Immigration an issue in overpopulation

ON THE BAY

Remedy: We can't limit increase in residents without dealing with the sources.

August 19, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

I SEE ASMA NAEEM, 7, on the front page of The Sun, and read how her family came from Pakistan to Howard County for the American Dream - one drop in an immigrant tide that fuels much of Maryland's and America's population growth.

And I'm torn. Instead of thinking, "Welcome aboard, neighbors," I'm thinking we must sharply restrict people like them from coming here.

By "people like them," I don't mean brown people, people from different cultures or religions - and I certainly don't mean the Naeems personally.

They came legally - were recruited for her dad's engineering skills. And with her mom's business acumen, Asma's family will contribute more to the economic and social future of Maryland than this aging white boy.

It's our growing numbers that concern environmentalists like me, and it doesn't matter whether that growth is from Hispanics, Asians or Swedish supermodels - or from Mayflower Americans having big families.

But in recent decades, U.S. population growth - the highest of any wealthy industrialized nation - has been substantially propelled by immigrants. And will continue to be.

If we subtracted all immigrants starting with 1990, the United States would have about 310 million people by 2050. But with current immigration trends, we'll have 438 million. By 2100 the nation (and the Chesapeake region) will have at least double today's numbers.

The implications of that for pollution, loss of farmland and quality of life are sobering, particularly in places like Maryland, the nation's fifth most densely populated state.

Of course all of us - recent immigrants and descendants of prior waves of immigrants - can live more lightly on the planet and the Chesapeake.

Current U.S. consumption - 6 percent of the world's people taking about a quarter of its natural resources - leaves no doubt we must lessen our impacts.

That's what virtually all environmental groups today work on - lessening per-capita impacts by conserving energy, polluting less, planting trees, protecting wetlands, managing fisheries.

But the evidence to date - and one reason we're still struggling to restore the Chesapeake Bay - is that you'll never ratchet down per-capita impact enough to go on pretending the total number of "capitas" doesn't matter.

The environmental movement is guilty of such pretending. And immigration-advocacy groups don't care a fig for the environmental impacts of what they strive for.

Indeed, the biggest lobby group for high rates of immigration is American business, avid to keep labor costs down and housing demand up.

Environmentalists, perhaps because the movement is relatively white and privileged, fear the immigration issue. "When environmentalists say the human [impact] is just too large, people will suspect we are saying the human footprint is just too dark," Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's president, has said.

But it's striking how leading environmentalists, before immigration replaced the birthrate as the main cause of growth, championed a stable population: the Sierra Club's David Brower, Congressman Stewart Udall, Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was not the environmental best-seller of the 1960s. It was Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb.

Of course we are a nation of immigrants - but also a nation that from its inception through the 1960s admitted an annual average of about 230,000 immigrants a year.

Since then, liberalizations of immigration laws by Congress have raised that to nearly 1 million a year - and that is just legal immigration. We now have 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants, too.

"The problems caused by population are still environmental news, but population is forgotten," says Roy Beck, whose Arlington, Va.-based group, Numbers U.S.A., advocates lower immigration to protect jobs and the environment.

Beck and others note that saying immigrants are needed to fill the jobs that "Americans won't do" is often code for offering less pay than Americans need to support their families.

Politically, immigration has become a national issue again, with politicians of both parties torn between restricting it for national security and opening it further to satisfy businesses.

It makes for strange political bedfellows. Environmental heroes like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy are the bad guys (he's pushing expanded immigration). And environmental zeroes like House Speaker Tom DeLay (tough on amnesty) are your buddies.

Beck, of Numbers U.S.A., where membership has leaped from a few thousand to 104,000 in recent years, thinks progress is more possible "than anytime since 1924, the last time Congress voted to cut immigration."

"What's driving it is not the environment, per se, but quality of life," he says.

It's time environmentalists took heed. They understand thinking ecologically, not ignoring any of nature's parts in understanding the whole. They should know you can't solve our environmental crisis by ignoring one of its major causes.

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