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WHY EXCESS IMMIGRATION DAMAGES THE ENVIRONMENT
Number 27a, June 1992

Population-Environment Balance,
2000 P St., NW,
Suite 210,
Washington DC 20036, Fax: (202) 955-6161,
e-mail: balance@igc.apc.org.

Our Board of Directors and staff are often asked why BALANCE, an organization committed to safeguarding our environment through population stabilization, places a major emphasis on limiting immigration into the United States. What, we are asked, does immigration limitation have to do with environmental protection? The answer is, a lot.

Stable Population Size Essential to Protect Environment

Immigration policy in the U.S. should be based on the reality that a stable U.S. population size is essential if we are to prevent further deterioration of the very system that supports us—our environment and natural resource base. Regardless of how conservatively we use resources, the fundamental fact is that growing numbers of people unavoidably place increasing demands on our natural and social environment. More people mean more energy use, more traffic jams, more production of toxic wastes and increased tensions that result from living in crowded urban environments. However efficient we may be in the use of resources and however much we conserve in our attempt to preserve our environment, more people simply mean more stress on the ecosystem. The phenomena of crowding, deforestation, acid rain, global warming and the whole litany of environmental ills in the U.S. and elsewhere amply demonstrate that every person, however conservative, adds to the environmental burden.

Carrying Capacity, Not Land Area, is Key Consideration

In the United States, why don't we just disperse our population over the "wide open spaces" that (albeit decreasingly) still exist in places such as Alaska, Utah, Nevada, Texas, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona and elsewhere? Doesn't our large land area provide the answer? Unfortunately, the answer is an emphatic: "No!"

The key to understanding this reality lies in the essential fact of "carrying capacity"—the number of people who can be sustainably supported in a given area without degrading the natural, social, cultural and economic environment for present and future generations. Carrying capacity includes the capacity of the natural environment to provide the resources, food, clothing and shelter we need, and the capacity of the social environment to provide a reasonable quality of life.

While many factors (e.g., energy, forests, pollutants) could be chosen to illustrate carrying capacity limitations on population size, consideration of one striking example, water, brings home very quickly an appreciation of the importance and usefulness of the carrying capacity concept. The west, southwest and certain central states—indeed, many areas of the United States (generally those experiencing the most rapid population growth)—are afflicted either with water shortages or with the toxic pollution of water. Many areas have limited rainfall or few other naturally occurring sources of water, resulting in severe depletion and/or pollution of groundwater. Since potable water is essential to life, the carrying capacity of these limited-water areas which can extend over many states, is extremely low for all forms of life, including humans.

Moreover, there are no cost-or energy-efficient ways on the horizon: for increasing the supply. Desalination techniques are expensive and require too much energy to be sustained in an energy-short world. And the benefits of using conservation techniques, such as drip irrigation, while important, are not (and at current rates of population growth, will not be) sufficient to offset the demands of an increasing population.

Why Population Dispersal Will Not Work

Thus, regardless of what some may contend, we cannot disperse people to relatively unpopulated areas because the carrying capacity simply is not there. Expensive schemes to supply water to such areas or to others where burgeoning population is overrunning and/or polluting the water supply serve only to reduce the carrying capacity of water source areas, while, in the long run, allowing recipient areas to be overwhelmed once more by ever increasing numbers of people. The regions of the country that are even now depleting underground aquifers at rates far in excess of their recharge rates are, in carrying capacity terms, are already overpopulated.

Although emergency measures and unusually heavy rainfall may ameliorate the situation in short term, such patterns of use are not sustainable in the long term as population continues to increase. Indeed, many in states on the east coast, and especially in Florida, the toxic pollution generated by dense population is already permanently destroying underground aquifers.

One can perhaps get a clearer understanding of the carrying capacity problem by seeing it essentially as caused by a population longage rather the a water shortage. Indeed, the list of carrying capacity factors that limit and that are affected by population longages is extensive, including energy, prime agricultural land, timber, open space, and peace and quiet, just to name a few.

The point is simple enough: More people demand more of the shrinking resources and, in using them, create more pollution. Species extinction and accompanying loss of bio-diversity, acid rain and deforestation of the Tongass and other national forests are among the signals that the United States' and world's population increase is pushing the environment beyond its ability to sustain a desirable quality of life.

