Minnesotans For Sustainability


Sustainable:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.




The Environmental Impact of Immigration
into the
United States

Jason DinAlt*
February 1997


Table 1. Consumption/Pollution Changes for Legal Immigrants
Table 2. Total U.S. Fertility
    Energy Consumption
    Cattle Production
    Fish Production
    CFC Production
    CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) Production
    Methane Production
    Freshwater Consumption
    Fertilizer Consumption
    Pesticide Consumption
    Car Usage
Defense Spending



The current high rate of immigration into the United States of America has adverse environmental impacts upon America, and upon the world as a whole. This article documents that impact, from the ten countries that send the most immigrants to America.

As an example consider the impact of a typical family of seven, immigrating from a country where their owning a car was highly unlikely. When they come to America they are likely to acquire cars (0.76 cars per family member)1. For every mile they drive, they pollute and deplete resources that could have been relatively unaffected had they continued their prior lifestyle. The act of border crossing enables them to make lifestyle changes that adversely affect the environment; by becoming Americans they adopt the consumption and pollution patterns of the world's most environmentally destructive lifestyle.

This paper presents the changes in certain key environmental indicators caused by immigration.


Americans have traditionally ignored many of the effects of immigration.2 In the past, this was a reasonable approach because for much of our history, resources were abundant, pollution seemed insignificant, and we were easily able to accommodate new Americans. In today's world, we are exceeding our long-term carrying capacity3 for more and more resources.4 "Carrying Capacity" refers to the number of individuals a region can support without degrading the natural, economic, cultural, and social environment over the long term. Many biologists and ecologists believe that we are now living beyond the Earth's long-term carrying capacity. And so, it is becoming less and less reasonable to ignore the effects of our extremely rapid and unsustainable population growth. The United States is growing much faster than any other industrialized nation. We add about 3 million people every year. At this rate, our population will double in about 60 years. California could double in 35 years.

According to demographer Leon Bouvier, since 1970, fully half of our recent population growth has come from immigration. The United States admits more legal immigrants than the rest of the world combined. In 1990 and 1991 we admitted about 4 million immigrants5. This figure includes legalizations of people who entered illegally. Today, our immigration rate is about eight times our emigration rate. Our fertility is now at replacement level. If we ignore carrying capacity constraints and project the current rates into the future, we reach the mathematically unavoidable conclusion that our population would grow forever. But of course, no ecosystem can survive unending population growth from any species, and certainly not ours.

Since many other authors have dealt with the fertility component of the damage done by unrestrained population growth, I will focus upon the immigration component6 though the higher than average fertility rate of immigrants means that there is significant overlap between the two.

Immigration has far-reaching effects on American society. The positive effects are well known; the negative effects are rarely discussed. A strong taboo is at work here. But the simple fact is that immigration has important and frequently deleterious effects upon our schools and prisons, our traffic and crime rates, our health care and welfare systems, and on our job climate and economy.7 However, this paper focuses on the generally overlooked environmental portion of the broad range of effects that immigration has upon the United States, and upon the Earth. Yes, we will see that some of these effects apply only to the United States. but that others affect the whole world.

Overwhelmingly, the reason people migrate to the U.S. is to improve their standard of living. This will change the impact they have on various natural resources. In other words, immigrants change their consumption and pollution patterns. It is often easy to quantify these changes - just measure their resource impact both before and after migration, and then compute the percentage change:

The percentage change in pollution or depletion rate for one resource =

(U.S. per capita rate - sending country's per capita rate) x 100
sending country's per capita rate.

For example. consider someone who migrates from a hypothetical country where the average ChloroFlouroCarbon (CFC) emission per capita is 0.02 metric tons. When that person comes to America emission increases to 0.52 metric tons. That person's resource impact has increased by 2500%. The calculation is simple:

(.52 - .02) x 100

The following table shows these percentages, for certain key resources, for the 10 countries that sent the most immigrants to the United States in 1991. The numbers just under the country names are the actual numbers of legal immigrants.8

Table 1
Consumption/Pollution Changes for Legal Immigrants
Coming From the Ten Main Sending Countries












Number of Legal Immigrants











Energy Consumption

55 %

3386 %









Cattle Production











Fish Production











CFC Production











CO2 (Industrial)











CO2 (Land use change)











Methane Production











Freshwater Consumption











Fertilizer Consumption











Pesticide Consumption











Car Usage











Defense Spending











Table 1. Percent changes in resource consumption and pollution on migration to the U.S.. Dashes ( ----- ) indicate that no data is available.

The table says it all, and merits careful study. It is clear that moving to America, from ANY of the main sending countries, enormously increases per capita pollution and depletion rates. Possible minor exceptions and anomalies include:

(1) There are anomalies caused by third world technologies that are particularly hazardous to the health of the sending country's environment. Slash and burn agriculture is a good example. It may be better for a family to trade a life based on slash and burn agriculture for a life based upon driving 12 mile per gallon pickup trucks.

