This piece was written a decade ago, and it still reflects what I think.
I have written about population growth and U.S. immigration policy for more than 25 years. I mention this simply to say that this is not my first rodeo on this issue.
If immigration reform is now fashionable, so be it. I got my T-shirt when it was not.
Back in 1980, when I was more-or-less permanently camped at the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, the entire immigration reform movement could have fit into the back of a Volkswagen microbus. Back in those days, when I spoke about the impact of U.S. population growth on the environment, not many people were actually listening. Maybe no one.
Things have slowly changed. When I did CNN's Crossfire with Pat Buchanan in February 1989, he was an open-border apologist and I was the liberal opposition "in the crossfire". The next week Buchanan wrote his first column on the need for U.S. border security asking, "Does the United States have the right to engage, if you will, in national family planning for the future ... Or are we obligated, by our values and tradition, to leave such matters to fates, and to the fortunes of guerrilla war in Central America and the business cycle in Mexico City?"
Bingo. Someone was listening. Since the events of September 11, 2001, even more people have paid attention to U.S. immigration policy. No doubt it has helped that I have moved on to other debates.
Of course nothing has really changed (yet). In fact, the number of people coming to our shores keeps going up. Companies still want cheap labor and politicians still want cheap causes. With a wink and a nod both sides of the political aisle find a thousand and one excuses to do nothing.
America is a compassionate place. But having a heart does not mean you have to lose your brains. The United States cannot take all of the world's displeased and dispossesed, nor can we move all of the people of Somalia (or Indonesia or Guatemala or Ireland) to the United States. We have to draw a line somewhere and decide who we will take, how many we will take, and how we will enforce the law. These three questions underpin all immigration policy.
For 25 years I have listened to those on the Far Left and the Far Right answer the first two questions thusly: "More people that look like me."
It is with sadness that I note that the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Ancient Order of Hibernia, and the Ku Klux Klan all find common ground in that one answer.
I do not.
Instead, long before Bill McKibben wrote Maybe Just One, I decided maybe just none. I was born and raised in Africa (a child of American diplomats) and was observant enough to see that children the world over were, quite literally, dying for what I and my wife could offer as parents. So we adopted from overseas -- a simple way of reconciling global population concerns with a personal desire to have a family. No big deal.
I mention this only to say my tribe has never been defined by skin color or ethnic cuisine. Instead, my concerns have been more elemental, shaped by watching young goat herders shimmying up trees in order to hack every limb off the trunk and drop them down to the hungry animals waiting below.
Goats demand forage, and so the desert expands by degrees because people are locusts on the land. The people are not bad (nor are the goats) -- there are just too many of them.
There are too many people all over. Over population is not something that is happening "over there" -- it is right at our doors as well.
Over the years I have listened to a lot of arguments for immigration reform. If unemployment is up, some will argue that immigrants are taking jobs from Americans. If terrorism is the flavor of the day, they will suggest that border security and more immigration law enforcement can make us safer. If the audience seems pissed off that no one speaks English at 7-Eleven anymore, they will talk about how ethnic diversity can lead to social divisiveness.
I will not deconstruct any of these arguments -- they all have their place and they are all, largely or partly, correct.
But they are not the principle reason I have always favored immigration reform. I favor immigration reform because I love America as she is and was.
I love an America where we can hunt and fish and where wildlife is plentiful, and the water is clean. I want an America where forests are not managed solely for timber, and where kids can still play in the creeks.
I would like to live in an America where every beach is not crowded, and where camping grounds and back country shelters do not have to be reserved weeks in advance through Ticketron.
I would like the schools to be less crowded (and the buses, subways and malls as well). I would like to see larger side yards, fewer condominiums, larger woods, and less road widening.
I would like to see more wetlands, fewer culverts, less asphalt, and more people that know the names of their neighbors.
Above all, I want my kids to grow up in a country where there are still places you can walk 20 miles in a day without once crossing a road. Grizzlies, cougars and mule deer need such places. So too do people.
Earlier this month The Washington Post announced that the Senate immigration bill would add 20 million more people to the population of the United States in a decade.
Am I the only one to ask the question: How many Americans do we want? How many Americans would we like there to be at some point in the future? At one point do we say enough?