The Ultimate Environmental Threat: Overpopulation

One result of overpopulation, therefore, is that resources are depleted and the environment is degraded to the point that an area loses part of its capacity to support a given population in the future. When the carrying capacity is exceeded, the environmental damage is usually so severe that the population carrying capacity for future generations is greatly reduced. This chain of events is not just true of the Amazon rain forest, or Central America, or Bangladesh, or deforested Nepal. It is also true for many areas of the United States—and for the United States as a whole.

In southern California, for example, absolutely limited amounts of imported potable water are becoming increasingly precious and there is pressure to build ever more pipelines to bring water from ever greater distances. The public at large, stalled in gridlock and waiting for rain, is beginning to perceive the absolute limits on the population carrying capacity of such areas.

It is particularly important for the United States to stop its population growth because, while the U.S. contains only about 5% of the world's population, it uses disproportionately large amounts of the world's resources (e.g. approximately 25% of its fossil fuel) and produces over 25% of the world's C02, which contributes to the greenhouse effect. Thus, stopping population growth in the United States is essential if we are to protect both the United States' and the world's environment.

Population Carrying Capacity is Adversely Affected by Excess Immigration

The United States' population is increasing by 3 million per year. Since immigration from foreign countries causes 50% of the United States' population growth (and over 60% of the population growth of some states such as California and Florida), and since the United States, too, has a limit on its carrying capacity, excess immigration creates a significant environmental threat.

Worldwide, a common response to carrying capacity problems is to migrate to areas where the carrying capacity has not yet been pushed beyond the limit or is perceived to still provide opportunities. Much of the immigration into the United States is fueled by this perception, but the United States does not have infinite resources. Since the world's population is now increasing at an alarming rate—by about one billion people every 11 years—these pressures will only increase.

The problem is that such migration not only threatens the carrying capacity of the destination countries, but also creates the harmful illusion in the sending countries that continued population growth is an acceptable option.

Numerous other present and historical examples can be cited of population size exceeding the sustainable capacity of the environment due in part to the false perception of an adequate carrying capacity. The result is almost always increased migration pressure as well as the other components of overpopulation: Environmental damage, unemployment, and social disruption.

For example, the introduction of the potato into Ireland in the eighteenth century both increased productivity of the land and encouraged new estimates of how many people could be supported on a piece of land, and thus provided an "incentive" for large family size. However, no allowance was made for population growth or for scarcity—less than optimal harvests. The result (of that "longage" of people or "shortage" of food, depending on how one looks at it) was the Irish potato famine.

Populations try to move out of countries where they have overwhelmed the carrying capacity. Today, the pressures from every continent continue to increase— world population is growing by 93 million people per year! Many already have come to the United States, but no region, including the United States, has the capacity to absorb all those desiring to immigrate. It is doubly unfortunate, therefore, that the perception of opportunity in the U.S. acts as a disincentive for overcrowded countries to face and begin to correct overpopulation problems at home.

Thus, allowing too much immigration both creates an environmental threat and sends a misleading signal. Perhaps all countries should consider limiting immigration to levels within their carrying capacities in order to more effectively protect the environment. Slowing immigration in excess of carrying capacity ignores limits in both sending and receiving countries. Such a disregard represents a serious threat to the environments of all countries involved.

Limiting Excess Immigration is Ethically Right and Environmentally Sound

People on the move always create moral dilemmas since it is natural to be sympathetic with the migrants. However, the practical and moral question is what to do about those wishing to come to areas, like the United States, that are perceived, falsely, as affording virtually unlimited opportunities and resources. In our case, we are forced to carefully consider whether allowing continued or increased immigration is a net benefit or a detriment to the United States, to the immigrants themselves, and to the countries from which they come.

In addition to the carrying capacity of the natural environment already discussed, a number of social and economic carrying capacity factors are relevant here. Most immigrants to the United States are poor and either semi-skilled or unskilled. The fact is that they compete with our own poor, unemployed and homeless for housing, employment and opportunity. It is not fair to our own poor and unemployed to increase competition when we do not have unlimited natural and social resources or unlimited jobs or budgets. The cornucopian notion of unlimited bounty held by many abroad and by some Americans is, in fact, a myth to which our budget deficits, resource shortages, overcrowded cities and environmental ills amply testify.

