When Hate Goes Green
Terry Odom, who heads the South Carolina Committee for the Preservation of American Nationhood and Sovereignty, has planned a Saturday rally in the public library to discuss her town's immigration problem. She and her husband, David, are thrilled that I'm interested in her work, and they're driving me through the town of Greenville on a Friday afternoon expedition meant to showcase the cause.
"We are overwhelmed with Mexicans," says Terry. "They're taking over everything. I'm a patriotic American. I love America. And I can see that we're going to be a Third World country if we don't do something about this."
The Odoms, like many in the immigration control movement, believe that among the litany of evils the Latino immigrants are visiting on their community and the world are crimes against the environment.
It's a theme I've also heard from the large, national anti-immigration groups. I'm here to see firsthand how the issue plays at the grassroots of the movement and to find out whether the environmental concerns of anti-immigration groups are genuine -- or just a smokescreen for their real agenda.
"This country -- thirty years after it decided it had to restore and protect the environment -- added over 30 million more people we had to deal with for air pollution [and] water pollution," says Roy Beck of NumbersUSA.
Beck, a ubiquitous figure in the anti-immigration movement, has arrived in my living room via video, in his widely circulated presentation on immigrants and population issues. Beck, who worked as an environmental journalist for several years, has now devoted himself full-time to the cause of convincing people that immigration is a big, big problem, and environmental arguments are a core element of his repertory. Because of immigrants, the virtual Beck charges, "we have had to...build twice as many sewage treatment plants, build twice as many roads and streets."
Beck is hardly alone in sounding the immigration/environment alarm. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Carrying Capacity Network, Population-Environment Balance, and many others all argue that immigrants should stay home to protect U.S. natural resources -- and the entire global environment. The reasoning is that most immigrants come from less technologically advanced countries, where they consume less energy and fewer commodities and thus, says FAIR, tend to "deplete and damage the earth's resources more slowly...than U.S. consumers."
That's accurate as far as it goes. The United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, is responsible for at least 20 percent of global environmental damage as the result of fossil fuel consumption, deforestation, acid rain, and emission of ozone-depleting substances. Anti-immigration groups consider that fact justification for keeping would-be immigrants in their homelands, where their standards of living will remain low, rather than allowing them into the United States to consume more natural resources. In other words, leave injuring the planet to Americans.
But the environmental issue that most exercises immigration reform activists is suburban sprawl. FAIR calls it "one of the most daunting environmental problems facing humankind."
In 2000, during a period of debate over immigration visas and amnesty provisions, FAIR and other groups mounted an anti-sprawl campaign. It included print and broadcast advertising in South Carolina and the District of Columbia blaming "runaway population growth" for traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, and loss of farmland. (One estimate placed FAIR's 2000 ad budget at $12 million.)
A NumbersUSA ad in the Washington Post showed a photograph of a congested highway with the headline "Don't Get Mad at the Traffic. Get Mad at Congress." And in 2000, Don Chen, director of the anti-sprawl group Smart Growth America, began seeing tables at land-use planning conferences that were staffed by immigration reform advocates.
Then there's the special green version of Roy Beck's 1998 video, "Immigration by the Numbers: An Environmental Choice." It features an introduction -- replete with footage of wildlife and nature scenes on the one hand, backhoes and construction on the other -- by a woman named Monique Miller, executive director of a now defunct group called Wild Earth, standing in a deep pile of snow. "Americans are worried about sprawl," says Miller. "And the primary cause is population growth. No matter how well we manage that growth...it inevitably leads to more sprawl and congestion."
Flags of Convenience
In many cases, the immigration reform movement's environmental arguments are plausible, reasonable and similar to those of mainstream environmental groups. But critics charge that the seeming concern for the environment is a sham.
Mitra Rastegar of Political Research Associates, a liberal Massachusetts watchdog group, observes that "the whole 'population control' framework is designed to try and win over more politically moderate people -- to get those people who are not comfortable with blaming immigrants for changing American culture."
Patrick Burns of the National Audubon Society, who has followed immigration and population issues closely for more than 20 years, notes that, although there are people in the immigration reform movement with "bedrock, unassailable environmental credentials," the movement is "an opportunistic fighter." Says Burns, "When unemployment was high the immigration reform movement tended to talk about immigration reform as a jobs issue. If sprawl becomes a concern, they pick that up as their topic. So a lot of the rationales for immigration reform -- [whether] illegitimate or legitimate -- are flags of convenience. Because this is the quickest way to sell it."
To understand just how cynical is the claim of some immigration reform organizations that they are driven by concern for the environment, one need only review their materials, their history, and their actions. FAIR, at 70,000 members the country's biggest anti-immigration group, provides a case study.
