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.

NEXT: Brickbat: Keeping It Off the Streets

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  1. Are there other reasons to oppose immigration?

    1. Racism. That's the only reason.

  2. Shikha got up early this morning. Maybe she's got some of that DST-induced jetlag.

    1. Remember that in the Dahlmia school of rhetoric, illegal immigration must be presented as the exact same thing as legal immigration.

      Then you can pretend "immigration restrictionists" are a big thing and a problem.

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  3. Yes, but this was easy.

  4. Gee, a Fiona article supporting open borders. How unusual.

    1. Next up, literacy tests for writers seeking green cards.

  5. "23 percent of green job workers are immigrants."

    Define "green job." Are we talking park trails crew, or are we talking Democratic pamphleteers?

    Because I've seen the parks, and I don't think they have enough people working.

  6. I see the ignorant progressive cunt is back to her one trick. Is there any lie or conflation she won't push in her Soros open borders zealotry?

    Ecological impact arguments are just legal arguments about policy impact, not policy arguments themselves. Fact is bringing in millions of immigrants a year will have social, economic and environmental impacts with only that last one specifically mandated to be evaluated by law. Funny how progressives are all about environmental impact until one of their pet projects gets put under the microscope.

    As far as immigrant carbon footprint, walk me through the cause and effect relationships that make people from high pollution countries magically low pollution sources once they get to the US. Further examine of your policy proposals are to impose those conditions a on Americans or release immigrants from those conditions.

    Try an honest argument for once instead of strawmanning positions and mindlessly regurgitating CAP talking points.

  7. Absolutely outrageous.

    Every Koch / Reason libertarian knows there is only one factor to consider — will a given policy make billionaires (especially our benefactor Charles Koch) even richer? And in the case of open borders, the answer is YES! Because the key insight behind Mr. Koch's rags-to-riches success story is simple: foreign-born labor is more cost-effective than American-born.


    1. BTW Fiona, when can we expect the 4th or 5th version of your "Russia attacking Ukraine proves the US should allow unlimited, unrestricted immigration like Koch-funded libertarians always wanted to do anyway" column? You should submit a slight rewrite of that piece every single day as long as the war lasts.


    2. Importing illiterate anarchist communists, econazis and mystics is the key to a better America. To hell with current policy of granting visas to electrical engineers, biologists, mathematicians and chemists.

  8. Hey Fiona, I'm looking forward to your piece on how the beneficial mass influx of Ukrainian immigrants is causing an economic boom and cultural renaissance in Moldova.

    1. Poland's population has increased by nearly 5%.

      1. Maybe now they can change those light bulbs.

  9. Straight out of Alinsky--make them play by their own rules.

  10. All you have to do is cross the southern border into where Monroe Doctrine Prohibitionism exports ignorance at gunpoint and look around. Crossing the northern border shows the opposite. Landover Baptist girl-bulliers dare not try to impose armed bigotry on a nuclear-armed, educated neighbor unvexed by officious leaf-looters, whose female population enjoys full individual rights. Mexicans could vote libertarian, have cleaner scenery and send Bush/Biden DEA parasites packing.

  11. Days without a Reason article pleading for open borders by the Fiona-bot: 0

  12. We should be using the ecological argument against socialism and communism. Compare environmental damage in East Germany vs. West Germany, or North Korea vs. South Korea, or Haiti vs. the Dominican Republic, etc.

    1. Individual/private property rights might have something to do with that, but that's not something anyone in power or coming out of our schools and universities want to admit to, or talk about anymore.

  13. I see Fiona is hawking books for Ed Dutton again.

    Witches, Feminism, and the Fall of the West

    The archetype of the "witch" is burnt deep into the European psyche, recurring again and again in folklore and fairytales. But is she merely the stuff of fantasy? Roald Dahl warned that witches don't always don black hats and ride on broom sticks. They "dress in ordinary clothes, and look very much like ordinary women. . . . That is why they are so hard to catch."