Excess Immigration is Extremely Costly to American Tax payers

The health of our social environment requires that we refrain from excessive spending. Immigration at current levels is, however, extremely costly given the limited ability of our economy to productively absorb large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled newcomers, let alone to handle concentrations of people beyond carrying capacity limits imposed by nature.

A study by Professor of Economics Donald L. Huddle of Rice University estimates that immigration (both legal and illegal) to the United States cost U.S. taxpayers in 1993 $44.18 billion, after subtracting the taxes immigrants pay. More than fifty-five percent of these costs are attributable to legal immigration: the 12.76 million post-1970 legal immigrants and 2.81 million amnestied aliens in the U.S. cost U.S. taxpayers a net $24.83 billion in public assistance and displacement costs in 1993. The level of legal immigration to the United States is currently about one million a year. More than 5 million illegal immigrants, whose numbers are increased by about 300,000 a year, cost approximately $19.34 billion in 1993.

Unless U.S. laws and enforcement policy are changed, immigration (both legal and illegal) will cost an average of $60 billion annually during the next decade!

Even the humanitarian portion of our immigration policy is not inexpensive. According to the U.S. State Department, every 10,000 refugees admitted to the United States receive initial benefits that cost the taxpayers $70 million. With current refugee levels at about 120,000 annually, initial refugee costs to U.S. taxpayers are in the neighborhood of $840 million! These figures do not include the additional coasts of bilingual education, new housing, hospital care, and other "downstream costs" that are often borne by state and municipalities, and that run into billions of dollars annually.

Moreover a number of persons who are presently admitted as refugees do not meet the traditional test for classification as a "refugee"-that is, having a "well founded fear of persecution." This is because legislation was passed in the 101 St. Congress that substantially broadens the definition of "refugee" for certain Soviet, Eastern European and Southeast Asian citizens so that many are admitted who do not meet the traditional test. Indeed, some who are admitted as refugees would be more appropriately classified as persons fleeing economic hardship or environmental disaster. While it is natural to sympathize with such persons, it is questionable whether they should be called "refugees" with all the sympathetic connotations that term evokes.

Excess immigration into the United States is, simply, very expensive, and victimizes our own poor and unemployed who compete for jobs, housing, health benefits, education and the like. And immigration contributes to population growth, which is threatening the carrying capacity limits of the natural environment.

Emigration Hurts the Countries from which Immigrants Come

Emigration does not benefit the countries from which immigrants come, either. It is often the politically dissatisfied or economically unfulfilled who decide to leave. Their feelings are understandable but BALANCE believes that we should not encourage them to migrate. These dissatisfied people are precisely the ones who should stay at home because they are often the most motivated and best able to rectify the problems of their own societies. What, for example, would have happened to the Polish reform movement had Lech Walesa decided to emigrate to the United States? Although most immigrants to the United States are relatively unskilled, a small number are skilled. Is it fair to other countries to allow the brain drain to the United Stated to continue? Their exodus is their country's loss.

Perhaps most important, many of the countries from which prospective immigrants come are countries with very high and entirely unsustainable population growth rates. Many have population doubling times of between 20 and 30 years, large numbers of children per family, and an extremely large proportion of the total population which is very young. For example, if present trends continue, Central America (including Mexico) will double in size to 242 million in just 28 years.

Since many in these countries hold the illusion that the United States has unlimited resources and an unlimited capacity to accept immigrants, and will continue to accept large numbers of them, their governments have no real incentive to take steps to limit their own population by encouraging small family size and making contraception more widely available. The conclusion that they can justifiably draw from the present "open door" U.S. immigration policy is that a significant portion of their "excess" numbers can always go to the United States. This misconception only delays their attempts to slow their own population growth.

Other Countries' Experiences Demonstrate that Restricting Migration is Beneficial

China has recently instituted regulations aimed directly at limiting the migration from rural areas into overcrowded cities. An important aspect of this policy is apparently to encourage people in the rural areas to bear the burden of their excessive reproductive rates and thus induce them to adjust the number of children to a level consistent with realistic expectations of local economic and environmental conditions. Indeed, many present and historical examples indicate that people respond to perceived scarcity or opportunity by having fewer or more children, respectively.

