50th Anniversary of NEPA: Five Decades of Ignoring the Environmental Impacts of Immigration

By Julie Axelrod on January 20, 2020

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. The decade of the 1970s saw the passage of a series of major environmental laws, starting with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed into law by President Richard Nixon on the first day of the new decade.

Commonly known as the "Magna Carta" of environmental law, NEPA requires "all federal agencies" to evaluate the environmental impacts of their actions. NEPA embodies the nation's policy of ensuring that federal decisions affecting the human environment are made with eyes wide open and in full view of the public.

In the 50 years since NEPA was enacted, it has been regularly used to force most federal agencies to routinely consider the environmental implications of their actions. But there is one great exception. Despite the many environmental reviews conducted by federal agencies over 50 years, not one includes any examination of the impacts of the myriad "actions" that permit large numbers of foreign nationals to enter and settle in the United States — actions which today are the primary cause of national population growth.

When NEPA became law the most pressing environmental issue on the minds of activists and legislators was population growth, which is the very first concern addressed in NEPA's "Congressional declaration of national environmental policy". Concern over population growth was central to the environmental movement because it is a key factor in a wide variety of environmental impacts. To name a few such impacts: national population growth drives the need for new development and infrastructure, which decreases open space and destroys natural wildlife habitat, and increases overall energy and water consumption, air and water pollution, and carbon emissions. Population growth affects nearly every issue of concern to the environmental movement.

Furthermore, consideration of population-growth-inducing effects is routine for most federal agencies in their NEPA analysis. The idea that NEPA mandates discussion of the inevitable consequences of population growth, but not the main cause of population growth, turns the purpose of NEPA on its head. But the agencies that regulate immigration have simply ignored the issue. (An in-depth discussion of this history can be found in: "A Seat at the Table for Citizens: Why the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Applies to Immigration and How Best to Implement This Long Overdue Reform".)

The American people may never know exactly why the environmental impacts of immigration slipped through the cracks, but it was at least in part because no major environmental group ever sued over this issue. Currently, the Center for Immigration Studies is bringing a case against the Department of Homeland Security challenging its NEPA procedures for failing to address immigration.

However, the courts are not the only ones who ought to rectify this mistake in our environmental regulations. On January 10, the Trump administration announced a proposal to overhaul the current NEPA regulations, which have been in place since 1978. The first major overhaul of how we implement NEPA would be a good time to address its neglect of immigration. Interested members of the public can read the proposed regulation and submit a comment here. The last day to comment is March 10.

Fifty years is long enough for our nation's environmental Magna Carta to ignore our nation's most pressing environmental issue. Please make your voice heard by submitting a comment.