(2) There are anomalies caused by averaging impact patterns for a whole country: country-wide averages may not accurately reflect the behavior of particular individuals. For example, the negative impact of migration by the affluent can be minor because their lifestyles do not change much when they cross borders: if a family owned five Mercedes Benz cars in Europe, they are likely to own about five Mercedes Benz cars in the United States. On the other hand, a family with bicycles in China is likely to acquire cars in the United States.

But the impact of the affluent can also be major. When a family migrates, they are likely to cause (directly or indirectly) a large new home to be built which implies cutting forest to provide lumber, and the loss of wilderness or farmland to provide a home site. The family will also require space for roads, schools, medical care, incarceration, shopping, and food production. On average, each new immigrant will cause the destruction of about 1 acre.

Future studies could group immigrants by cultural or economic group within sending country. rather than just by sending country. For now, I simply assert that the effects of all groups are reasonably represented by the country-wide averages.

(3) A time lag occurs while recent immigrants adjust to life in America: they do not fall into their ultimate lifestyles immediately. In some ways, this minimizes the initial load (consumption plus pollution) they place on the environment. For example, newcomers usually arrive without an automobile and it often takes at least a few months for them to acquire their first car. Even newcomers who start out on welfare often acquire a car soon. Rather than acquiring a new, relatively fuel-efficient and clean-running car, they're likely to acquire smokers. One smoker can easily out pollute dozens of properly tuned cars. And almost all newcomers eventually cause new housing to be built.

Much more importantly though, the heaviest load most immigrants place on the environment is their high birth rate. Most come from countries with high, above replacement-level fertility (which caused many of the problems that made them emigrate in the first place). When they come to America they bring the large-family preference with them. The improved opportunities, and the social welfare net available in the United States allows them to more fully realize their family-size goals.9 Of course, adverse environmental impact is directly proportional to the number of people. Consider Table 2, which shows California's blended fertility, broken down by racial group.10

Table 2.
Total U.S. fertility is 2.1 (replacement level), and has been growing rapidly for two decades.

Caucasian 1.7
African-American 2.5
Asian 2.5
Hispanic 3.9

Table 2 shows California's fertility because its racial mix emphasizes recent immigrants. The overwhelming majority of recent immigrants are of Hispanic origin. They have maintained their high-fertility habit in America. Whether a newcomer's initial environmental loading is heavy or light, within a few years, most immigrants adopt the American way of life, including all the environmental warts.

(5) And one last anomaly: the 53,000 immigrants from Mexico includes only the legal immigrants. If illegal entrants were included, their number could easily exceed 400,000 per year. The conservative INS lists the number at 250,000. In each of 1991 and 1992 there were over a million border apprehensions.

Now let's examine the table row by row, and see what else it demonstrates. The first row describes:

Energy Consumption11

This is total energy consumption, a major environmental offender. Energy consumption correlates strongly with various depletions (the energy sources) and with various pollutants (e.g., nuclear waste, COx, NOx, and SOx). Notice that immigrants from all of the top ten sending countries enormously increase their energy consumption as they adopt the American lifestyle.

Cattle Production12

 While cattle production may seem benign, it is not. Cattle emit huge quantities of methane, the second most deleterious greenhouse gas. Millions of acres of forest have been destroyed to provide range land. Cow hooves enormously increase erosion rates. Only people from the ex-USSR decrease their "cattle impact" on immigration.

Fish Production13

Over-fishing and pollution are serious threats to the world's fish populations. Many of the world's major fisheries are no longer productive (e.g., the San Francisco Bay) or are experiencing major declines (e.g., the North Atlantic). People living in the ex-USSR. the Philippines, and Korea will harvest fewer fish after migration, but for most other resources, migration from those areas will have a destructive effect.

CFC Production14

This may be the most dangerous immediate environmental threat we face today. Skin cancer deaths, and similarly severe threats to other species, are rising sharply with CFC concentrations. Immigrants from all the major sending nations enormously increase CFC production when they come to America. (Note: in 1998, U.S. CFC production is headed downward - good!)

CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) Production15

The next two rows describe CO2 production. CO2 is the primary greenhouse gas, and is a serious candidate for being the main environmental threat facing us. The scientific community's consensus is that CO2 pollution is likely to cause about a four degree (centigrade) rise in the Earth's temperature in the next hundred years. The consequences of this extraordinarily rapid rise in temperature are beyond our ability to predict, but will undoubtedly be extreme, unpleasant, and perhaps impossible for us to manage.

