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Do Foreigners Pollute the Earth?

Would less foreigners in the United States improve the nation’s environmental health?

October 6, 2000

Would less foreigners in the United States improve the nation's environmental health?

Since the early 1990s, the United States has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. Low unemployment for the first time co-existed with low inflation. In addition, the crime rate has fallen steadily throughout the last decade. Moreover, real incomes are up across the socio-economic spectrum, and more people than ever are attending colleges and university.

But even this wealthy and educated society has not been able to escape some of the perils that have beset Europe, which during this time period has been riddled with high unemployment and low growth rates. While recent violent attacks against foreigners in Europe — especially in Germany — have drawn worldwide media attention, a subtle but significant trend along the same lines has surfaced in the United States.

Recently, a series of anti-immigrant print and television ads have appeared in the United States, including ads in leading liberal newspapers such as the Washington Post. These ads all portray a remarkably similar theme not usually associated with foreigners, including traffic jams and urban sprawl.

Even though they share a common theme, these ads are sponsored by a variety of immigration reform groups such as the Negative Population Growth organization, Numbers USA, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (which goes by the innocent-sounding acronym “FAIR”). In essence, the ads convey the message that over-population — caused by immigrants — is behind the current bouts of urban sprawl, which lowers the quality of life, threatens the environment, and strains America’s natural resources.

These ads are neither openly hateful, nor do they incite violent actions. They are more subtle, calling for a reduction of immigration to preserve the quality of life and prevent an overpopulation of the United States. In their seemingly reasonable analysis, the rhetoric of these organizations differs considerably from the violent and inarticulate recent actions of European xenophobes.

Moreover, in making their case against immigrants, these U.S. groups are pursuing an intriguing new strategy: the daring attempt to build an alliance with the left.

Hence the focus on the threat that urban sprawl poses to the environment, the link to population growth, and to make immigrants responsible for it all.

Of course, a reasonable observer would note that, at a minimum, urban sprawl in the United States is not really a function of population, but also of city planning and cultural preferences.

But this is not where these anti-immigration groups end. In spite of their calls for a “reasonable” debate on immigration, they present materials designed to evoke fear and hysteria. Numbers USA welcomes visitors to its website with an animated graphic of a blood-red pool of immigrants being pumped into a tiny map of the United States, which inflates and threatens to burst.

The Negative Population Growth organization has teamed up with one of the most widely read papers in the country, USA Today, to give you the numbers of immigrants that came to your area in 1995 — simply by entering your zip code. This is hardly the climate for a reasonable debate, which leads the Federation for American Immigration Reform to come full circle and contend that such a climate can only be brought about by a moratorium on all immigration.

All of this raises a discomforting question: If immigrants encounter hostility in a country founded by immigrants, during the best of economic times, when will they ever be welcomed?