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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Moving On

Lessons of the immigration debate

by Carl Pope

This spring the members of the Sierra Club made a historic decision. On this year's Club ballot, they were asked whether we should address the problem of overpopulation by limiting immigration or by dealing with its root causes. Six out of ten voted to defeat the immigration initiative. In doing so, they chose to embrace the concept of global —not merely national—stewardship, and shunned an attempt to reduce environmental stress in the United States by increasing it elsewhere. Taking responsibility for their own resource use, they refused to blame newcomers to our country for our own overconsumption.

The controversy over immigration, sadly, distracted us from much more important population issues. While we were busy debating the impact of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, Congress was dismantling U.S. support for international family-planning programs serving hundreds of millions of families. We owe it to those families and to the environmental movement to learn from this process and get back to work.

This is not to deny that immigration is an important topic. It has economic consequences, it influences our sense of who we are as a people, and it even has local environmental impacts. But while Sierra Club members share the country's strong (and varied) feelings on immigration, they declined to make it a Club issue. Restricting immigration, they decided, is not the best way for us to protect the environment.

I believe they made the right choice. Immigration restrictions don't solve environmental problems, they merely shift them elsewhere. Proponents of the immigration-restriction initiative argued that we need to protect our own backyard, or "lifeboat," in environmental philosopher Garrett Hardin's metaphor. Immigration controls, they said, are how we keep others from swamping ours.

Instead of a lifeboat, the Sierra Club chose Buckminster Fuller's vision of "Spaceship Earth." After all, the lesson of the Kyoto Global Warming Summit was that the nations of the earth must act not only individually but also in coordination. Photos from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii show a huge brown plume carrying pollution to the West Coast of the United States from coal-fired power plants in Asia—at the same time that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions threaten to warm the earth enough to flood out hundreds of millions of people in Bangladesh and island nations.

Proponents of immigration restrictions tried to make their own global case. Because Americans consume more than their share of natural resources, they argued, it follows that the more Americans, the more environmental destruction globally. The problem with immigration, this position suggests, is that it raises the living standard of those who come here. But raising living standards elsewhere would have the same effect, so this logic would compel us to oppose economic growth in the Third World as well.

There is no doubt that Americans use too many natural resources, and in doing so generate a disproportionate amount of pollution-more carbon dioxide, for example, than any other nation. But the average inhabitant of Mexico City puts more pollution into the atmosphere than the average Angeleno; the average Greek accounts for more heavy metal in the ocean than the average American; and adding 100,000 people to the population of Sumatra displaces more critical habitat for more endangered species than adding the same number to New York or Illinois. Sorting out the global environmental effects of immigration, we soon find, is too complicated for anyone to reasonably calculate. And pretending that we can set immigration levels solely based on rates of consumption sends a terrible message to the rest of the world: "We know that our way of life is fatal to the biosphere, but we don't plan to change it, and we can't afford to have you join us. Please don't imitate us back in your own countries either."

Some people leave their homes looking for a better life, while others are forced to leave because of war, repression, environmental degradation—and sometimes U.S. policy. In three short years since the approval—over Sierra Club objections—of the North American Free Trade Agreement, its agricultural provisions have forced some 400,000 families off the land in Mexico. Many of those displaced headed for El Norte. The proposed remedies to the financial crisis in Asia—backed by the United States and the International Monetary Fund —could, if adopted, send another tidal wave of migrants across the world. Rather than slamming the door, members directed the Club to devote its energies to global stewardship, to mitigating the conditions that drive people from their homes.

There is also much to be done in our own country. The United States has the highest fertility rate in the industrialized world, the highest rate of teen pregnancy, and the highest rate of unplanned pregnancies. (We have more unplanned pregnancies than we have immigrants—1.3 million versus 1 million.) Bringing down these scandalous numbers would give the rest of the world a model, not a slap in the face.

The approach adopted by Sierra Club members is a policy to be proud of. It commits us to reducing the impacts of our way of life, rather than restricting access to that way of life. It encourages us to tackle the human and environmental tragedies that force people to migrate. It suggests that global overpopulation can best be solved by providing all people a decent standard of living and by giving all women the means to control their fertility. It says, most importantly, that we don't have to push people off the lifeboat—because we're all in it together.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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