Five Ways Immigration-Driven Population Growth Impacts Our Environment

By CIS on November 19, 2018

Population growth in the United States is almost entirely driven by the federal government's immigration policy. The Census Bureau predicts that the nation's population will grow from 325.5 million today to 403.7 million by 2060 — and 96 percent of that increase of 78 million people is due to the current historically high level of immigration. As both Americans and as global citizens, we have an obligation to consider how such rapid growth might impact the planet around us.

As outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), federal agencies are supposed to weigh the environmental impact of any new policies they introduce. Strangely enough, federal agencies have almost completely ignored these laws when it comes to immigration, even though immigration-driven population growth has a huge impact on the environment.

But how exactly does population growth affect America's natural resources and Americans' ways of life? Doesn't America, with its vast swaths of land in the middle of the country, have enough room to accommodate far more people than it currently does? In two now-deleted tweets that went viral last week, New Yorker journalist Osita Nwanevu mocked Americans who are concerned about immigration as "Elmer Whoever[s]" given that middle America is full of "vast and mostly empty country where 40 percent of the land is for cows":

While it is true that much of America's physical land is not currently used for residential purposes, but rather for agriculture, Nwanevu's logic ignores a whole plethora of problems related to large-scale population growth (not to mention the necessity of agriculture). Here are five of the biggest impacts that immigration-driven population growth is already having on our environment and our living conditions:

1. Loss of Biodiversity and Species Extinction. Overpopulation directly threatens a wide range of endangered animal species in the United States, as human consumption of resources crowds out and poisons other animals. The Center for Biological Diversity listed the top-10 U.S. species being driven to extinction by overpopulation. This includes the Florida panther, whose habitat has been destroyed by urban sprawl from the city centers in Florida; the San Joaquin kit fox, which has lost almost all of its habitat as grasslands were converted into farms; and the Loggerhead sea turtle, whose nesting areas have been converted into recreational beaches.

Overall, there are over 1,300 endangered or threatened species in the United States today and as a growing population demands more and more resources — from farmland to residential real estate to urban sprawl — these species will have fewer places to live.

2. Water Shortages. As immigration continues to drive the United States population higher, the demand for water continues to rise, yet the availability continues to decline. For example, a study out of Columbia University found that massive droughts in the Southeastern United States in 2007-2008 were due to the region's exploding population, which posed "the root of the water supply problem." Georgia's population grew from 6.5 million in 1990 to 9.5 million in 2007, and has now reached 10.4 million. Nearly a quarter of total water use in Georgia is for public water supply, meaning a higher population puts a large strain on water availability.

This problem goes beyond the Southeast, although it is especially visible there. Water managers in 40 states expect water shortages in the next decade, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation. These problems will likely be amplified by climate change, as warming climates mean higher rates of evaporation and lower snowpack, leading to less freshwater.

3. Urban Sprawl. More and more Americans live in cities, and this effect is amplified by immigration — both because it boosts the total number of Americans, and because immigrants disproportionately live in urban areas. Urban sprawl, or the expansion of cities, leads to the conversion of farmlands and grasslands into cities. A paper from the Public Library of Science found that the Southeastern United States will expand urbanization by 101 to 192 percent over the next 50 years. The researchers note that this urbanization, by fragmenting natural landscape, will "reduce habitat availability, suppress natural disturbance processes (such as wildfires), hinder management actions that come into conflict with urban areas, and likely eliminate existing corridors."

4. Overcrowded Cities. While the overcrowding of cities could possibly be mitigated by more immigrants moving to rural areas, the reality is that for a whole host of cultural and economic reasons, most settle in or near cities. Indeed, according to the census, immigrants are currently driving the increased population in most American cities, and the foreign-born population is heavily concentrated in the country's 10 largest metro areas. On top of the geographic expansion of cities, the actual number of residents in these urban areas will put growing levels of strain on public utilities such as trains.

The effects of overcrowding are already particularly visible in New York City, which is amplified by the fact that Manhattan is an island.

According to the New York Times, overcrowding is by far the largest cause of subway delays in Manhattan. There were approximately 20,000 average monthly delays in 2012, and more than 67,450 delays by mid-2017. That is partially due to the fact that the number of subway riders has risen to a 70-year high of six million riders per day. And of course, most Manhattanites cannot avoid the subway by taking a car instead. Just as the number of subway riders has grown, so too has the number of cars — a problem that led the New York City Council to restrict the number of Uber and Lyft cars on the road.

As immigration continues to fuel population growth, more and more cities will feel the strain of overcrowding that New York City is already experiencing, making mass transportation far more arduous.

5. Carbon Emissions. Immigration transfers populations of people from lower-polluting parts of the world to the United States, where CO2 emissions are far higher per person. According to a CIS study, U.S. immigrants produce an estimated 637 million tons of CO2 annually, which is 482 million tons more than these immigrants would have produced had they remained in their home countries.

Of course, this does not make immigrants responsible for global warming, nor does it mean that native-born Americans shouldn't do more to reduce their own footprints — in fact, the average immigrant in America emits 18 percent less CO2 than the average native-born American. However, it is dishonest to discuss large-scale immigration without considering the impact that immigration has on our climate.

Overall, it is tempting to survey the nearly four million square miles that makes up the land area of the United States — particularly low-density states such as Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas — and conclude that America could seamlessly grow its population much more through immigration with minimal repercussions. The reality is, however, that most immigrants do not settle in rural areas. Besides, regardless of where they settle, a larger number of Americans simply means a larger amount of strain on our finite natural resources. As climate change continues to impact everything from water supply to biodiversity, lawmakers ought to think long and hard about the wisdom of exacerbating those effects through a policy of large-scale immigration-driven population growth.