By Donella Meadows
–January 19, 1995–
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus wrote those inspiring words on the occasion of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. They sank deep into the psyche of this land of immigrants, though the golden door was in fact never fully open. The only wretched refuse we welcomed at first were from northern Europe. We let in people of non-Western cultures primarily as slaves or indentured workers. Still, through our history, we have accepted refugees with a grace unparalleled among nations. We have been rewarded with a diverse and talented population and with an international image that still gleams through its tarnish.
Now comes the end of the 20th century, and our generosity has evaporated. Florida is suing the federal government for the costs of coping with Miami’s flood of immigrants. Millions of Californians voted not to provide schools or health care for illegal aliens. There are among us advocates not only of cracking down on illegal immigration, but of setting the legal immigration rate to zero — as France, Japan, and other nations have done.
Because of our Statue and our history, it’s hard for Americans to discuss immigration unemotionally. And on both sides of the issue one can find noble and ignoble motives. Sympathetic souls defend liberal immigration laws by describing the oppressive governments and miserable lives the huddled masses are trying to escape, and by questioning our right as descendants of immigrants to close the door behind us. Less nobly, employers of farmhands, domestic servants, apparel sewers, and other laborers have a direct interest in enlarging the pool of new arrivals who will gladly work long hours at low pay just to stay here.
Those who want to stop immigration could be simple racists or greed-heads. Or they could be low-income workers pointing out that warm-hearted liberals don’t generally have the kinds of jobs that are underbid by the homeless, tempest-tost. Immigration opponents can also be motivated by honest concern about overpopulation, shrinking forests, soils, water supplies, fish, fuels, and wilderness, and a moral obligation to leave to future generations at least as much natural wealth as was left to us.
The overpopulation argument, like it or not, gains strength as immigration continues. When Emma Lazarus wrote her poem, the U.S. had 60 million people. Now it has 255 million, growing by 2 million a year from natural increase, plus 1.8 million from legal immigration, plus maybe another million from illegal migration. The Census Bureau projects 383 million of us by the year 2050. Outside our borders are at least 2,000 million poor people. Latin America’s population increases by 9.4 million every year, India’s by 17.3 million, China’s by 13 million.
The earth is finite. Every nation is finite, even ours. No nation, however well meaning, can end poverty by scooping up and caring for all the poor. Welcoming all comers is self-destructive. But erecting walls high enough to keep them out is immensely costly and ultimately impossible.
Strangely enough, or maybe not so strangely, the noble approaches to the immigration argument, on both sides, seem to be the practical ones. For the sake of those already within our borders and their children, we need to understand our physical and social limits and live within them. That means, sooner or later, bringing both natural increase and net immigration to zero. To keep outside pressure from overwhelming us, we need to help the rest of the world do the same.
Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy in a scary article called “Must it be the Rest Against the West?” in the December 1994 Atlantic Monthly reached a similar conclusion. To “slow down, or if possible reverse, the buildup of worldwide demographic and environmental pressures” we should, they said, meet the decades-old target of giving 0.7 percent of our GDP to development aid. (At present we give 0.2 percent.) We should ensure that the aid actually helps the poor, rather than the corrupt and powerful, or the engineering firms that build dams, highways, and power plants. We should put scientists to work on technologies for the poor, such as solar energy, efficient stoves, disease-resistant crops. We should wholeheartedly support family planning and female education, improve U.N. peace-keeping capacity, and stop arms exports that suck up investment from poor countries and too often prop up malicious dictators.
One can easily add to Connelly’s and Kennedy’s list. Stop extracting Third World debt payments from the poor. Encourage real land reform. Curb our own wasteful consumption of resources. Pay workers at home and abroad decent wages.
These suggestions are not new and they are not beyond our power, intelligence, or financial means, but at the moment they are beyond our political imagination. But imagination can change, especially when confronted with practical costs. Once, in the days of apartheid, I drove with a South African friend past a field of great oil tanks near Cape Town. Around the field was a triple barrier, many blocks long, of watchtowers, concrete walls, and chain-link fences 40 feet high. “Why all that?” I asked. “We have desperate people who get hold of mortars,” he answered. “But those barriers must be enormously expensive,” I said. “Yes,” said my friend, “and it’s only a small part of what we pay to maintain our inequities.”
An immigration policy, or any policy, can be built on fear, hatred, and short-term self-protection or on compassion, cooperation, and the long-term good of everyone. South Africa finally admitted that only the second of those options is affordable, much less humanly tolerable. We could do the same.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995