as much to improving their standard of living at home, they might not feel the need to come to America.”