I've been blessed with the good fortune to be a Bay watershed resident, full time, since 1986. That was the same year Congress passed, and President Reagan later signed, landmark legislation intended to "fix our broken immigration system." Little did I know that 15 years later I would find myself involved in that same pursuit.
In 1986, I had just become a professional horticulturist, advising homeowners on tree planting and responsible landscaping. Then I became a Fairfax County extension agent, responsible for educating nursery and landscape professionals on best practices with respect to the environment.
In my spare time I have been an avid naturalist, volunteering for more than a decade to run a citizen water quality monitoring project on Nomini Creek in Virginia's Northern Neck.
Over all those years, I have avidly read the writings of Tom Horton. I have tremendous respect for him, which is why I did a double take at his most recent Bay Journal article, "Reports say reducing immigration crucial to restoring environment" (April 2012). Not because of the topic per se. Population impacts are a factor that must be considered and candidly debated. What concerned me most was this: Horton cited a narrow band of sources with questionable common roots, motives and tactics. The flagship is the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the author of the "study" cited in the article. NumbersUSA is its grass-roots arm.
My own work relating to immigration policy has focused on the farm workers that feed our great nation. Most are "not from around here" and their papers look a whole lot better than they really are. Yet, they are mostly employed on the books, pay taxes, and generally live simple, quiet lives. They put wholesome U.S.-grown food on our tables on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and another 299 or so days of the year.
They are usually compensated well above minimum wage for their work, but the work itself tends to be seasonal, intermittent and migrant. It is tough, and it won't make you rich, at least not materially. Very few Americans seek the jobs these hard-working people perform. It has been that way for more than half a century. Aside from what we eat, more of us are connected to their work than we may know: They enable several million farm-dependent but off-farm jobs that are mostly held by U.S. workers. If the production goes someplace else, these U.S. jobs mostly go, too.
Last year, FAIR produced a "study" claiming that "big agribusiness" was opposing immigration reform because it preferred the status quo of a cheap, illegal labor force. That piece of work was summarily rebutted in a report and subsequent Senate testimony by two professors emeriti from Texas A&M University who have spent their lives researching the economics of agriculture. The FAIR study was a classic work in scapegoating research, much as the latest FAIR study quoted by Horton appears to scapegoat immigrants for the Bay's woes.
Horton's article also referenced the ongoing debate over making the federal e-Verify program mandatory for all employers. The implication was that yes, E-Verify is part of the answer. Buyer, beware. A recent independent analysis of e-Verify done for the Department of Homeland Security found that the electronic system for checking employment eligibility wrongly cleared false documents bearing a legitimate name and number combination 54 percent of the time! What a strong incentive for organized criminal enterprises to steal our personal data in order to make better fake IDs. Of course, the proponents of mandatory E-Verify say they have a fix for this problem. Might we test-drive that fix before we as a nation buy it?
Back to the Bay. Population pressures are a huge part of the challenge. But should we scapegoat immigrants? Are Bay watershed immigrants - more likely to live in (and stabilize) established urban areas, live in multi-family housing, use public transportation - more harmful to the Bay than those opting for long commutes from sprawling large-lot suburbs on the suburban fringe? Is our "nation of immigrants" status to blame for all of our woes, or is it a national advantage as birthrates of the native-born fall and the "baby boom" ages?
Are we willing to provide better legal ways for foreign farm workers to toil here and better their lot in life while also sustaining high-value agricultural lands in the Bay watershed that might otherwise grow houses and parking lots?
These are important and complex questions, questions which demand a more balanced and thorough analysis than that offered by groups whose longstanding agenda has simply been to "reduce all immigration, legal and illegal." History shows that they offer scapegoating not solutions. We need real solutions.
(For the background of the groups working to limit immigration, visit http://motherjones.com/politics/2012/03/john-tanton-anti-immigration-laws and http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-files/profiles/john-tanton.)
Tom Horton replies:
While it is true that recent immigrants often live with less environmental impact than the average American, that is likely a short-term view. Most immigrants and their descendants will aspire to live like the rest of us - indeed that is what we should hope - and that will pertain to their environmental impact as well.
As for "scapegoating" immigrants, the article is about the impact more people inevitably have on the Bay. At the level of the sewage treatment plant and the storm drain, which is what the Bay sees, it does not matter who they are, where they come from or how they get here.
With immigration contributing the bulk of the U.S. population growth, it is not scapegoating to examine immigration policy as one part of a several part series on growth and the Chesapeake.
As for information from immigration reform groups like NumbersUSA, the article relied on multiple sources, from environmentalists like George Foreman, a former Sierra Club director, to researchers like Colorado State University professor Philip Cafaro.