THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF
IMMIGRATION INTO THE UNITED STATES
(Reprinted from Carrying Capacity Network's Focus, Vol 4, No. 2,
The current high rate of immigration into the United States of America has
adverse environmental impacts upon America, and upon the world as a whole. This
article documents that impact, from the ten countries that send the most
immigrants to America.
As an example. consider the impact of a typical family of seven, immigrating
from a country where their owning a car was highly unlikely. When they come to
America they are likely to acquire cars (0.76 cars per family
member)1. For every mile they drive, they pollute and deplete
resources that could have been relatively unaffected had they continued their
prior lifestyle. The act of border crossing enables them to make lifestyle
changes that adversely affect the environment; by becoming Americans they adopt
the consumption and pollution patterns of the world's most environmentally
This paper presents the changes in certain key environmental indicators
caused by immigration.
Americans have traditionally ignored many of the effects of
immigration.2 In the past, this was a reasonable approach because for
much of our history, resources were abundant, pollution seemed insignificant,
and we were easily able to accommodate new Americans. In today's world, we are
exceeding our long-term carrying capacity3 for more and more
resources.4 "Carrying Capacity" refers to the number of individuals a
region can support without degrading the natural, economic. cultural. and social
environment over the long term. Many biologists and ecologists believe that we
are now living beyond the Earth's long-term carrying capacity. And so, it is
becoming less and less reasonable to ignore the effects of our extremely rapid
and unsustainable population growth. The United States is growing much faster
than any other industrialized nation. We add about 3 million people every year.
At this rate, our population will double in about 60 years. California could
double in 35 years.
According to demographer Leon Bouvier, since 1970, fully half of our recent
population growth has come from immigration. The United States admits more legal
immigrants than the rest of the world combined. In 1990 and 1991 we admitted
about 4 million immigrants5. This figure includes legalizations of
people who entered illegally. Today, our immigration rate is about eight times
our emigration rate. Our fertility is now at replacement level. If we ignore
carrying capacity constraints and project the current rates into the future, we
reach the mathematically unavoidable conclusion that our population would grow
forever. But of course, no ecosystem can survive unending population growth from
any species, and certainly not ours.
Since many other authors have dealt with the fertility component of the
damage done by unrestrained population growth, I will focus upon the immigration
component6 though the higher than average fertility rate of
immigrants means that there is significant overlap between the two.
Immigration has far-reaching effects on American society. The positive
effects are well known; the negative effects are rarely discussed. A strong
taboo is at work here. But the simple fact is that immigration has important and
frequently deleterious effects upon our schools and prisons, our traffic and
crime rates, our health care and welfare systems, and on our job climate and
economy.7 However, this paper focuses on the generally overlooked
environmental portion of the broad range of effects that immigration has upon
the United States, and upon the Earth. Yes, we will see that some of these
effects apply only to the United States. but that others affect the whole
Overwhelmingly, the reason people migrate to the U.S. is to improve their
standard of living. This will change the impact they have on various natural
resources. In other words, immigrants change their consumption and pollution
patterns. It is often easy to quantify these changes - just measure their
resource impact both before and after migration, and then compute the percentage
The percentage change in pollution or depletion rate for one resource =
(U.S. per capita rate - sending country's per capita rate) x 100
sending country's per capita rate.
For example. consider someone who migrates from a hypothetical country where
the average ChloroFlouroCarbon (CFC) emission per capita is 0.02 metric tons.
When that person comes to America emission increases to 0.52 metric tons. That
person's resource impact has increased by 2500%. The calculation is simple:
(.52 - .02) x 100
The following table shows these percentages, for certain key resources, for
the 10 countries that sent the most immigrants to the United States in 1991. The
numbers just under the country names are the actual numbers of legal
Consumption/Pollution Changes for Legal
Immigrants Coming From the Ten Main Sending Countries
|Number of Legal Immigrants
|CO2 (Land use change)
Table 1. Percent changes in resource consumption and pollution on migration
to the U.S.. Dashes ( ------- ) indicate that no data is available.
The table says it all, and merits careful study. It is clear that moving to
America, from ANY of the main sending countries, enormously increases per capita
pollution and depletion rates. Possible minor exceptions and anomalies
(1) There are anomalies caused by third world technologies that are
particularly hazardous to the health of the sending country's environment. Slash
and burn agriculture is a good example. It may be better for a family to trade a
life based on slash and burn agriculture for a life based upon driving 12 mile
per gallon pickup trucks.
