Tackling the taboo

Should smart-growthers start talking about immigration?

Some argue closing our borders is the only way out of this jam.

Some argue closing our borders is the only way out of this jam.

Sometimes those liberal tree-huggers can surprise you with the things they’ll say.

“Why should I sacrifice my country so that it can become an over-populated ghetto like China or India?”

That’s Sue Hokana, Sierra Club member and resident of El Dorado County, talking about sprawl. Hokana believes poor planning and an increasing appetite for more land per person is part of the problem. But more than that, she says it’s an uncontrolled population boom that is destroying most of our farmland and open space. And the best way to stop that is to stop immigration from other countries.

Hokana doesn’t want anybody to think she’s a racist.

“We have to have compassion, but we also have to make some difficult choices.”

And so, urban sprawl threatens to reopen a long-simmering argument in the environmental movement over immigration.

The debate is fueled in part by a recent study, titled “Sprawl in California,” which suggests that the so-called smart-growth movement that has been gaining momentum in the past few years will have no effect on sprawl unless stronger limits are placed on immigration from other countries.

The study claims that most of California’s sprawl can be attributed to population growth, and not simply to poor planning and suburban-style development.

Sprawl is caused by two main factors. First is the sheer increase in population. Population in California is increasing for several reasons. New births, international immigration and immigration from other states—secondary migration—have all contributed to the state’s booming population growth.

The other cause of sprawl is the change in historical building patterns. Ever since World War II, we have tended to use more and more land per person. Houses are built on bigger lots; communities become less dense, superstores and big-box stores have replaced traditional shopping outlets. All of this has been strung together by ever-increasing miles of streets and highway.

The primary focus of the anti-sprawl movement has been on the second cause, the so-called per-capita sprawl that is associated with more land being used per person. The smart-growth strategy has been to encourage higher density housing, to get people to move back to the urban core and to live in communities that are centered around mass-transit services.

And while huge population increases are widely recognized as driving the problem, little has been said about controlling population growth as a way to combat sprawl.

Indeed, within the discussion of sprawl, and in the environmental movement generally, the subject of immigration has become a sort of taboo. While the environmental movement has its roots in the earlier, more conservative, preservation and conservation movements of the 19th and early 20th century, since the 1960s, it has been dominated by the political left. For these folks, acceptance of immigrants, migrant workers and refugees—the poor and huddled masses—has always been an ideological cornerstone. Attempts to close the nation’s borders are almost always equated with prejudice and racism.

That has to change said Roy Beck, one of the authors of the “Sprawl in California” report.

“No matter what people try to do, the effect of massive population growth is going to continue to make people’s lives less satisfying,” said Beck.

The study claims that communities that have increased average housing density over the past decade have continued to sprawl at alarming rates. The study credits 100 percent of the sprawl in Sacramento to population growth, and none of it to low-density development.

California is growing by 575,000 people a year. About 85 percent of that can be attributed to international immigration and the births to new immigrants. Beck believes the United States should reduce immigration levels from the current 1 million people per year to the more traditional average of 250,000.

Beck has been a population activist for years, stemming from his experience in the beginnings of the environmental movement in the 1960s. As one of the nation’s first environmental journalists, Beck says he has seen this debate rage for years. And he believes it is going to flare up again soon.

It is flaring up again in the Sierra Club, which historically has taken population control, and limits on immigration into the United States, as one of its principal tenets. That changed in 1998, when members voted up a club referendum, which changed the policy to one of neutrality on the issue of immigration.

The club will revisit the question early next year. An internal resolution is on the ballot that would require the Sierra Club to make reference to population control on all of its materials dealing with sprawl. While the resolution doesn’t address immigration specifically, the implication is clear.

Critics say the immigration argument misses the point. Immigrants don’t drive development on the suburban fringe, because immigrants typically don’t move into the brand new suburbs. Because many new immigrants have lower incomes, they often try to find housing in the urban core, or in the older suburbs, which are abandoned by middle-class flight.

What’s more, lower-income immigrants typically use mass transit more often than middle-class commuters. And, as Luis Arteaga of Latino Issues Forum points out, it’s not immigrants who sit on the planning commissions and boards of supervisors that make the decisions to enable sprawling growth.

“To lament the loss of open space because of immigrants is preposterous. It’s not the immigrants that are sprawling. It is the white middle class,” said Arteaga.

He added that even if immigration were cut off completely, sprawl would likely continue to happen. In some cities, such as Detroit and Pittsburgh, sprawl has continued despite net losses in population.

Meanwhile, Arteaga has a few words for the mostly white middle-class environmentalists whom he believes are trying to scapegoat immigrants.

“You’re more than welcome to go back to where you came from."