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Possibly too much of a good thing

What if they held an
environmental crisis and no one cared?

What if a law moving through Congress would significantly harm
clean water, open space, the Chesapeake Bay?

You’d hear the alarms, strong and clear, from the largest national
groups to the smallest Chesapeake organizations. But you won’t, because this law is “only” about population, about
significantly increasing the number of people who will be living in the United
States and around the Chesapeake.

The law, which has passed
the U.S. Senate and gone to the House with broad, bipartisan backing, is a
comprehensive reform of our outdated immigration laws.

Immigration is almost
synonymous with the substantial growth of population occurring in this country.
That’s because the only other source of growth, births to people already here,
has been for some time around replacement level.
And immigration is a touchy and complex issue, one that few
environmental groups will talk about. They prefer to work to reduce our per
capita environmental impacts, never mind that ever expanding numbers of us
inevitably offset much of their good works.

Most of what has been
written about the immigration reform before Congress has focused on what to do
about the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants already here.
That’s an important issue, which can only responsibly be resolved
by providing a path to citizenship, combined with measures to prevent another
11 million from coming in under the radar.

The current bill makes a
laudable start on that. Far too little has
aired about the dramatic population increases the same reform measure would
promote through changes to legal immigration.
Some numbers:
Throughout U.S.
history until 1990, immigrants legally entering the country averaged about
300,000 a year—not many more than the number leaving the United States
permanently in recent decades.
Since 1990, the
numbers arriving have averaged closer to a million a year, making us the
fastest growing of all developed nations, and the third most populous after
China and India.

Estimates from the
nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and other analysts are that passage of
the current bill will increase those coming here to 1.5 to 2 million a year.
Even after subtracting for an expected decrease in undocumented
immigrants, that still puts the nation on track to go from 315 million
Americans to around 445 million by 2050, an increase of more than 40 percent.
For the Chesapeake Bay, with a watershed population that has
roughly tracked or exceeded the national growth rate, this translates to more
than 24 million, up from 17 million.

My point here is not that
immigration is a bad thing, or that we blame our environmental woes on
immigrants; and it’s not that environmental groups should give up working on
the issues they’re working on now.
But we’ve also
learned that like the essential plant nutrients such as nitrogen which are
degrading the bay, too much of a good thing — including humans with aspirations
for a better life — can overwhelm the rest of nature.
Does anyone really think that we can grow so smartly, or cook up
such technologies that we can offset tripling the bay’s population from the 8
million or so who lived here when it was last healthy?

The immigration reform bill
is rich in irony. It represents some of the best that is in us — diversity,
freedom, a better life — with its path to citizenship for millions now here and
disenfranchised. But it also represents a colossal failure of our environmental
leadership to even acknowledge the full scope of the problems they take your
money to fix.

The bill now in Congress
has many good points aside from its amnesty for most of those here without
green cards. It would shift the emphasis on new immigrants away from just
bringing more family members in, to fulfilling work related needs.
It’s also got the usual grab bag of smarmy deals, like special
exemptions for cruise boat repair workers (take a bow, Sen. Marco Rubio of

In other words, there’s
much to debate but virtually no debate at all on the large increase in sheer
numbers that will erode environmental gains across the board.
Republican interests like bigger numbers because they bring a
bigger and maybe cheaper labor pool. Democrats and some environmentalists like
bigger numbers because immigrants tend to vote Democrat. Latino newcomers will
more likely back climate change legislation than white Americans, suggests the
estimable activist and writer Bill McKibben.
Others say we need a growing stream of immigrants to pay for
Social Security — as if they won’t ever want their Social Security, too?

It’s a perfect, and
perfectly shortsighted, storm; a bet that somehow the numbers won’t catch up
with us.
For information, visit, a “virtual organization” of leading conservationists
refreshingly focused on both the consumption and population sides of our
environmental problems.

Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of
six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.