Right now, more than 33 million legal and illegal immigrants live in the United States.
Thirty-three million is a lot of people. Here are a few comparative numbers to give you an idea of the scale of this population, and its annual environmental impact in the United States:
- A country with a population of 33 million would be the 34th largest country in the world (out of 227 nations), and would have a population larger than the current population of Canada.
- 33 million is the combined populations of the 20 largest cities in the U.S in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas, San Antonio, Detroit, San Jose, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Jacksonville,Columbus, Austin, Baltimore, Memphis, and Milwaukee).
- 33 million people in the U.S. would require over 12 million housing units, assuming current U.S. average household size.
- 33 million people in the U.S. means 15.8 million more passenger cars on America's roads, assuming average per capita car use.
- 33 million people in the U.S. can be expected to consume about 825 million barrels of oil a year (25 barrels per person per year). To put it another way, 33 million Americans will consume all of the economically recoverable oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in less than four years time.
- 33 million people can be expected to consume 2.26 billion cubic feet of roundwood per year (80 cubic feet per person) assuming average U.S. consumption patterns. Assuming 35 cubic feet of roundwood grown per acre of forest per year, over 75 million acres of forest will be needed to supply 33 million people with their paper and wood needs. This is an area larger than Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland combined.
Immigration and births to future immigrants will account for 67% of U.S. population growth between 2000 and 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's middle-series projection. If you count births to the foreign-born already here, the number is approaching 100 percent.
Under the Census Bueau's middle-series projection, the population of the U.S. will grow by an additional 120 million people over the course of the next 50 years -- a population nearly four times larger than the foreign-born population enumerated above.
To put this 120-million number in perspective, this is a population greater than the current populations of ALL of the states West of the Mississippi: California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, Kansas, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana combined -- with Illinois thrown on top.
Of course U.S. population growth will not stop in 2050, but will continue for at least another 50 years under the Census Bureau's middle series projection, rising to over 470 million by 2070.
And this is the Census Bureau's middle series projection, which is probably too low.
Back in 1989, when I was trying to convince Pat Buchanan that U.S. population growth rates might be an important issue, the U.S. Census Bureau's median projection was that the population of the U.S. would "peak" at 302 million in 2040 and then decline from there.
In fact, the population of the U.S. will hit 300 million this October, and will top 302 million by next Spring. The Census Bureau's 1989 "high" components for fertility and immigration are now those used in the Bureau's "middle series" projection.
For more than 50 years, Census Bureau projections have been too low.
Will America fall apart at 400 million, or 500 million or even one billion people?
No, it will survive. It just will not be the America I love today.
If you hunt, you will have to drive farther, and perhaps pay to hunt in a for-profit shooting preserve (some do that now).
As we pave over paradise and put up parking lots, surface water will flow fast and dirty into our rivers and creeks. Cars will become more efficient, but population growth will consume the oil savings, and we will be more dependent on foreign oil than ever before.
More and more creeks will run in culverts, and fewer and fewer children will play in them. Silt from construction sites will clog rivers and streams, and no one you know will have ever caught a five-pound bass or a three-pound trout. You will no longer be allowed to walk down White Oak Canyon in the Shenandoah National Park unless you first bought a ticket at Ticketron.
For me, immigration policy is all about numbing numbers and the inexorable loss of the last best things in America -- a loss that will come with an ever-growing tide of people.
If I could, I would deport some Americans I know, and swap them out for good honest, hard working immigrants. But that's not going to happen anymore than God is going to make more wild lands. It's a cute idea, but in the real world forests are falling to fields, and fields are falling to freeways at a dizzying rate.
Something's got to give, and there's clearly a place to draw the line. Is it too much to ask that we draw the line at the border?
A surveyor's stake cuts through the heart of the land and signals the end of the road for both hunter and wildlife. America's wild lands are not committing suicide -- they are being killed by population growth, the vast majority of which is now being fueled by out-of-control immigration.
Epilogue: Back in 2006, The Washington Post reported that the Senate immigration bill would add 20 million people in a decade. In fact, the population of the U.S. in 2006 was 298.4 million and today it is 324.5 million.