here are a few bona fide environmentalists who have become advocates of immigration reform. But for the most part, the issue has gotten little traction in the mainstream environmental movement.
At their most rational, immigration reform advocates plead that all they want is for the country to look at the 2000 census numbers. In fact, population is a major environmental issue, and the numbers are worth studying.
The United States has the third largest population on earth, behind only China and India, and the fastest-growing population of any industrialized country. According to the 2000 census, the nation grew by about 33 million people in the last decade. Of this, about 13 million people, or 40 percent of the growth, were new immigrants. Some demographers, and all immigration control advocates, also count as "immigrants" the U.S.-born children of immigrants, which raises their number to nearly two-thirds of the total growth. If birth rates and immigration rates stay the same, the U.S. population is projected to grow to about 404 million shortly after 2050, and to 571 million -- more than twice the present population -- by 2100.
If they discuss population at all, most mainstream environmentalists do so from a "global" rather than a domestic perspective. They support economic and family planning aid, citing research showing that improved economic conditions lead to smaller families. Worldwide population is in fact growing more slowly now than it was ten years ago (though this has clearly not slowed immigration to the United States). Most environmentalists also reject immigration-based solutions as too provincial. "If an organization wants to shut down the borders to protect part of its own turf," says Kaid Benfield, director of NRDC's smart-growth program, "number one, it's probably not going to work. Number two, I have a problem with that as a matter of environmental ethics. If you care about the planet, you can't protect Texas at the expense of Mexico."
Annette Souder, director of the Sierra Club's global population and environment program, reflects the position of most national environmental groups when she argues that "if we really want to know how we impact the planet, we need to look at how we use resources and how we consume products." She adds, "Large population or small, if you have poor environmental regulations, it doesn't matter."
Greenville, which hugs the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, has indoor football, Double A baseball, and Bob Jones University -- best known for its recently lifted ban on interracial dating. And now there's immigration.
The 2000 census revealed a dramatic rise in Hispanic populations across the South. In South Carolina, the number of Latinos more than tripled in the past decade, rising from 31,000 in 1990 to 95,000. Including illegals, the actual number could be twice that. Greenville has one of the state's highest concentrations of Latinos -- almost 4 percent of the city's total population of about 380,000. Most arrive directly from Mexico, Colombia, and several Central American countries.
There's something else new to Greenville: sprawl. Excess growth into the countryside is an overwhelming environmental problem -- here and just about everywhere else. Between 1982 and 1997, the Greenville-Spartanburg area had a 22 percent increase in population but a whopping 74 percent increase in urbanized land use. Nationwide, in the last twenty years the hundred largest urban areas have sprawled out over more than 9 million additional acres of natural habitats, farmland, woodlots, and other rural space.
But Thomas Meeks of the Greenville County Planning Commission says immigration has had little if any impact on Greenville's sprawl -- other than providing the labor to build it. In fact, given that most of the immigrants take relatively low-paying jobs on construction sites and in the nearby peach orchards, it's hard to see what role they play in driving construction of suburban shopping centers, corporate campuses, and exurb McMansions with eight bedrooms and four-car garages.
Rolf Pendall, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University, says that the style in which people live and the land use plans and patterns and tax laws that govern how they live -- not the sheer number of people -- are the determinants of sprawl.
Pendall's analysis of 282 U.S. metropolitan areas found that population growth explains slightly less than a third of sprawl. Even places experiencing no population growth during the last decade had 18 percent more sprawl. And the 56 metro areas experiencing population declines, such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland, also saw increased sprawl.
"Population growth is a very weak factor contributing to sprawl," says Chen of Smart Growth America, "and a lot less strong than the presence of local and state growth management laws." Chen concludes that immigration's impact on sprawl is "exceptionally weak."
Pendall explains that there are many reasons for the disconnect between population and sprawl. Women may enter the workforce, creating more workplaces, roads to reach them, and attendant sprawl -- all with no population increase. The increased household income they create means those families tend to trade in their current houses for larger ones on larger lots. In areas with slow or no population growth, falling land and housing prices encourage current residents to buy ever larger houses and lots. Local zoning also plays a role; communities of new single-family detached houses in some western states may have six to twelve times the density of fast-growing communities in the Northeast, where local zoning often demands large lots and low density.
Barbara McCann of the Surface Transportation Policy Project adds that, of the 70 percent rise nationwide in miles driven, automobile trips taken, and traffic congestion in the last sixteen years, only 13 percent is attributable to a bigger population. Instead, suggests McCann, most of the auto travel increase is the result of behavior and lifestyle choices, such as living in distant suburbs with no nearby retail shopping.