According to Patrick Burns, FAIR's board represents a wide range of political views and includes among its principal donors individuals with strong credentials in family planning.
FAIR was founded in 1979 by John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist who is still on its board. He resigned as chair in 1988 when a memo of his, fretting that California's Anglo population might eventually be outnumbered by Latinos, was made public.
"Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile?" he wrote. Also on FAIR's board is celebrated University of California human ecologist Garrett Hardin, whose essay "The Tragedy of the Commons" is beloved by many environmentalists. But Hardin, according to many published reports, is an ardent supporter of eugenics. In a 1992 article, he wrote that "sending food to Ethiopia does more harm than good" because it "encourage(s) population growth."
There's also the Pioneer Fund, FAIR's most notorious funder (now ex-funder). Located in New York City, the fund was created in 1937 to finance research in hereditary intelligence, eugenics, and "race betterment." One of its grantees was a Canadian professor who theorized that whites have larger brains and therefore greater intelligence than blacks. Between 1985 and 1994, FAIR received $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund.
FAIR flies many different flags of convenience besides that of the environment -- because there are very few areas of American life that FAIR thinks are not being worsened by immigration and immigrants. One gets the impression that the organization isn't merely concerned about "mass immigration," but that it just plain doesn't like immigrants.
Among the projects singled out in FAIR's 2000 annual report is its work with the Sachem Quality of Life Organization in Farmingville, New York. Farmingville is one of many suburban towns on Long Island that, like Greenville, have recently experienced a wave of Latino immigrants, most of whom find work as day laborers. SQL's website includes a long "declaration" against "the perils of invasion."
SQL carefully, and cannily, specifies that its opposition is to illegal immigration. But its goal, clearly, is to get the immigrants out of town. Last year, it invited like-minded groups to a "Congress on Immigration Reform." According to a story in the National Catholic Reporter, invitations went to the John Birch Society and to American Patrol, an extremist anti-immigration group.
Peter Kostmayer, president of the family planning advocacy group Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth), calls FAIR "offensive." Adds Kostmayer, "I don't think they're taken that seriously on the Hill. I think people see them for what they are. Members of Congress try to include people -- [but] I think FAIR makes members of Congress a little edgy."
On the other end of the political spectrum is Damon B. Ansell of Americans for Tax Reform. Two years ago, he excoriated FAIR in the Washington Times as "hate-filled extremists" and said that true conservatives "should be horrified" to be identified with them.
There are a few bona fide environmentalists who have become advocates of immigration reform. But for the most part, the issue has gotten little traction in the mainstream environmental movement.
At their most rational, immigration reform advocates plead that all they want is for the country to look at the 2000 census numbers. In fact, population is a major environmental issue, and the numbers are worth studying.
The United States has the third largest population on earth, behind only China and India, and the fastest-growing population of any industrialized country. According to the 2000 census, the nation grew by about 33 million people in the last decade. Of this, about 13 million people, or 40 percent of the growth, were new immigrants. Some demographers, and all immigration control advocates, also count as "immigrants" the U.S.-born children of immigrants, which raises their number to nearly two-thirds of the total growth. If birth rates and immigration rates stay the same, the U.S. population is projected to grow to about 404 million shortly after 2050, and to 571 million -- more than twice the present population -- by 2100.
If they discuss population at all, most mainstream environmentalists do so from a "global" rather than a domestic perspective. They support economic and family planning aid, citing research showing that improved economic conditions lead to smaller families. Worldwide population is in fact growing more slowly now than it was ten years ago (though this has clearly not slowed immigration to the United States).
Most environmentalists also reject immigration-based solutions as too provincial. "If an organization wants to shut down the borders to protect part of its own turf," says Kaid Benfield, director of NRDC's smart-growth program, "number one, it's probably not going to work. Number two, I have a problem with that as a matter of environmental ethics. If you care about the planet, you can't protect Texas at the expense of Mexico."
Annette Souder, director of the Sierra Club's global population and environment program, reflects the position of most national environmental groups when she argues that "if we really want to know how we impact the planet, we need to look at how we use resources and how we consume products." She adds, "Large population or small, if you have poor environmental regulations, it doesn't matter."
The 2000 census revealed a dramatic rise in Hispanic populations across the South. In South Carolina, the number of Latinos more than tripled in the past decade, rising from 31,000 in 1990 to 95,000. Including illegals, the actual number could be twice that. Greenville has one of the state's highest concentrations of Latinos -- almost 4 percent of the city's total population of about 380,000. Most arrive directly from Mexico, Colombia, and several Central American countries.