CO2 production occurs in industrial processes and automobile usage, but also occurs during rapid land-use change, as when forests are developed. Forest development by incineration immediately converts huge quantities of carbon in trees (which remove CO2 from the air) into airborne CO2. Forest development by clear cutting produces a similar, though slower, effect. Developing countries (see the Table 1 data for the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Mexico) are destroying their forests extremely rapidly, and so migrants from those countries are actually decreasing their carbon pollution rates from land-use change when they migrate to America. But this is more than offset by their increased CO2 pollution caused by their use of American industrial processes.

Methane Production16

Next to CO2, methane is the most important greenhouse gas. All immigrants from the top ten senders dramatically increase their methane production.

Freshwater Consumption17

In most regions, we are removing or poisoning freshwater much faster than it is being replenished. All people adopting the American lifestyle are likely to increase their freshwater consumption.

Fertilizer Consumption18

This is the sum of potash. phosphorus, and nitrogen-based fertilizer consumption. Fertilizer is helpful in that it increases short-term crop yields. It is harmful in that it pollutes the earth with salts that ultimately ruin the land and seriously damage water systems. Again, migration from all the top ten senders causes sharp increases in fertilizer consumption.

Pesticide Consumption19

Pesticide usage is like fertilizer consumption in that short term benefits cause serious long-term degradation. Only the ex-USSR uses more pesticide per capita than the United States.

Car Usage20

Cars very seriously degrade the environment in many ways - from the obvious energy consumption and greenhouse gas pollution, to the less obvious consumption of wilderness and farmland for road construction. Road kills occur in enormous numbers and contribute significantly to species extinction. Disposal of oil, tires, and cars cause severe pollution problems. And so forth. No other country on Earth approaches America's obsession with the automobile.

Defense Spending21

The defense industry is probably the dirtiest we've yet devised. It combines the worst problems of toxic waste disposal, with accidents like losing plutonium-based warheads on ocean bottoms, and war scenes like 500 burning oil wells in Kuwait. The United States spends much more per capita for defense than any of the top 10 senders. Our culture has a habit of spending huge amounts for defense. In the long term, because our military budget is ultimately proportional to the number of taxpayers, immigrant tax dollars buy more destruction. As the U.S. population increases, our "resource hunger" will increase, as will the likelihood of us using our defense apparatus to acquire or maintain access to resources. Consider the recent Gulf War.

Some of the pollution damage done by adapting the U.S. life style affects primarily the United States (freshwater poisoning) while other damage, like air pollution, affects the whole world. Other global effects include acid rain, greenhouse gas production, ozone depletion, wetlands destruction (affecting the life cycle of migratory birds), and U.S. wood consumption (which causes rain forest destruction in other countries). Yes, the U.S. life style affects the whole world. In order to live beyond our carrying capacity we draw upon the carrying capacity of the rest of the world. We've burnt much of our own natural capital. and now we're burning theirs. We draw on resources that took millions of years to accumulate, but that are being replenished at a much slower rate, if at all.

Consider fossil water and fossil fuels.

Of course, it is necessary for Americans to adopt a cleaner lifestyle. Of course. we must drastically reduce the environmental damage we do both individually and as a nation. But to think that we will cut our total damage while our population increases rapidly is extremely unlikely. We must address BOTH terms of the unavoidable equation:

Total Impact = Number of People x Total Impact per Capita

For us to assume that technological advances will bail us out is folly of the first order. Consider our per capita reductions in automobile emissions over the last 30 years which have been completely canceled by our population growth.14

It is ironic that some suggest that America atone for its alleged and actual foreign policy sins by allowing high rates of immigration when creating more Americans surely increases the likelihood of future American sins (e.g. resource wars. pollution, and depletion) on foreign soil. EVERY new American damages local and global ecosystems.


The consumption patterns of recent immigrants are very likely to soon resemble those of similar groups of previous immigrants and those of native-born Americans. The data presented here allow us to predict the ecological behavior of U.S. immigrants. We could also focus on social or economic behavior and predict crime rates, tax payments, welfare costs, unemployment due to job displacement, incarceration rates, education and medical costs, and so forth. Past assessments of immigration impact have traditionally ignored many of the social and economic impacts. This is neither realistic nor acceptable for a country with serious social and economic problems.

Newcomers from certain sending countries are likely to place much lighter or heavier loads on certain components of the U.S. infrastructure than are others. We need to understand these loads clearly. Any rational immigration policy would consider factors such as skills, age, medical condition, income, criminal record, education level, and most importantly the sheer number of immigrants. It is extraordinarily foolish for us to NOT optimize our immigration policy so as to improve life in America and the world in general. It is astonishing for us living in a country flirting with financial and social collapse, a country with rampant unemployment and homelessness, a country whose ecosystems are under severe stress, a country that is arguably the most overpopulated country on Earth24 to continue to admit immigrants who place an immediate, large and destructive drain upon our future. To admit people who are likely to not be productive citizens may be Politically Correct, but it is also stupid. We need to adjust our admissions policies so that they will improve the quality and sustainability of life on Earth; that should be the primary criterion.