(2) There are anomalies caused by averaging impact patterns for a whole
country: country-wide averages may not accurately reflect the behavior of
particular individuals. For example, the negative impact of migration by the
affluent can be minor because their lifestyles do not change much when they
cross borders: if a family owned five Mercedes Benz cars in Europe, they are
likely to own about five Mercedes Benz cars in the United States. On the other
hand, a family with bicycles in China is likely to acquire cars in the United
But the impact of the affluent can also be major. When a family migrates,
they are likely to cause (directly or indirectly) a large new home to be built
which implies cutting forest to provide lumber, and the loss of wilderness or
farmland to provide a home site. The family will also require space for roads,
schools, medical care, incarceration, shopping, and food production. On average,
each new immigrant will cause the destruction of about 1 acre.
Future studies could group immigrants by cultural or economic group within
sending country. rather than just by sending country. For now, I simply assert
that the effects of all groups are reasonably represented by the country-wide
(3) A time lag occurs while recent immigrants adjust to life in America: they
do not fall into their ultimate lifestyles immediately. In some ways, this
minimizes the initial load (consumption plus pollution) they place on the
environment. For example, newcomers usually arrive without an automobile and it
often takes at least a few months for them to acquire their first car. Even
newcomers who start out on welfare often acquire a car soon. Rather than
acquiring a new, relatively fuel-efficient and clean-running car, they're likely
to acquire smokers. One smoker can easily out pollute dozens of properly tuned
cars. And almost all newcomers eventually cause new housing to be built.
Much more importantly though, the heaviest load most immigrants place on the
environment is their high birth rate. Most come from countries with high, above
replacement-level fertility (which caused many of the problems that made them
emigrate in the first place). When they come to America they bring the
large-family preference with them. The improved opportunities, and the social
welfare net available in the United States allows them to more fully realize
their family-size goals.9 Of course, adverse environmental impact is
directly proportional to the number of people. Consider Table 2, which shows
California's blended fertility, broken down by racial group.10
Table 2. Total U.S. fertility is 2.1 (replacement level), and has been
growing rapidly for two decades.
Table 2 shows California's fertility because its racial mix emphasizes recent
immigrants. The overwhelming majority of recent immigrants are of Hispanic
origin. They have maintained their high-fertility habit in America. Whether a
newcomer's initial environmental loading is heavy or light, within a few years,
most immigrants adopt the American way of life, including all the environmental
(5) And one last anomaly: the 53,000 immigrants from Mexico includes only the
legal immigrants. If illegal entrants were included, their number could easily
exceed 400.000 per year. The conservative INS lists the number at 250,000. In
each of 1991 and 1992 there were over a million border apprehensions.
Now let's examine the table row by row, and see what else it demonstrates.
The first row describes:
ENERGY CONSUMPTIONl1 - This is total energy consumption, a major
environmental offender. Energy consumption correlates strongly with various
depletions (the energy sources) and with various pollutants (e.g., nuclear
waste, COx, NOx, and SOx). Notice that
immigrants from all of the top ten sending countries enormously increase their
energy consumption as they adopt the American lifestyle.
CATTLE PRODUCTION12 - While cattle production may seem benign, it
is not. Cattle emit huge quantities of methane, the second most deleterious
greenhouse gas. Millions of acres of forest have been destroyed to provide range
land. Cow hooves enormously increase erosion rates. Only people from the
ex-USSR decrease their "cattle impact" on immigration.
FISH PRODUCTION13 - Over-fishing and pollution are serious threats
to the world's fish populations. Many of the world's major fisheries are no
longer productive (e.g., the San Francisco Bay) or are experiencing major
declines (e.g., the North Atlantic). People living in the ex-USSR. the
Philippines, and Korea will harvest fewer fish after migration, but for most
other resources, migration from those areas will have a destructive effect.
CFC PRODUCTION14 - This may be the most dangerous immediate
environmental threat we face today. Skin cancer deaths, and similarly severe
threats to other species, are rising sharply with CFC concentrations. Immigrants
from all the major sending nations enormously increase CFC production when they
come to America. (Note: in 1998, U.S. CFC production is headed downward -
CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) PRODUCTION15 - The next two rows
describe CO2 production. CO2 is the primary greenhouse
gas, and is a serious candidate for being the main environmental threat facing
us. The scientific community's consensus is that CO2 pollution is
likely to cause about a four degree (centigrade) rise in the Earth's temperature
in the next hundred years. The consequences of this extraordinarily rapid rise
in temperature are beyond our ability to predict, but will undoubtedly be
extreme, unpleasant, and perhaps impossible for us to manage.
CO2 production occurs in industrial processes and automobile
usage, but also occurs during rapid land-use change, as when forests are
developed. Forest development by incineration immediately converts huge
quantities of carbon in trees (which remove CO2 from the air) into
airborne CO2. Forest development by clear cutting produces a similar,
though slower, effect. Developing countries (see the Table 1 data for the
Philippines, Viet Nam, and Mexico) are destroying their forests extremely
rapidly, and so migrants from those countries are actually decreasing their
carbon pollution rates from land-use change when they migrate to America. But
this is more than offset by their increased CO2 pollution caused by
their use of American industrial processes.