There's something else new to Greenville: sprawl. Excess growth into the countryside is an overwhelming environmental problem -- here and just about everywhere else. Between 1982 and 1997, the Greenville-Spartanburg area had a 22 percent increase in population but a whopping 74 percent increase in urbanized land use. Nationwide, in the last 20 years the 100 largest urban areas have sprawled out over more than 9 million additional acres of natural habitats, farmland, woodlots and other rural space.
Thomas Meeks of the Greenville County Planning Commission says immigration has had little if any impact on Greenville's sprawl -- other than providing the labor to build it. In fact, given that most of the immigrants take relatively low-paying jobs on construction sites and in the nearby peach orchards, it's hard to see what role they play in driving construction of suburban shopping centers, corporate campuses, and exurb McMansions with eight bedrooms and four-car garages.
Rolf Pendall, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University, says that the style in which people live and the land use plans and patterns and tax laws that govern how they live -- not the sheer number of people -- are the determinants of sprawl.
Pendall's analysis of 282 U.S. metropolitan areas found that population growth explains slightly less than a third of sprawl. Even places experiencing no population growth during the last decade had 18 percent more sprawl. And the 56 metro areas experiencing population declines, such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland, also saw increased sprawl.
"Population growth is a very weak factor contributing to sprawl," says Chen of Smart Growth America, "and a lot less strong than the presence of local and state growth management laws." Chen concludes that immigration's impact on sprawl is "exceptionally weak."
Pendall explains that there are many reasons for the disconnect between population and sprawl. Women may enter the workforce, creating more workplaces, roads to reach them, and attendant sprawl -- all with no population increase. The increased household income they create means those families tend to trade in their current houses for larger ones on larger lots. In areas with slow or no population growth, falling land and housing prices encourage current residents to buy ever larger houses and lots.
Local zoning also plays a role; communities of new single-family detached houses in some western states may have six to twelve times the density of fast-growing communities in the Northeast, where local zoning often demands large lots and low density.
Barbara McCann of the Surface Transportation Policy Project adds that, of the 70 percent rise nationwide in miles driven, automobile trips taken, and traffic congestion in the last 16 years, only 13 percent is attributable to a bigger population. Instead, suggests McCann, most of the auto travel increase is the result of behavior and lifestyle choices, such as living in distant suburbs with no nearby retail shopping.
A Different Story
Monday morning, I meet with Wilfredo Leon, publisher of the statewide Spanish-language newspaper Latino. Born in Puerto Rico, he came to Greenville in 1985 via Phoenix to work as an executive for Digital Equipment Corp.
When I share with him some of the anti-immigration groups' environmental arguments, and the Odoms' belief that Latinos are responsible for an increase in local drug traffic and other crime, Leon is seething, in his controlled fashion.
"My initial reaction to a person who came up to me and said that stuff would just be to walk away," he says. "Because I consider myself an intelligent person. And anyone who'd say something like that I don't consider to be very intelligent. Many nights I'm on the road traveling, and I see the crews building and repairing the bridges or roads. And sometimes I get calls from companies who hire people to do these jobs. And sometimes we have conversations about what's so exciting about hiring Hispanics. And the answer is consistently the same. It has to do with the work ethic of the Hispanic. It's got to do with the dedication and the efficiency and the productivity of these workers. When we had the asbestos cleanup, who was doing that? Hispanics, for the most part. Isn't that the opposite of what these people are saying?"
A call to Sgt. James McCann at the Greenville County Sheriff's Office confirms that the crime situation is not as the Odoms have portrayed it. From 1991 to 2001 the number of Part 1 crimes -- murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft -- remained virtually unchanged, despite a 20 percent overall increase in population.
Leon reassures me that the Odoms and their friends are an aberration, that the presence of international corporations such as Michelin and BMW has lent Greenville a tolerant, almost cosmopolitan atmosphere. "What you heard is not reflective of most people in Greenville," he says.
In Greenville, as in most of the country, the anti-immigration movement remains small. It may make a lot of noise, cause a lot of trouble, but its ideas are unpopular -- a suit that doesn't fit and never will, no matter how skilled the tailoring. Most Americans are not likely to embrace an issue that smacks of bigotry.
In a refutation of the movement's environmental claims, Latino political leaders and voters in California are emerging as environmental advocates. The San Jose Mercury News recently reported that 74 percent of Latino voters approved a recent bond measure for open space -- compared with 56 percent of white voters.
Michael A. Rivlin is senior correspondent at OnEarth Magazine. Email him at mrivlin@comcast net.