Immigration: Two Views

John Seager is the president of the Washington-based Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth), which has consistently taken the position that stopping teen pregnancy and increasing family planning aid around the world is the best way to address the growing challenge of our over-populated planet.

David Durham is chairman of the board of another Washington-based group, Population-Environment Balance, which sees immigration as the key factor in our burgeoning numbers (and resulting environmental impact). Needless to say, they have differing world views. First, John Seager:

E Magazine: What conversation do you think we should be having about immigration?

Seager: There are no bumper sticker solutions. Dwight Eisenhower, a far better Republican President than the one we have now, reportedly once said, “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” I think when we look at the question of immigration, our focus has been far too narrow. Because of that, we’ve had a hard time finding the kind of approaches that could actually move the issue forward in a way that could benefit everybody.

So what is the larger issue?

The larger issue is migration. People don’t just materialize at our border, or at any border. When you talk about immigration, you’re talking about the second half of a process that begins when people decide to leave their homes. Most migrants are not well-off people who think it would be fun to spend a year in Paris; they’re driven by extreme circumstances. There are 190 million people living outside their country of origin, which would make them the fifth-largest population of any country on Earth. Only China, India, the U.S. and Indonesia are larger than that. And yet we’ve focused in on one very narrow piece of a very broad issue.

Your organization says the way to address the needs of these 190 million people is to better the conditions in their own countries, especially through family planning availability and new health clinics. But isn’t it true that women in developing countries cite other factors in not using contraception, such as opposition from men, plus culture and religion?

There’s virtually no statement you could make about population growth and its implications that would be universally true. But when you look at the problem around the world there is definitely a lack of access to family planning that is a major factor, though not the only factor. In the last 10 years, in real dollars, international aid for family planning has been cut in half. And as a consequence, especially of the Bush Administration’s actions, clinics have closed and access has gotten more difficult.

USAID steadfastly denies there has been any significant reduction in U.S. family planning aid.

They’re wrong. They’ve got the numbers wrong, especially when you look at real dollars.

Next, David Durham:

E Magazine: What do you say to the charge that groups like PEB are anti-immigrant?

Durham: We are not scapegoating immigrants by setting limits; instead we are recognizing ecological realities such as limited potable water, topsoil and infrastructure. Current U.S. immigration policy is far too lax from an ecological perspective because we are overshooting our long-term carrying capacity. Studies have shown that a permissive U.S. immigration policy drives up fertility rates in the sending countries, which is the last thing these sending countries need.

Through our foreign aid programs, can we succeed in reducing the push factors that lead people to migrate?

While family planning programs that include incentives for replacement-level fertility might make a dent in fertility rates, probably the most effective thing we could do to lower fertility rates is to dramatically lower immigration into the U.S.

To be sustainable in the long term, we need to achieve U.S. population stabilization, because a number of studies show we have overshot our long-term carrying capacity. We need to work for a zero-net immigration moratorium, and dramatically reduce illegal immigration. A zero-net policy would allow 100,000 spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens as well as a select few truly needed workers and refugees annually.

What are the environmental effects of our current high immigration rate?

For every person added to the U.S. population, one acre of wild or farmland is converted to human use or degraded. In addition, rampant U.S. population growth increases infrastructure burdens, including the need for new schools and healthcare facilities, and results in increased waste and pollution.

How do you respond when people say that the problems of high consumption and sprawl are caused by the American lifestyle, not by immigration?

People who make that charge are mainly, but not entirely, wrong. Sprawl and aggregate consumption levels are caused mainly by increases in the numbers of people, not by the American lifestyle.The U.S. population increases by about four and a half million people per year, with about 90 percent of that caused by immigrants and their offspring.In fact, per capita generation of greenhouse gasses by Americans has begun to decrease. Americans should be proud that they are among the world leaders in changing a worldwide sprawl and consumption culture into an environmentally conscious one.

But despite these efforts, the U.S. population will hit one billion in 2075 if current trends continue. There’s too little national dialogue about this. We have had attempts to formulate a national population policy in the past, but it’s very controversial because such a policy deals with immigration, fertility rates and other hot-button issues.