METHANE PRODUCTION16 - Next to CO2, methane is the most
important greenhouse gas. All immigrants from the top ten senders dramatically
increase their methane production.
FRESHWATER CONSUMPTION17 - In most regions, we are removing or
poisoning freshwater much faster than it is being replenished. All people
adopting the American lifestyle are likely to increase their freshwater
FERTILIZER CONSUMPTIONl8 - This is the sum of potash. phosphorus,
and nitrogen-based fertilizer consumption. Fertilizer is helpful in that it
increases short-term crop yields. It is harmful in that it pollutes the earth
with salts that ultimately ruin the land and seriously damage water systems.
Again, migration from all the top ten senders causes sharp increases in
PESTICIDE CONSUMPTIONl9 - Pesticide usage is like fertilizer
consumption in that short term benefits cause serious long-term degradation.
Only the ex-USSR uses more pesticide per capita than the United States.
CAR USAGE20 - Cars very seriously degrade the environment in many
ways - from the obvious energy consumption and greenhouse gas pollution, to the
less obvious consumption of wilderness and farmland for road construction. Road
kills occur in enormous numbers and contribute significantly to species
extinction. Disposal of oil, tires, and cars cause severe pollution problems.
And so forth. No other country on Earth approaches America's obsession with the
DEFENSE SPENDING21 - The defense industry is probably the dirtiest
we've yet devised. It combines the worst problems of toxic waste disposal, with
accidents like losing plutonium-based warheads on ocean bottoms, and war scenes
like 500 burning oil wells in Kuwait. The United States spends much more per
capita for defense than any of the top 10 senders. Our culture has a
habit of spending huge amounts for defense. In the long term, because
our military budget is ultimately proportional to the number of taxpayers,
immigrant tax dollars buy more destruction. As the U.S. population increases,
our "resource hunger" will increase, as will the likelihood of us using our
defense apparatus to acquire or maintain access to resources. Consider the
recent Gulf War.
Some of the pollution damage done by adapting the U.S. life style affects
primarily the United States (freshwater poisoning) while other damage, like air
pollution, affects the whole world. Other global effects include acid rain,
greenhouse gas production, ozone depletion, wetlands destruction (affecting the
life cycle of migratory birds), and U.S. wood consumption (which causes rain
forest destruction in other countries). Yes, the U.S. life style affects the
whole world. In order to live beyond our carrying capacity we draw upon the
carrying capacity of the rest of the world. We've burnt much of our own natural
capital. and now we're burning theirs. We draw on resources that took millions
of years to accumulate, but that are being replenished at a much slower rate, if
at all. Consider fossil water and fossil fuels.
Of course, it is necessary for Americans to adopt a cleaner lifestyle. Of
course. we must drastically reduce the environmental damage we do both
individually and as a nation. But to think that we will cut our total damage
while our population increases rapidly is extremely unlikely. We must address
BOTH terms of the unavoidable equation:
Total Impact = Number of People x Total Impact per
For us to assume that technological advances will bail us out is folly of the
first order. Consider our per capita reductions in automobile emissions over the
last 30 years which have been completely canceled by our population
It is ironic that some suggest that America atone for its alleged and actual
foreign policy sins by allowing high rates of immigration when creating more
Americans surely increases the likelihood of future American sins (e.g. resource
wars. pollution, and depletion) on foreign soil. EVERY new American damages
local and global ecosystems.
The consumption patterns of recent immigrants are very likely to soon
resemble those of similar groups of previous immigrants and those of native-born
Americans. The data presented here allow us to predict the ecological behavior
of U.S. immigrants. We could also focus on social or economic behavior and
predict crime rates, tax payments, welfare costs, unemployment due to job
displacement, incarceration rates, education and medical costs, and so forth.
Past assessments of immigration impact have traditionally ignored many of the
social and economic impacts. This is neither realistic nor acceptable for a
country with serious social and economic problems.
Newcomers from certain sending countries are likely to place much lighter or
heavier loads on certain components of the U.S. infrastructure than are others.
We need to understand these loads clearly. Any rational immigration policy would
consider factors such as skills, age, medical condition, income, criminal
record, education level, and most importantly the sheer number of immigrants. It
is extraordinarily foolish for us to NOT optimize our immigration policy so as
to improve life in America and the world in general. It is astonishing for us
living in a country flirting with financial and social collapse, a country with
rampant unemployment and homelessness, a country whose ecosystems are under
severe stress, a country that is arguably the most overpopulated country on
Earth24 to continue to admit immigrants who place an immediate, large
and destructive drain upon our future. To admit people who are likely to not be
productive citizens may be Politically Correct, but it is also stupid. We need
to adjust our admissions policies so that they will improve the quality and
sustainability of life on Earth; that should be the primary criterion..
