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Give us your tired, your poor.

The Immigration Questions Drives a Wedge Through the Environmental Movement

Roy Beck's chart of "U.S. Population Growth Since 1970," reproduced by The Carrying Capacity Network (CCN), certainly looks ominous. A narrow white band at the bottom identifies "growth from descendants of 1970 U.S. residents." A broad, threatening black band above it marks "immigrants and descendants." CCN warns, in apocalyptic tones, that 50 percent of the U.S.'s current population growth of three million a year is "caused directly and indirectly by immigration [both legal and illegal]." Immigration, CCN says, has tripled in the last 30 years.

Ads from Negative Population Growth (NPG), which make the case for reducing legal immigration from the current one million to 100,000 per year, outline the problem in stark terms. "Immigration is basically, and most importantly, an environmental issue. Indeed, it is the driving force behind the population growth that is propelling our nation rapidly down the road to environmental ruin."

That's the way they see it. On the other side of the immigration debate is San Francisco's Political Ecology Group (PEG). According to President Brad Erickson, last March PEG co-sponsored a national meeting that brought immigrant and environmental groups together to "find common ground" and "learn about each other's issues." Environmental attendees included the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Greenpeace, mingling with such groups as The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

"We're responding to the rollback both of environmental health regulations and human rights," Erickson says. "There's a joint scapegoating of immigrants and environmental regulations."

Far from causing environmental problems, as NPG alleges, Erickson claims that "many immigrant communities are unduly harmed by environmental hazards. They're disproportionately impacted by pesticides in the fields, and often live next to toxic waste dumps. Because of that, many immigrant communities are leading campaigns for higher environmental quality." PEG advocates "looking at population and consumption issues on a global level. You have to look at U.S. transnationals' role in forcing people into migration. Even if we close the borders now, we won't solve our environmental or economic problems." PEG cites Friends of the Earth statistics that show that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has driven 500,000 Mexican farmers off their land, and that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) will make three billion rural farmers superfluous.

Interestingly enough, PEG doesn't actually have a position on how many immigrants the U.S. should be letting in. And neither does Betsy Hartmann of the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment, another group that defends immigrants from environmental stigmas. "We haven't figured out what a rational immigration policy would be," she says, "but we don't believe that immigrants should be scapegoated, and we don't view population growth as a main cause of environmental degradation. There's a lot of alarmist literature out there, but the birth rate is stabilizing at two kids per family. Immigrants may come here with a high birth rate, but it drops when they adopt to American life."

The NPG position, like it or not, reflects mainstream American thinking. According to a recent Roper poll, 55 percent of the population believes that "overpopulation is a major national problem that needs to be addressed now." That feeling crosses racial lines: 67 percent of Hispanics agree with it, according to the poll. Many native-born blacks and Hispanics blame immigrants for taking jobs that might otherwise go to them, which was also the broad conclusion of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by black former congresswoman Barbara Jordan. (It recommended halving immigration and refugee numbers.)

A majority in the Roper poll, 54 percent, would like to see the U.S. admit either no immigrants or less than 100,000. If that's the case, there must be frustration over the recently passed immigration bill, which cracks down on illegal aliens and denies them services, but doesn't do much to stem legal immigration.

NPG's president, Donald Mann, charges his colleagues in the population community with evading the issue of immigration. "Zero Population Growth (ZPG) says we should stabilize the population," says Mann, "but they never say when or at what level. Saying that is almost meaningless unless you work with actual numbers, But the groups mostly run for the nearest exit when immigration is mentioned. They're very timid."

Mann certainly has his numbers ready. "The ideal population for the U.S. would not exceed 150 million," he says. "We could get there very easily by reducing immigration drastically and also by cutting the fertility rate by about 25 percent. We could do it painlessly, unlike the Chinese who have had to use draconian methods. But we'll get where they are if we continue on the course we're on, with 400 million Americans by 2050, and half a billion by the end of the century. Right now, we're heading rapidly toward a catastrophic situation."

At ZPG, Director of Communications Sharon Pickett admits that her group "has lost members to NPG because we haven't taken a strong enough stand on immigration. We do want to stabilize population growth, and we hope that people will voluntarily limit themselves to two children."

ZPG declines to call for immigration quotas. "We feel it's a very complicated issue," says Pickett, "not a question of numbers alone. It needs a balanced approach." Like many environmental groups, ZPG ties immigration in with consumption. "It has to be part of a program of global sustainable development," she says. "One American baby is probably worse for the planet than 10 or 20 babies born in Bangladesh. For American kids you've got the crib, the high chair, the toys, the mountain of disposable diapers, fol1lowed by a lifetime of consumption. We don't have the moral high ground to say that the problem is 'over there' and doesn't have anything to do with us. We won't be able to build a wall high enough to keep out people who are fleeing desperate poverty."

Also taking that position is Population Action International (PAI), whose deputy director, Trish Sears, says the group "doesn't partake of the U.S. immigration debate. Instead, we look at global migration." A 1994 PAI study showed that much migration is between developing countries. In 1985, says the study, "developing countries were home to roughly half of the estimated 100 million people living outside their countries of birth, including three-fourths of international refugees. Despite such large numbers, the foreign-born represent only two percent of total world population; the vast majority of people never leave their home countries."

No one population group offers a workable, holistic plan for the U.S. that both reduces immigration pressures and addresses its causes. ZPG, for instance, supports expanded foreign aid programs to relieve emigration demand and calls for a national population plan that includes a "reasonable" amount of immigrants, but it's vague about the numbers and never makes clear - given current budgetary priorities - how such a goal could be reached.

Some of the most thoughtful comments on immigration come from Worldwatch President Lester Brown, whose recent book Who Will Feed China? caused an uproar in Asia by showing that the industrializing country's shift from being a net exporter to a net importer of grain was pushing up world grain prices and leading to widespread famine. The U.S., says Brown, serves as a "safety valve" for countries like Mexico which can defer serious population efforts because of emigration - legal and otherwise - to the U.S.

"It seems to me that countries need to begin looking at carrying capacity of their land and water resources and begin fomenting their population policies accordingly," says Brown. "I don't think many countries will continue to maintain an open-door policy, including the U.S. The pressure to cross borders is likely to intensify in the years ahead. Bangladeshis cross into India, North Africans into Europe, and Central Americans into the U.S. They move because of conflicts, hunger and unemployment. And when people get hungry enough, they'll move to where they think there's food."

CONTACTS: Negative Population Growth, 210 The Plaza, P.O. Box 1206, Teaneck, NJ 07666-1206/(201)837-3555; Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036/(202) 452-1999; Zero Population Growth, 1400 Sixteenth Street NW, Suite 320, Washington, DC 20036/(202)332-2200.
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Title Annotation:conflict between environmentalists over the issue of immigration
Author:Motavalli, Jim
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Previous Article:Exodus.
Next Article:Perception is reality.

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