Should immigration become the main concern of the Chesapeake Bay restoration, as a recent report suggests?

The conventional solutions are to focus on abating pollution from fertilizer and sediment, sewage and stormwater, sprawl development, forest loss and fossil fuel burning.

But those ills all derive from a watershed population that has increased from 8 million to 17 million since the Bay was healthy in the 1950s, and is projected to add another 8 million by midcentury.

Foreign immigration drives two-thirds of the watershed's population growth, according to a recent report from the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Nationally, population growth is driven about 80 percent by immigration, says the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. In its calculation, Pew includes legal and illegal immigrants and the higher-than-average birthrates to foreign-born families. The other 20 percent of growth is from births among Americans who were born here.

FAIR's intent when it did its study was not to bash immigrants, but to highlight the need to reduce both legal and illegal immigration to slow or stabilize population growth, according to the report.

"The leading environmental groups dedicated to cleaning up the Bay recognize the harmful effects of population growth...but do not acknowledge that immigration is driving it," said the report, "Immigration, Population Growth and The Chesapeake Bay."

In fact, it's difficult to find an environmental group that addresses U.S. population growth. The whole subject of population growth, a widely voiced U.S. concern in the 1970s (See "Concerns over U.S. population growth date back to Nixon era," on page 6.) has become taboo for traditional environmental groups. This is in no small part due to the rapid increase and controversial nature of immigration, whose complicated politics and cultural roots ally liberals and conservatives on both sides of the debate.

Meanwhile, the U.S. population has the highest growth rate of any developed nation and results in adding 3 million persons a year. At 312 million Americans, the United States is the third most populous nation, behind China and India.

"The problems caused by population still make environmental news, but population is forgotten," said Roy Beck, a longtime environmental journalist who founded Numbers U.S.A., a leading group advocating immigration reforms.

Environmental groups, from the national Sierra Club to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, argue for reducing one's "ecological footprint," a term that describes an individual's consumption and use of natural resources. And with Americans at 5 percent of world population using 25 percent of the planet's natural resources, no one disputes this is a vital focus.

But to focus only on reducing every individual's impact, while remaining silent on how many individuals are living here, strikes critics like Beck as "bewildering.

"How anyone can think it is not both - average environmental impact times the number of people...that's like one and one equals two."

Beck and colleagues have analyzed Smart Growth, a key environmentalist remedy for sprawl development. Pioneered around the Chesapeake, Smart Growth uses government incentives and disincentives to pattern growth around existing towns, significantly reducing the land each new home carves out of farms and wildlife habitat.

It hasn't worked well, and one reason, Beck concluded in his analysis of 100 metropolitan centers nationwide, is that population growth itself drives about half of open space consumption.

Arizona for example, between 1990 and 2003 grew "smarter," reducing per capita land consumption by 13 percent, yet sprawl development increased by 40 percent. The reason: The population growth of 58 percent overwhelmed reductions in "footprint."

And Los Angeles, with the nation's densest suburban land use - about a 10th of an acre per home - still sprawled over 400 square miles of open space from 1970 to 1990 as 3.1 million new Angelinos arrived.

Some places like Detroit sprawled even as population declined. But overall, the report's conclusion was that sprawl is not just a product of bad zoning and large-lot, McMansion lifestyles. It also matters how many people live in a place.

Several studies find the same phenomenon with carbon dioxide, a product of fossil energy use that hastens climate change. The U.S. population growth has raised CO2 emissions more than 20 percent since 1990, despite environmental gains that held per capita increases to around 3 percent. A British study estimates that even if individuals could hugely reduce CO2 emissions by more than half, global population growth by 2050 would negate it.

Warmer temperatures already affect the Chesapeake, with vital eelgrass habitats unable to handle hotter summers, and marshes unable to keep apace of rising sea levels.

Philip Cafaro, a Colorado State University professor who writes on environmental ethics, said that reducing population, with its large immigration component, makes many Americans nervous. Immigrants coming here for a better life are central to the nation's history.