Recent U.S. immigration policies were created with little consideration for
their adverse impact upon America. Certainly, there was no consideration for
their environmental consequences. They were designed to produce cheap labor,
expanded markets, increased church membership, and warm feelings in the hearts
of a few Political Action Committees and foundations. They were NOT designed to
promote the well-being of America or of the world. In the future, we must change
course if we are to stop the decline in our standard of living and the increase
in our impact upon the global environment.
Particularly, we need to recognize the simple fact that the last thing this
world needs is more Americans. The world just cannot afford what Americans do to
the earth, air, and water. And it does not matter whether these Americans are
Americans by birth or by border crossing. It does not matter what color their
skin is. It does not matter what language they speak or which god they worship.
What matters is that they will live like Americans. We need to accept the fact
that the environmental community's admirable efforts to reduce our consumption
and pollution have largely failed. We must redirect our efforts to counter the
fact that our leaders are not likely to voluntarily enact serious incentives and
disincentives to reduce consumption, pollution, or population until the
situation gets much worse. As long as our national policy is to subsidize and
promote population growth we face a continuing decline in our standard of living
that will ultimately result in disaster.
We simply must stabilize our population. We have seen the enemy; and it is
still us. But there are hundreds of things that each of us could do to counter
the disaster promised by overpopulation. We can solve this problem.
What are you doing to help?
1. World Facts and Figures. Victor Showers. John Wiley
and Sons, 1989.
2. Brimelow: National Review. 'Time to Rethink Immigration" June 22,
3. See the Pimentel's "Land, Energy, and Water: the Constraints Governing
Ideal U.S. Population Size" in Elephants in the Volkswagen,
compiled by Lindsey Grant. W.H. Freeman and Company, 1992.
4. U.S. oil is nearly gone. Marine life in the San Francisco Bay is a
pathetic remnant of what it was 200 years ago. 50% of lowa's topsoil has eroded
into the Gulf of Mexico. We have cut 90% of our forests. The eagles, the Florida
panthers. the redwoods, even the frogs ... they are mostly gone. And so
5. October 1992 Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS)
6. Of course, there are only two ways for a population to grow: by births and
by immigration. America's birthrate is now at replacement level, and rising
rapidly. This is largely caused by high-fertility immigrants.
7. Because the discussion of immigration has been essentially taboo until
very recently, the effects of immigration on our society are very much
understudied and under-reported. Leon Bouvier's "50 Million Californians?"
effectively documents many effects of immigration, and describes the
socio-economic shifts caused by immigration.
Consider our prisons: 26% of prisoners are non-natives while only 9% of the
population is non-native.
Consider the economy: a 1992 California State Auditor General's Report states
that illegal immigration costs California $3 billion dollars per year. Legal
immigration costs more. Donald Huddle's 1993 study (The Costs of Immigration)
documents a $67 billion per year net average cost of immigration over the next
ten years. The costs are rising rapidly. Call Carrying Capacity Network at
800-466-4866 for the most recent copy of the annually updated Huddle study.
8. In 1991, the ten main senders of legal immigrants were, in order, the
ex-USSR, The Philippines, Viet Nam, Mexico, China, India, Dominican Republic,
Korea, Jamaica, Iran (source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, as
reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, 7/3/92)
9. Population Politics, Virginia Abernethy. Plenum Press, New
York. Required reading.
10. California Department of Finance, Demographic Research Unit.
11. World Resources, A Guide to the Global Environment 1992-93
Oxford University Press, 1992.
13. United Nations Statistical Yearbook. 37th issue, 1992.
14. World Resources. A Guide to the Global Environment 1992-93 Oxford
University Press, 1992.
18. United Nations Statistical Yearbook 37th issue, 1992.
19. World Resources . A Guide to the Global Environment, 1992-93.
Oxford University Press, 1992.
21. The Economist Book of Vital World Statistics. Times
Books/Random House 1990.
22. The Population Explosion. Anne and Paul Ehrlich. Simon and
Schuster, NY 1990.
23."Know the Facts". Population-Environment Balance, 1993
24. America is the world's most overpopulated country because America's
population does more damage to the world's ecosystems than any other country.
This is also true on a per capita basis. America simply must lower its
population, and decrease the per capita impact of that population. Financial
incentives and disincentives are the best tools for managing population impact.
For example, we should stop subsidizing automobile use and child-bearing.
Rather, drivers AND parents should pay for the true costs of their actions.