Capsizing California

The State’s Rapid Population Growth is Largely Due to Immigration

Nowhere in America is immigration more of a battleground than in California, where a trickle of new residents has become a flood. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, in 1960 the state held 8.8 percent of the nation’s population and 13.9 percent of its immigrants. Thirty-five years later, California accounted for 12.1 percent of the national population and an incredible 32.7 percent of immigrants to the U.S. The U.S. population as a whole grows by one percent a year; California grows by 1.8 percent annually. In 2000, the state added 611,000 people. If entry from abroad is factored out, California would actually lose population to other states. Between 1997 and 1998, intra-U.S. emigration from California topped domestic immigration into it by some 89,711 people.

Pointing Fingers

The facts about immigration to California are fairly straightforward, but the debate over the influx is not. It is the state’s most charged hot-button issue. The movement to lower immigration includes some of the country’s most prominent environmentalists, such as Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute; Brock Evans, former vice president of the National Audubon Society; Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First!; Gaylord Nelson, former U.S. Senator and Earth Day founder; Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society; and E.O. Wilson, the distinguished Harvard University biology professor. But there is determined environmental opposition, too.

In California, several organizations aiming to limit immigration to the state have been stung by charges of racism, usually hurled by groups on the political left. Betsy Hartmann, coordinator of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, says the movement to lower immigration "contains groups that are explicitly racist and those that mask implicitly racist policies with a cloak of environmentalism." The San Francisco-based Political Ecology Group (PEG) echoes this view, charging, "The integration of "environmentalism" and bigoted nativism is already taking place."

The "nativism" charge attempts to link today’s efforts to limit immigration with blatantly racist anti-foreign movements of the past. The mid-19th century American Party (also known as the "Know Nothings"), which pushed for restrictions on immigration and voting rights, targeted Mexican and Irish populations, among others. In California in the late 19th century, the nativist Workingmen’s Party took aim at Chinese immigrants and attempted to limit their employment. There was nothing subtle about their approach.

Groups like PEG see a modern, more sophisticated nativism behind the successful movement to pass California’s Proposition 187, which limited access to public services for undocumented aliens. And they see it just below the surface in California-based groups like Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR) and the Immigration Reform Network of Silicon Valley.

The racism charge is hard to deflect, and it was one factor involved when the Sierra Club membership voted down a provision, advanced by Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization in 1999, calling for limits on the influx from abroad for environmental reasons. Mainstream environmental groups, even those that advocate population control as their central message, seldom take any position on immigration for fear of being targeted as racist.

But almost all immigration control groups reject the racism charge, pointing out that they favor limitations on sheer numbers, not any race-based quotas or targeting. Diana Hull, president of the CAPS board, says; "I myself come from an environmental background, and when I’m accused of being racist I just laugh, because it’s absurd. That charge is a way for people not to think. It’s not racist to talk about California being the fastest-growing state because of immigration. It’s just a fact. Don’t people have a right to know that?"

Complicating matters is that some people who do openly play the race card—former Klansman David Duke, for example—share many of the same immigration-reduction goals as the environmental groups, though their motivations are vastly different. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Barbara Coe of CCIR has referred to Mexican immigrants as "savages," though she denies any racial animus. "We’re not racists," she told E. "We have members of our group who are Latin, Asian, Iranian. We all believe that mass immigration is unsustainable and devastating to our environment." Taking a hard line, Coe calls for the immediate deportation of all illegal aliens and the use of the military to secure U.S. borders. Another group, the

California-based American Patrol, appears to put out an explicitly anti-Mexican message. Both the American Patrol and CCIR have made common cause with Sachem, a Long Island group opposed to Latino day laborers in their communities.

What inflames groups like the American Patrol is that the Hispanic population is exploding in California, while the white population—which accounts for 75 percent of all deaths, but only a third of all births—is shrinking. California takes in half of all illegal immigrants to the U.S., mainly from Mexico, and amnesty programs for illegals, like those endorsed by President George W. Bush, are not popular in the state. Only two percent of those polled by the Los Angeles Daily News last July supported a new amnesty.

It’s About the Environment

Population-Environment Balance (PEB), which calls for a cap of 100,000 immigrants per year (a tenth of current levels), has deep roots in the environmental community and has never engaged in racial scapegoating. "We’re not against immigration," says Lauren Priestas, Balance’s coordinator. "It’s not about one group against another for us. We just want to protect our environment." Priestas points out that in the two decades between 1979 and 1999, per-capita energy use in California decreased by five percent. But the population also grew by 10 million in that time, wiping out any gains and setting the stage for the state’s energy crisis. "The bottom line is that 92 percent of California’s population growth is due to legal immigration, and people are afraid to talk about it."

Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform blames politicians for not addressing population issues. "The average American can’t accurately describe the population of the U.S., doesn’t know our current level of immigration and can’t say how it contributes to population growth," he says. "We are simply not being engaged by our policy makers on these issues. We’re designing an unlivable society for ourselves and our children without any public debate."

In California, says Stein, "Virtually every environmental goal is made more difficult by a growing population, and immigration is the essential component of that population growth. If you cut auto emissions in half but double the number of drivers, you’re running in place."

Another result of high immigration, says Allison Solin, communications director of ProjectUSA, is that it "increases the world’s population and environmental

burden because immigration serves as a safety valve, discouraging other countries from enacting population control initiatives of their own."

Immigration supporters refuse to be drawn into the numbers game and seldom address questions like Stein’s or Solin"s. For Cathi Tactaquin, director of the California-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, environmental degradation is caused not by large influxes of people but by "the corporate pillaging of resources, rampant overconsumption [and] destructive technologies."

Most environmentalists would agree that corporate greed, as well as unwise land use and the world’s most advanced case of overconsumption, are indeed factors in the loss of biodiversity, water scarcity and disappearing open space. Unfortunately, critics say, immigration fuels all these problems by creating a vast number of new Americans, who achieve our high rate of resource consumption within a generation or two.

Indeed, it’s a victory for immigration supporters that the news media and many environmental groups talk about "overconsumption" and "sprawl" without ever connecting them to population growth. But the Census Bureau’s figures make the connection clear. In the Simi Valley, per-capita land consumption actually shrank by 16 percent, but the region still grew by 89 percent because the population increased an astounding 125 percent in the 20-year period.

Congressman Thomas Tancredo (R-CO), a member of the Immigration Reform Caucus in the House, says 43 percent of his district’s rapid population growth is due to immigration. Tancredo notes with irony that a considerable number of new Colorado residents are refugees fleeing an overcrowded California, and the influx is helping to create the very situation they left. He calls for a "pro-immigrant policy of low immigration," offering improved social services and a better quality of life to a smaller number of new residents.

Tancredo has crafted the "Immigration Moratorium Act of 2001," which would have the effect of cutting immigration to a third of what it is today. Such legislation is unlikely to gain momentum in Congress, despite overwhelming public support for controlling population. As PEB’s Priestas describes it, the big business interests that keep politicians in office benefit from a constant flow of cheap labor, which suppresses wages and reduces pressure to unionize. But higher wages and unionized labor are, ironically, part of the agenda for the very immigration support groups that join with business interests in keeping an open-door policy. Such contradictions are not likely to go away, as all indications are that the doors will remain open, whatever the environmental consequences for America.