Indeed, William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has said: "Would I like to see population stabilized, even reduced? Absolutely. But to tell poor countries to keep their people there because we don't want their pollution is just wrong."

"But if you support the immigration status quo of 1.5 million annually," Cafaro writes in "The Environmental Argument for Reducing Immigration to the United States," then you also support increasing America's population to over 700 million people by 2100.

"And it is not just more people, but more cars, houses, malls, power lines, concrete, asphalt, less nature…we have not figured out how to create a sustainable society with 300 million inhabitants. It's not plausible to think we will be able to do so with two or three times as many people."

Cafaro rejects arguments that immigrants coming here have significantly smaller "footprints" than most Americans, living more densely and consuming less. They do, he said, at first; but then? "Look at Italians, Jews, Irish...are they living like their (immigrant) forefathers, or like Americans?"

A flaw of environmental groups' "only reducing footprint" approach, Cafaro says, "is we might, with a lot of work, reduce our impacts to that of Europeans (around a third less environmental impact) but we cannot become Indians or Bangladeshis (about 90 percent less impact)."

All of our families, except for Native Americans', originally immigrated here. In the Great Wave between 1880 and 1920, the country added an average of 600,000 foreign-born residents annually. While the United States was welcoming in concept, every group suffered its share of abuse and intolerance, documented in the late Johns Hopkins University professor John Higham's 1955 classic, "Strangers in the Land." (Higham, himself, would by the 1980s become concerned that immigration was getting out of hand).

Restrictive laws passed in the 1920s reduced immigration to about 200,000 a year for several decades (President Franklin Roosevelt froze it during the Great Depression).

A momentous change began in 1965, Beck said, when Congress "with all the best intentions," liberalized immigration to make it less restrictive to nations outside of northern Europe. A "family reunification" provision allowed immigrants to bring in relatives beyond immediate family.

No one at the time wanted to increase immigration, but as the gates opened to people from poorer nations, with larger and more extended families, the numbers soared. Family reunification became what Beck and other immigration activists now call "chain migration."

By the 1970s, about 400,000 immigrants a year were coming, a number that rose to a million a year by the 1990s. More recently, because of illegal immigration, that number has risen to more than 1.5 million a year.

More than 80 percent of current legal immigrants, approximately a million people a year, Beck said, gain entry based on "being related to someone here." Another 5 percent are refugees. People with high skills, like doctors or scientists, make up another 4 percent; and about 8 percent are people asked for by employers in the United States.

Current, fierce debates over illegal immigration and the millions already here illegally - heightened further in a time of severe joblessness - have infected the whole immigration issue. "Both sides talk too much about immigrants, versus immigration," wrote Dave Foreman in his new population book, "Manswarm and The Killing of Wildlife."

"Pro immigrationists sketch antis as nativists, racists...some antis talk too much about terrorists, welfare bums and cultural differences," said Foreman, founder of Earth First! and an environmental leader who goes back to the first Earth Day in April 1970.

"And neither side talks enough about population growth and its consequences."

The politics of immigration confound standard liberal-conservative lines as few other issues. Pushing to uphold or increase legal immigration are alliances that include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which sees immigrants both as more customers and more labor, and liberal nonprofits like the Southern Poverty Law Center. SPLC freely blasts environmentalists who advocate immigration reduction as "wolves in sheep's clothing, right-wing nativists."

The risk of being so branded caused Carl Pope, former Sierra Club president, to say: "when environmentalists say the human impact is just too large, people will suspect we are saying (it) is just too dark."

On the other side, liberal environmentalists who want Congress to reduce population find their new "go to" legislator is the anti-environmental Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Smith's environmental voting record as compiled by the National League of Conservation Voters ranges from zero to 9 percent, usually closer to zero. But his bill in Congress might help the environment as much as the Sierra Club's major campaign to shut down dirty power plants.

