Coming to America

According to the United States Census Bureau, the population gains a new American every 11 seconds, and 2.5 million a year. Of that total, more than a million were born somewhere else. Between 1901 and 1990, 37 million immigrants arrived on American shores, an epic movement of people looking for a better life. Why do they do it? Talk to Pervin Orudjev. Pervin is five years old, and the only home she has ever known is a hole in the ground in south-central Azerbaijan. Refugees from a catastrophic border war between the former Soviet territories of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the professionally trained Orudjevs (who have lost two infants to malnutrition since the war began) are a tiny statistic in a flood of a million people made homeless by a conflict that’s barely made a dent in western consciousness.

The Orudjevs are technically not even refugees, since they’re still living in Azerbaijan. War victims like them are known as “internally displaced persons,” and the United Nations—which estimates they may number 30 million around the world—admits it has no coherent policy for helping them. For many international relief agencies, such people fall through the aid net. Many of them will either leave their war-torn countries or die there.

The situation is little better for refugees who have left. In Angola, for instance, a civil war rages on, having uprooted 1.5 million people to bordering states with problems of their own. As Worldwatch reports, Afghanistan’s internal conflicts have left 2.7 million living outside their country, the Bosnia war, 673,000 and Liberia, 778,000. In 1997, 22.7 million refugees received UN assistance. People like these, with a legitimate fear of persecution in their own countries, make up 10 percent of new immigrants to the U.S. (Some 70,000 were admitted in 1997.)

War causes one kind of refugee, famine, drought and environmental catastrophe another. China’s economy may be soaring, but the bill for the country’s rapid industrialization is now coming due. China, where the world’s worst air pollution kills an estimated three million people per year, is now in the grips of a devastating drought. What caused it? “The water shortages are the result of a century’s worth of environmental sins, what might be called China’s three O’s: overgrazing, overlogging and overpopulation,” reports the Toronto Globe and Mail . Most of China’s 1.2 billion people are crowded into coastal strips, which have a population five times that of the eastern U.S. There are now declared water shortages in 400 of China’s 668 cities. These conditions produce high emigration pressures, like the deadly potato famine that resulted in an epic wave of Irish immigration early in the 19th century.

In India, another country with more than a billion people producing large numbers of immigrants to America, there is similar environmental degradation, which has caused a gigantic smog cloud to float out over the Indian Ocean. And the human misery index follows suit: Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen says that the Indian literacy rate is stagnant at 52 percent, 64 percent of children are malnourished and more than half of those under 12 in seven cities show signs of lead poisoning. AIDS has also begun to wreak havoc, with little treatment available or affordable.

Why do people from the Third World want to emigrate? Consider these facts: a billion people around the world live in absolute poverty; 100 million are completely homeless; 800 million go hungry daily; 1.75 billion have no access to safe drinking water; and 1.5 billion have no primary health care. In Africa, one in five lives under the World Bank definition of poverty ($370 per year), and in some sub-Saharan countries a similar percentage is infected with the virus that causes AIDS. In the developing world, according to a report developed by Mount Holyoke College, a child’s risk of death is four to 10 times higher than a similar child in Western Europe or the U.S. A mother is 50 to 100 times more likely to die in childbirth.

In Mexico, yet another source of high levels of both legal and illegal immigration, the National Household Survey reports that the number of people living in extreme poverty is rising, from 41 percent in 1994 to 55 percent in 1996. In 1998, according to the World Bank, 40 percent of the population survives on an income of less than $2 a day (including 15 percent who make do with less than $1 per day). In Mexico City, there are 465 violent crimes reported to the police every day (and 70 percent of such crimes go unreported).

In Latin America generally, the top fifth of the population controls more than half the wealth, and the bottom fifth is left with only 4.5 percent of it. It’s not surprising, then, that Hispanic immigration is at an all-time high, with the number of Hispanic Americans doubling (from 14 million to 30 million) between 1990 and 1999. According to the Census Bureau, the U.S. could have 96 million people of Hispanic origins by 2050, when they’ll constitute a fifth of the population.

Immigrants are not bogeymen. As the Political Ecology Group reports, most of the fixed ideas that cause people to scapegoat immigrants are simply not true. Over their lifetimes, they pay an average of $15,000 to $20,000 more in taxes than they receive in government benefits. In California, legal immigrants are 22 percent of the population but only 12 percent receive welfare payments. Only 1.5 percent of legal immigrants to California between 1980 and 1990 received social security payments, compared to 13 percent of U.S.-born residents of that state. “Immigrants are job makers, not job takers,” the group says.

And immigrants have life-and-death reasons for leaving their homes around the world. The U.S. is, understandably, their destination of choice in an increasingly unstable world.