Greenwashing Borders

For years, immigration restrictionists have borrowed arguments from the environmentalist fringe to make their case against allowing immigration to developed nations.


For years, immigration restrictionists have borrowed arguments from the environmentalist fringe to make their case against allowing immigration to developed nations. Using a concept that British researchers Joe Turner and Dan Bailey call "ecobordering," proponents of low immigration say Western countries must impose intake restrictions because immigrants from poorer countries pollute and degrade natural spaces.

While that argument is not new, it does seem to be evolving. In April 2021, for example, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich sued the Biden administration over immigration policies he claimed violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969.

NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of infrastructure construction, land management actions, and other projects. Brnovich's suit argued that the administration had failed to "even [engage] in the pretense of performing any environmental analysis before taking environmentally transformative actions"—namely, halting border wall construction and former President Donald Trump's "Remain in Mexico" program, which forced asylum seekers to wait across the border until their immigration court dates. Migrants' actions, Brnovich claimed, "directly result in the release of pollutants, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere."

American anti-immigration groups—including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies, and Progressives for Immigration Reform—have published articles and reports blaming immigrants for environmental decay. FAIR claims immigration-related overpopulation has led to overdevelopment, threatening "our farmland and forests to benefit special interests."

These claims do not hold up to scrutiny. On average, immigrants seem to have a smaller carbon footprint than native-born Americans. They tend to "use less energy, drive less, and produce less waste," according to a 2020 study by Michigan State sociologist Guizhen Ma, who notes that areas with larger foreign-born populations tend to have better air quality. A 2010 Center for American Progress report found that "the 10 highest carbon-emitting cities have an average immigrant population below 5 percent," while the 10 lowest carbon-emitting cities "have an average immigrant population of 26 percent."

Nor do immigrants foster "over-development." As of 2018, more than 90 percent of America's immigrants lived in urban areas. America's 896 million acres of farmland and 765 million acres of forestland together account for two-thirds of the country's total acreage. The country's forested area "has been stable-to-increasing for decades," according to the U.S. Forest Service, while farmland has only decreased by 11 million acres—1.2 percent of its current level—in the past 20 years. Immigration boomed during this period, with the number of foreign-born people in the U.S. climbing from 31 million to 45 million from 2000 to 2019.

The ecobordering movement also ignores the environmental cost of borders. The Trump administration's border wall itself skirted environmental review, destroyed natural spaces, and disrupted animal migration routes.

Another point that ecobordering enthusiasts overlook: Immigrants are a critical part of America's green workforce. According to an August 2021 report from George Mason University's Institute for Immigration Research, "23 percent of green job workers are immigrants," working in "jobs that either benefit the environment directly or make their establishment's production more environmentally friendly."

Although restrictionist environmental groups may not say it outright, one of their underlying assumptions is that immigrants to the U.S. will impose more ecological harm as their living standards rise. "Nations with high consumption levels have large ecological footprints,"  FAIR says. "Add to the equation a large population with a high level of consumption—as is the case with the United States—and the situation becomes unsustainable." The implication is that it's better for the environment if people are poor in their home countries rather than rich in the U.S.

The consequences of climate change will be global. They won't be confined to a single nation's borders or dependent on a single nation's immigration policies. The world's poor will be the first to suffer from the negative effects. They also stand to benefit most from more liberal immigration. And contrary to what restrictionists claim, American environmental standards won't be worse for it.