Smith's bill would ramp up and make mandatory E Verify, a national computerized system already used successfully by many businesses to deny employment to workers without valid identification such as a Social Security card. The Obama administration requires federal contractors to make these checks, covering about 12 percent of the nation's workforce.

Beck called it "a great system," that if expanded could go a long way to dry up jobs for those without documentation. Right now E Verify fails to catch people who have stolen whole new identities, but Smith's bill would fix that by letting it cross-reference Social Security data.

On the other side of the Congressional aisle, a liberal environmental voter concerned about population will find scant comfort in gaining support to reduce legal immigration from most Democrats who have sterling environmental records.

Immigration reformers say it's not just illegal immigration that must be reduced if U.S. population is to stabilize, but legal too. Where they would cap legal immigration - which would require an act of Congress - varies, but many put it around the U.S. historical average of 230,000 a year, about a fifth of current levels.

Arguments against reducing immigration range from dishonoring immigrant forebears (the Jewish Council for Public Affairs), to U.S. Chamber of Commerce concerns that Americans will no longer do the dirty jobs; or that a smaller labor force will not be able to pay the Social Security of an aging Baby Boom generation.

All of these can be potent counterforces to support for population stability. Philanthropist David Gelbaum, mindful of his immigrant grandparents, warned the Sierra Club in the 1990s they would "never get another nickel" from him if they forcefully opposed immigration.

It was one factor that played into the group's decision, ratified by 60 percent of its members in 1998, to abandon its longstanding stance for population stability for one of "neutrality." Perhaps a larger factor was a brutal fight in California, the group's base, to deny schooling to children of illegal immigrants. That proposition was rejected by a court.

Beck said that the "jobs Americans won't do tactic" is often just code for offering cheaper pay and fewer benefits. Other immigration experts cite coal mining and trash collection as "dirty, hard jobs," that pay decently and seldom go wanting for takers.

As for Social Security, this is already a concern in nations like Japan, where birthrates and immigration are low, and fewer workers are supporting more aged. However, adding immigrant workers is not sustainable, because they, too, will retire and draw Social Security, and will then need an even larger workforce to support them, ad infinitum.

It is also a problem that would exist during a few decades of transition to a stable population where workers and retirees would be in balance again. Given the number of women of childbearing age already in the United States, the workforce population will grow for decades no matter what happens to immigration.

Foreman, who was on the Sierra Club's board during the fight over backing off its population policy, thinks the biggest problem isn't economic. The group's officials pushing the change, he said, vilified opposing members as "nativists," a term meaning rabidly ethnocentric that falls just short of the label of racist.

"Conservationists won't work on growth in the U.S. until we deal forthrightly with immigration. We can't do that until we make a new playing field where we can talk about immigration without being damned to hell by erstwhile friends who say we are anti-immigrant," Foreman wrote. "We need to say that the question is how many, not who. Until we understand this and deal with it, we are not going to get a crowd of wilderness and wildlife lovers to back what needs to be done."

Cafaro and others add that immigration and population need to be argued in the fuller context of their social and economic benefits, like better jobs and quality of life for citizens already here; and in terms of how the United States can better help nations deal with their own populations- for example, by instituting farm policies that don't undercut poorer nations' farmers with unmatchable subsidies to U.S. commodities.

Stabilizing the population would not prevent citizens from moving wherever they wanted in the United States. The current internal movement of the population toward coastal areas like the Chesapeake exerts increasing stress. Remedies to that lie in land use and economic policies within coastal states. But at present, most states avidly pursue more people as the path of economic progress.

But Cafaro, using Census Bureau data, paints three scenarios for the United States, and by implication, the Chesapeake:

  • With zero immigration, the population by 2100 will rise from 312 million to 377 million;
  • with a million immigrants a year, it will be 571 million; and
  • with 2 million, which some bills in Congress would promote, it will be 854 million.
  • For the Bay, proportional increases would mean adding a few million people, adding 14 million, or nearly 30 million.

 

"Clearly immigration makes a difference. Americans must choose between sustainability and continued population growth," Cafaro said. "We cannot have both."