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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2004
Table of Contents
Wild & Whitewashed
Interview: Restaurateur Alice Waters
Who Grows Your Food? (And Why It Matters)
A Tale of Two Immigrants
Let's Talk
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
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Sierra Magazine
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A Tale of Two Immigrants
One wants to build bridges, the other walls.
What's the best way to deal with a growing world population?

by Marilyn Berlin Snell

Sidebar: Lines in the Sand
Sidebar: The Sierra Club's Stance On Immigration

Harvard grad Hugo Morales, with his dog, Revolution, spent his childhood picking fruit on a farm. Now he works to keep pesticides from poisoning laborers, regardless of where they are from.
A few bruised Granny Smiths roll around the bed of Hugo Morales's 1991 Toyota truck as he tools along California's back roads, past late-spring orchards thick with fruit and bustling with migrant field hands. The apples bounce like pinballs off the cast-iron skillet and Dutch oven that Morales, 55, had taken on a three-day camping trip into the High Sierra.

Joking about the apples, Morales, a Mixtec Indian with flowing white hair and the same compact physique depicted on the temple carvings of southern Mexico where he was born, tunes in to Radio BilingŁe. Tejano music fills the hot San Joaquin Valley air.

Morales, who founded the noncommercial station in 1976, describes the DJ as a grandmother and former farm laborer who struggled for years in the fields of Texas before working her way into a better life. She's now part of a team that, in addition to music, offers news and information-from pesticide awareness to legal advice-to a burgeoning Spanish-speaking population.

"This is a very difficult time for immigrants to the U.S.," Morales says over the accordion soundtrack. His conversation ranges from anti-Irish riots and murders in the early 19th century to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and early 20th-century efforts to restrict the numbers of Italians and Jews entering the country. Morales is impatient with what he considers the current greenwashed, anti-brown argument that immigration-fueled population growth is one of the greatest threats to America's environment.

The U.S. population is 291 million. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 4 million new Americans are born each year, and there is a net immigration of between 324,000 and 1.65 million. About one-quarter of those immigrants are from Mexico. Morales says that Radio BilingŁe tackles environmental hazards too, but from an entirely different perspective. It's the job of the station, he says, to protect its listeners, regardless of where they're from, or whether they have documents.

He relates a recent show about an incident in which pesticides sprayed on a potato field near Bakersfield drifted onto a peach orchard where 19 workers were picking fruit. Several collapsed and 13 were taken to the hospital. The chemical sprayed was methamidophos, which can cause brain and nervous system damage. "It's not that people want to leave their homelands," says Morales. "Why risk your life? They don't do it because they like blue jeans, but because they need jobs. They'd rather stay, but globalization dynamics make border crossing inevitable; it's a phenomenon around the world."

Today, 125 million people are living outside the countries of their birth, propelled, says the United Nations, by factors such as globalization, overcrowding, and the disparity of economic opportunity between the developed and developing world. Twenty-five million of these souls are "environmental refugees"-forced from their homelands by deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, and other slow-motion natural disasters (see "No Place to Call Home," November/December 2000).

As a first-generation immigrant himself, though one who came legally, Morales understands the factors that push individuals and families into the unknown. "Mexico has not been able to keep pace with its population and job demand," he says. "In the last 30 years, an aggressive [family planning] campaign cut Mexico's birthrate in half, but it's still high." He adds that closing the border isn't realistic. "We are dealing with human need," he says.

ANOTHER FIRST-GENERATION IMMIGRANT, Yeh Ling-Ling, sees the whole situation differently. Regardless of why immigrants come to the United States, the fact that they do-and that they have a higher fertility rate-troubles her.

Yeh is petite, barely five feet one, but she carries the weight of this growing world on her back. She doesn't mind telling you that when she looks at babies, cute or not, the first thing she thinks of is diapers. Tons of plastic diapers piling up in landfills. "Whether they're white babies or Chinese babies, it doesn't matter," Yeh, 51, says. "It's hard for me to enjoy life."

Her rich and low but rapid speech and her instantaneous recall of data on immigration-fueled U.S. population growth have a ring of urgency that fills the downtown Oakland, California, office of the Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, where she is executive director. Founded in 1997, the Diversity Alliance believes that immigration-driven population growth is harming America's environment, workers, infrastructure, and social coherence.

One need only look out Yeh's window to get a sense of the melting pot these days. Oakland is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation: 24 percent of its population is foreign-born, and its city center bustles with places like Mexicali Rose, Bay Fung Tong Seafood Tea House, and the African Jamaican Vegan Soul Food and Juice Bar.

In the arithmetic of immigration, what looks like economic and cultural benefit to some is an environmental catastrophe to others. "When are we going to address U.S. population growth?" Yeh asks. "Are we going to wait until it becomes another China? It'll be too late." In an opinion piece for a local paper in March, Yeh worried that "newcomers, like all human beings, pollute, drive, need housing, and consume energy." She furrows her brow when she says, "In many situations mass immigration is exacerbating our fiscal and environmental problems. One cannot have quality and quantity at the same time."

Yeh comes to the immigration debate by a circuitous route. She was born in Vietnam to Chinese immigrants who fled when fighting broke out between the French colonialists and her country. The family of 11 went to Cambodia, where she lived until 1970-when the United States invaded, looking for Viet Cong. Yeh left her family to study in Taiwan, but after the coup d'etat by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, she stopped hearing from them. She thinks her parents and youngest sister as well as many of her cousins, aunts, and uncles were later killed by the Khmer Rouge.

From Taipei, it was on to Paris, but when France refused to give her permanent-resident status, she followed a sister to the United States. It was America, and a "nice Jewish fellow" she met on a Sierra Club hike in Northern California's Redwood State Park, that ended her nomadic life. Yeh Ling-Ling became Suzanne Feinberg, and for 10 years-with time off to have a son, now 18-she worked as a paralegal at firms specializing in immigration law. She helped new arrivals get whatever they required to stay in their adopted homeland.

While fighting a massive development project in Orinda, a bedroom community to which her family moved in 1990, Yeh began to focus on the environmental consequences of unchecked growth. "I love open space. I love nature," says Yeh, who uses her original name in her work with the Diversity Alliance. "But one day it dawned on me: If we keep adding immigrants, they've got to live somewhere." She continues, "Even the poor ones are using more resources here than in their native lands. Go to Costco. Look at those immigrants. What are they buying? Boom boxes, hi-fis, televisions. They drive SUVs. Did they have those goods in their home countries? I doubt it."

"Immigrants are like apples," she adds. "There are good apples and bad apples. Our problem is you simply cannot eat too many apples, even if they're all good ones. They'll make you sick."

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Photo by Matt Black.

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