Deal on immigration threatens environment

May 22, 2007|By Glenn Hurowitz

The biggest - and least talked about - loser in the immigration "grand bargain" announced last week is the planet.

The deal amounts to an environmental double-whammy: If enacted, it would cause damage through those provisions meant to increase the number of immigrants in this country and through those designed to keep immigrants out.

The legislation requires the construction of 370 miles of border fencing before any liberalizing of immigration is allowed to go forward. But this is no white picket fence between friendly neighbors. Instead, it's a double-layered concrete barrier more than 10 feet high - a little taste of Cold War Berlin on the Rio Grande. To build it, contractors would have to clear a 150-foot-wide swath of delicate desert ecosystem to allow the Border Patrol's trucks to cruise between the two walls, looking for traces of particularly stupid immigrants - those who for some reason decide not to simply go around.

It wouldn't just be an eyesore, either. The wall would sunder several wildlife refuges that provide vital habitat for the fragile fauna of the desert Southwest and that local conservationists have worked for years to establish.

Jaguars have recently returned to these refuges from Mexico after being hunted to extinction here decades ago. But the great cats' recovery is precarious, and they still need to interact with Mexican breeding populations to perpetuate the species - interaction that would be cut off by the wall.

The Sonoran pronghorn antelope is another species likely to be doomed by the wall. In 2002, increasingly intense border activity, possibly combined with the effects of global warming, caused the pronghorn's U.S. population to collapse to 21. If a wall cuts off this remnant population from the Mexican pronghorns in the El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve to the south, it could be the last nail in the coffin for this natural wonder, a subspecies of the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere.

Given the threats, the Endangered Species Act normally would prevent the construction of a wall and require consideration of alternatives such as further increasing the number of Border Patrol agents, installing more nondestructive vehicle barriers, and making greater use of electronic surveillance technology. But early this year, the Bush administration waived all environmental laws for the area.

The border region would be just the first among many communities that would suffer environmental damage from this deal. By giving legal status to most of the 12 million undocumented workers in the country, the deal sends a clear message to people thinking about coming to the United States: Enter illegally and you'll eventually be allowed to stay.

That's likely to produce another flood of immigration from countries in Latin America and Asia with relatively low consumption levels. But when those immigrants and their descendants move to the United States, their lifestyles (and especially those of their children) often change, and their greenhouse-gas emissions skyrocket. Many start driving huge SUVs and living in big American houses in the suburbs, with air conditioning blasting. Of course, immigrants aren't to blame for the environmental harm caused by the American lifestyle. They're not the ones who created it; they're just participating in it. Nevertheless, the population surge this bill encourages would be likely to wipe out many of the environmental gains from global warming legislation under consideration by Congress.

The guest-worker provisions of the deal would exacerbate those environmental effects by preventing many immigrants who do come to this country from becoming citizens. While that's offensive from a human rights perspective, it's likely to be just as damaging for the environment. Historically, employers have taken advantage of immigrant workers and subjected them to extremely hazardous working conditions that citizens wouldn't tolerate. Agribusiness in particular is notorious for exposing immigrants to toxic pesticides. Politically, the prohibitions on citizenship for guest workers would allow industry to take advantage of immigrant workers without having to contend with a political backlash.

Part of the reason senators concluded a deal so damaging to the environment was that national environmental groups largely sat out the debate. The issue has historically divided the environmental movement between those who sympathize with immigrants' hunger for a better life and activists for whom environmental concerns always come first. Environmental leaders are wary of reigniting those battles. With almost no one pressing them on the issue, the senators who negotiated this deal were all too happy to let environmental concerns slide.

But as the extent of the environmental damage becomes clear, ignoring immigration's effects can no longer be an option. Environmentalists will have to work out their differences - or risk seeing much of their good work in other areas undone.

In this case, that means insisting on a just immigration policy that does not come at the expense of the natural environment that all of us - citizen and noncitizen, immigrant and native-born - are entrusted to protect.

Glenn Hurowitz is the president of and author of the forthcoming book "Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party." His e-mail is

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