Recent U.S. immigration policies were created with little consideration for their adverse impact upon America. Certainly, there was no consideration for their environmental consequences. They were designed to produce cheap labor, expanded markets, increased church membership, and warm feelings in the hearts of a few Political Action Committees and foundations. They were NOT designed to promote the well-being of America or of the world. In the future, we must change course if we are to stop the decline in our standard of living and the increase in our impact upon the global environment.

Particularly, we need to recognize the simple fact that the last thing this world needs is more Americans. The world just cannot afford what Americans do to the earth, air, and water. And it does not matter whether these Americans are Americans by birth or by border crossing. It does not matter what color their skin is. It does not matter what language they speak or which god they worship. What matters is that they will live like Americans. We need to accept the fact that the environmental community's admirable efforts to reduce our consumption and pollution have largely failed. We must redirect our efforts to counter the fact that our leaders are not likely to voluntarily enact serious incentives and disincentives to reduce consumption, pollution, or population until the situation gets much worse. As long as our national policy is to subsidize and promote population growth we face a continuing decline in our standard of living that will ultimately result in disaster.

We simply must stabilize our population. We have seen the enemy; and it is still us. But there are hundreds of things that each of us could do to counter the disaster promised by overpopulation. We can solve this problem. What are you doing to help?


1. World Facts and Figures. Victor Showers. John Wiley and Sons, 1989.
2. Brimelow: National Review. 'Time to Rethink Immigration" June 22, 1992.
3. See the Pimentel's "Land, Energy, and Water: the Constraints Governing Ideal U.S. Population Size" in Elephants in the Volkswagen, compiled by Lindsey Grant. W.H. Freeman and Company, 1992.
4. U.S. oil is nearly gone. Marine life in the San Francisco Bay is a pathetic remnant of what it was 200 years ago. 50% of lowa's topsoil has eroded into the Gulf of Mexico. We have cut 90% of our forests. The eagles, the Florida panthers. the redwoods, even the frogs ... they are mostly gone. And so forth.
5. October 1992 Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) newsletter.
6. Of course, there are only two ways for a population to grow: by births and by immigration. America's birthrate is now at replacement level, and rising rapidly. This is largely caused by high-fertility immigrants.
7. Because the discussion of immigration has been essentially taboo until very recently, the effects of immigration on our society are very much understudied and under-reported. Leon Bouvier's "50 Million Californians?" effectively documents many effects of immigration, and describes the socio-economic shifts caused by immigration.
Consider our prisons: 26% of prisoners are non-natives while only 9% of the population is non-native.
Consider the economy: a 1992 California State Auditor General's Report states that illegal immigration costs California $3 billion dollars per year. Legal immigration costs more. Donald Huddle's 1993 study (The Costs of Immigration) documents a $67 billion per year net average cost of immigration over the next ten years. The costs are rising rapidly. Call Carrying Capacity Network at 800-466-4866 for the most recent copy of the annually updated Huddle study.
8. In 1991, the ten main senders of legal immigrants were, in order, the ex-USSR, The Philippines, Viet Nam, Mexico, China, India, Dominican Republic, Korea, Jamaica, Iran (source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, 7/3/92)
9. Population Politics, Virginia Abernethy. Plenum Press, New York. Required reading.
10. California Department of Finance, Demographic Research Unit.
11. World Resources, A Guide to the Global Environment 1992-93 Oxford University Press, 1992.
12. Ibid.
13. United Nations Statistical Yearbook. 37th issue, 1992.
14. World Resources. A Guide to the Global Environment 1992-93, Oxford University Press, 1992.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. United Nations Statistical Yearbook, 37th issue, 1992.
19. World Resources: A Guide to the Global Environment, 1992-93, Oxford University Press, 1992.
20. Ibid.
21. The Economist Book of Vital World Statistics. Times Books/Random House 1990.
22. The Population Explosion. Anne and Paul Ehrlich. Simon and Schuster, NY 1990.
23."Know the Facts". Population-Environment Balance, 1993
24. America is the world's most overpopulated country because America's population does more damage to the world's ecosystems than any other country. This is also true on a per capita basis. America simply must lower its population, and decrease the per capita impact of that population. Financial incentives and disincentives are the best tools for managing population impact. For example, we should stop subsidizing automobile use and child-bearing. Rather, drivers AND parents should pay for the true costs of their actions.

* Courtesy of Carrying Capacity Network.
Original: In, Focus, Carrying Capacity Network, Vol 4, No. 2, 1997.
Please see original at < http://www.carryingcapacity.org/DinAlt.htm >.


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