In short, we are being unethical and unjust to our own people and to those from other countries by allowing excessive immigration and thus refusing to directly confront the carrying capacity problem. We send these countries the wrong signal, the signal that their high emigration and high birth rates can continue since the United States will provide a safety valve. This is neither good for other countries nor good for the United States.

We should be sending them another signal, namely that the United States will take a strictly limited number of immigrants who can be successfully absorbed within our population carrying capacity, but no more. This policy would send the right signal to other countries and, in the process, allow us and them to protect the environment. Each would limit its own population growth, so each could help its own poor and employed.

How much Immigration is "Excessive?"

Given these considerations, how much immigration is excessive? Answering this question involves considering what population size is "ideal" for the United States, given our population carrying capacity. Precise answers are difficult, but honest observation and common sense suggest that from a carrying capacity perspective the Untied States may well be overpopulated already.all inclusive

The evidence for overpopulation is widespread, including our water shortages, our excessive pollution, our great pressures to cut ever more timber from our national forests, our decreasing wildlife habitat, our paving over of 1.5 million acres of farmland a year, our overcrowded recreation areas, crowding in our cities, and our inability to provide and maintain an adequate infrastructure of schools, roads and other physical facilities. All this and more point to the fact that the United States may already have exceeded the ideal population carrying capacity. After all, we must reemphasize that sparsely inhabited or open land does not necessarily signify additional carrying capacity.

To Protect the Environment. We Must Achieve "Replacement-Level" Immigration

Therefore, to safeguard our carrying capacity and maintain our quality of life, BALANCE believes that the most sensible course to take is to stabilize our population size as soon as possible. Although our total fertility rate is near replacement level, our population will still continue to grow for several decades because of the large number of women from the baby boom generation currently in their childbearing years (this phenomenon is known as "population momentum"). Consequently, immigration from other countries provides the crucial variable in our efforts to stabilize America's population.

In sum, achieving population stabilization must include a goal to reduce immigration into the U.S. from its current level (more than 1,000,000 legal immigrants and an estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants every year) to a "replacement-level" immigration rate that would parallel replacement-level fertility. We should have a replacement-level immigration ceiling of no more than 200,000 because about 200,000 people leave the United States voluntarily every year. Balancing immigration and emigration will be instrumental in balancing U.S. population with our environment.

An All-Inclusive Immigration Ceiling of 200.000 Per Year Will Make Long-term Environmental Protection Possible

This immigration ceiling should also be all-inclusive. That is, it should include refugees, asylees, relatives and all other immigrants. Anything short of an all-inclusive ceiling would risk discriminating against certain groups of people, would unfairly undermine the principle of replacement-level immigration and would undercut our goal of attaining a stable population within carrying capacity limits.

While BALANCE is primarily concerned with numbers only, certain considerations should apply regarding who should be admitted under such a ceiling. BALANCE believes a responsible immigration policy would admit some individuals facing imminent persecution (refugees and asylees), some skilled workers, and immediate family members of U.S. citizen. Each of these categories should be admitted, but only to the extent that the total does not exceed the replacement-level ceiling of 200,000 annually. We must acknowledge, and others must recognize, that the United States simply cannot take in all of those who want to come to this country.

We must be fair to ourselves and to others by being realistic. We must enact a responsible immigration policy. This requires that we act now to stop illegal immigration and to limit legal immigration to replacement level, namely, 200,000 per year. Those 200,000 places should be allocated in the best interest of the United States as determined by Congress and the American people. We believe that the cornerstone of our environmental and immigration policies must be population stabilization.

In sum, overpopulation is the ultimate threat to the environment, and immigration is the critical component in our rapid population increase, which is the highest in the industrialized world. We owe it to ourselves, to our poor and homeless, and to other countries to act now to limit immigration into this country to replacement level in order to protect our environment and safeguard our long-term carrying capacity. By working first in the United States to stabilize our population, we can send a signal to other countries that says we have limits to our capacity to absorb immigrants. We can become a model of population stabilization for others so that we can each work toward safeguarding our own carrying capacity and thus safeguard the carrying capacity of our planet.