Environmentalists Support Immigration Reform

As one of the world’s most populous and consumptive nations, the United States has a particular responsibility to control its ecological footprint. To some degree this can be done by moderating our consumer habits or investing in green technology. But lifestyle and technological reforms have not and will not negate the impact of an ever-growing population.

The United States has a population growth rate that is anomalously high among industrialized nations. If there is no change in our growth rate, the U.S. population will increase 40 percent by 2050.1 Each additional citizen will rightfully demand access to the resources of the nation the right to consume, and the right to produce waste just as we do. Population stabilization is the key to controlling environmental degradation in the U.S. And the key to population stabilization is immigration reduction.


Establishing Steady State Demographics

Population stabilization means the adoption of a demographic “steady-state” where, over time, the population of the country neither rises nor falls. In such a situation, the average annual population growth rate would be zero. Births and deaths, immigration and emigration would continue to refresh the population and allow it to evolve, but during that process the overall number of people in the country would remain roughly constant.

In a reservoir, the surface of the water naturally fluctuates with the wind and other perturbations, although the level of the water does not rise. Similarly, a stable population would have “surface fluctuations” but would maintain the same size. With a constant stream into and out of a reservoir, it renews itself but does not overflow its capacity. Thus, a stable system is still a dynamic system; a stable population is not stagnant.

We cannot achieve such stability overnight. Like any fast-moving object, population growth has an inertia all its own and slowing population growth takes generations. For that reason, it is imperative that we begin now to curb our growth rate, so that we can bequeath a stable population to our descendants. To achieve population stability, we must reduce the current level of immigration. America’s native population achieved a “replacement rate” (a birth/death rate where one child is born for each person who dies off about 2 children per family) in about 1972. Now, over 35 years later, the United States would be well on its way to a stable population were it not for its level of immigration.

Since 1970, our population has grown by about 103 million people. More than half of that growth came from post-1970 immigrants and their descendants. If we do not lower the level of immigration, we will add 132 million people to our population size in the next 40 years—82 percent (106 million) of whom will be post-2005 immigrants and their descendants.1

Because immigration is the driving force behind current population growth in the U.S., limiting immigration is the key to slowing population growth, stabilizing our population, and protecting our environment. Limiting immigration can be accomplished practically and humanely by adhering to the following principles.

  • Move from a system of expansive “chain migration” to one of discrete “nuclear family” migration.
  • Eliminate the immigration categories for siblings and adult sons/daughters.
  • Support an enforceable cap on overall annual immigration of about 300,000.
  • Deduct the immediate relatives of an immigrant in the year the primary immigrant enters.
  • Admissions under any special, new, or temporary programs (such as amnesties, paroles, or lotteries) should count toward the overall cap, and other admissions should be reduced accordingly.
  • Enact a blanket moratorium on future immigration (other than spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens) in order to eliminate the backlog and to get a fresh start.
  • Explain these ground rules clearly to the primary immigrant before he/she enters the U.S.

With such changes, the level of immigration would begin to match the level of emigration, and we would develop a ‘migration equilibrium’ under which immigration would contribute to our economy and society, but not to our population growth. Through reform, immigration can become consistent with our environmental priorities.

We Must Act Now

The environmental pressures caused by immigration-driven population growth are not merely a future possibility; they are a present reality. The daily news teems with tales of the effects of immigration on host communities. Runaway population growth affects not merely the big cities that traditionally receive immigration, but also smaller and more rural communities, which are now receiving both direct immigration and a “secondary migration” of natives fleeing the effects of that population growth. Stories of urban sprawl and the destruction of the surrounding farmland litter the media, and a feeling grows that there is nowhere to run from environmental degradation.

As tempting as it may be to stick our heads in the sand and busy ourselves with less politically sensitive aspects of the problem, we must tackle the immigration aspect as well. Until recently, environmental groups have had little problem either making the connection between immigration and the environment or taking a stance against population growth. In 1965, the year the immigration law was changed to unintentionally generate the current high levels of immigration, the Sierra Club began asserting the need to limit environmental harm by limiting population growth and immigration. In its 1979 publication Handbook on Population Projections, the Sierra Club noted that “for almost fifteen years, the Sierra Club has acknowledged that population growth is the cause of all environmental problems.”

In recent years, however, short-term political fears have begun to silence long-term environmental wisdom. Decision making, even among noted environmental organizations, has been driven more by "political correctness" and a desire to remain insulated from criticism than a fearless devotion to protecting our natural heritage. But the connection between immigration, population, and the environment remains.

Updated June 2009

  1. Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050, Pew Research Center, February 11, 2008