    In Witches, Feminism and the Fall of the West, Edward Dutton examines the history of witches and witch-hunting in light of evolutionary psychology. Throughout the centuries, witches were ostracized across Europe and often condemned and executed for sorcery and harming children. They generally adhered to a type: witches were low-status, anti-social, and childless, and their very presence was viewed as poisonous to the community. Dutton demonstrates that witches did, in their way, represent a maladaptive mentality and behavior, which undermined Europe's patriarchal system. When times got tough-that is, when Europe got poorer or colder-the witches were persecuted with a vengeance.

    Today, the evolutionary situation has been turned on its head. The intense selection pressures of the past have been overcome by the Industrial Revolution and its technological marvels. Modern witches survive and thrive in the postmodern West, still possessed by the motivations and dispositions of their sisters of yore. "Sorcery" (nihilism and self-hatred) is no longer taboo but has become a high-status ideology. Roald Dahl was all-too correct. Witches do exist, and they mean to do us harm.

    1. >The archetype of the "witch" is burnt deep

      Yeah, that's harsh. Good way to start a book about witchery.

  14. 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,"

    Even if that's true, it still means that more immigrants = more pollution and waste.

    Nor do immigrants foster "over-development." As of 2018, more than 90 percent of America's immigrants lived in urban areas.

    Even if that's true, it still means that more immigrants = more over-development.

    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

    Climate change is not the only issue. In the US anyway, the biggest issue is availability of fresh water. The US, particularly the Southwest states, where the most migrants arrive, don't even have enough fresh water to sustain the population now, much less an increased population in the future!

  15. I'm not siding with the immigration restrictionists, but I don't think Harrigan is engaging with their strongest argument: it doesn't matter if each individual immigrant pollutes less than the average native born citizen, what matters is aggregate pollution, and that goes up when there are more people.

    Nor is FAIR's argument merely about short-term environmental damage, but also about longterm environmental damage. Those immigrants will have children who grow up as natives, consume as natives, and pollute as natives. More population today = more native population 20 years from now with high per capita pollution.

    Dealing with the strongest version of FAIR's argument requires a lot more attention to facts on the ground and a willingness to entertain the argument as at least plausible. (And it is plausible, but plausible doesn't make it right and/or the best argument).

    Ultimately, of course, there's also the matter of value judgments. Organizations like FAIR aren't just "borrowing" from the radical fringes of the environmentalist movement, they're fellow travelers about the effects of over-population. Eco-primitivism is a real thing, which wants to see a massive depopulation of humans world-wide. That's the same sort of argument FAIR is leveraging, just taken to a far more extreme and global conclusion. And it's not even really a matter of being right or wrong, but on what value premises you're choosing to adopt.

    The unfortunate part of eco-arguments about the ability of the environment to handle some number of humans is that it forces into stark relief that there is a trade-off. Where the best trade-off lies is a matter of how one values human life vs. "natural" (non-human) ecosystems. So ultimately it isn't a question of right or wrong, but a question of values.

    (The author also conflates a large number of organizations and individuals together. I'm sure some of them are primarily anti-immigrant organizations exploiting ecological arguments without believing them. Others may honestly believe those arguments. It is at least plausible to me that FAIR really believes in the ecological issue, even if its only a motivator rather than the motivator. Some may be primarily motivated by the ecological issue.)

    A better take would be to treat the argument seriously, and explore the value angle more fully.

  16. Fiona the one-trick-pony strikes again.

  17. "Hey man.. We're not invading this nation. We're just immigrating."

    ...says those voting to violate the U.S. Constitution - and instituting LIARS to Congress that openly thwart their sworn oath of office (the very definition of the USA) - at a rate of about 90%....

    Can't win the battle with direct hits? Tear it down from within....
    Keep your friends close and your enemies closer....

    Does any of that register as valid points for the Reason Staff?
    Import Not-American get Not-America...

  18. #MySouthernBorderIsSoDry

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