Greenwashing Nativism

Greenwashing Nativism

From climate change to deforestation, FAIR is pushing xenophobia as good eco-politics.


To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day in April, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) updated and reissued its fifty-three-page report “The Environmentalist’s Guide to a Sensible Immigration Policy.” Fingering “immigration-related population growth” as the “principal cause” of urban sprawl, the report insisted that “so-called environmentalists pretend as if this connection does not exist.” And what was FAIR’s response to the land speculation, overdevelopment and three-car mentality that drive sprawl? As on nearly every issue, the solution, it said, was to cut immigration to the bone and put an end to the policy of family reunification.

FAIR is the nation’s most influential anti-immigrant organization; its legal kingpin, Kris Kobach, drafted Arizona’s chilling SB 1070 and is the go-to guy for states and counties looking to further criminalize the undocumented. But beyond cultivating hard-right legislators, FAIR and its satellite groups have been busy greenwashing the nativist movement for more than a decade, spinning environmental arguments to make the case for their version of population reduction. Virtually every progressive eco-cause—biodiversity, water conservation, deforestation, wilderness protection, even environmental justice—has been grist for their mill.

Most recently, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a spinoff of FAIR, has focused on the damage done by the traffic of coyotes and their border-crossing clients to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Huachuca Mountains and Coronado National Forest in southeastern Arizona. “How long will these beautiful lands remain unspoiled if the border is not secured?” a CIS press release asked. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife have argued that most of the ecological mayhem in these areas is a result of the construction and maintenance of the border fence’s “tactical infrastructure,” which was exempted from all environmental and historic preservation laws by the Bush administration. But CIS is more interested in tapping a deep vein of public anxiety that connects the defense of pristine resources to the defense of racial purity. In a grotesque but telling offshoot, a number of humanitarian volunteers from Tucson-based No More Deaths, who leave plastic containers of water on migrant trails in the desert, have been arrested on charges of “littering.” Meanwhile, the containers have been slashed repeatedly by Minutemen vigilantes and Border Patrol guards, who then leave the useless plastic on the desert floor.

The connection FAIR makes between immigration and sprawl is equally specious. Low-wage immigrants are much more likely to live lightly in central-city neighborhoods than the US-born population, who are more likely to settle in suburban subdivisions with high-carbon footprints. Nor is there any necessary correlation between population size or density and abuse of resources. How we produce and consume energy is a much more important determinant of pollution than our numbers. But FAIR’s shady reasoning is typical of the way it has pushed xenophobia as green wisdom in order to win mainstream acceptance and divide its critics.

Population stabilization has been taboo for progressive greens since the late 1970s. But anti-immigrationists like FAIR founder John Tanton, a former Sierra Club activist, cut their teeth on the overpopulation anxiety that permeated the environmental movement earlier in that decade. Subsequently, they used the Malthusian lingo of resource scarcity, carrying capacity (the maximum population an environment can sustain indefinitely) and overshoot (when a population exceeds its carrying capacity) to launder the image of the white nationalists with whom they became allies. When climate change became a public issue, it gave fresh impetus to what population specialist Betsy Hartmann has called the “greening of hate.” CIS and other FAIR spinoffs like NumbersUSA and Population-Environment Balance, along with the sympathetic Carrying Capacity Network, have all touted immigration as the chief reason for the rise in greenhouse gas emissions—as low-carbon immigrants adopted the high-carbon lifestyles of the rich countries to which they had moved.

This kind of reasoning has gotten a surprisingly good hearing from prominent ecologists. The advisory board of the Carrying Capacity Network boasts the names of Herman Daly (theorist of the steady-state economy), William Rees (pioneer of the ecological footprint) and Thomas Lovejoy (who introduced the concept of biological diversity), while Robert Costanza (a founder of the field of ecological economics) served on the board during the 1990s. Other heavyweights like James Lovelock, David Attenborough, Paul Ehrlich and Jane Goodall have greased the wheels of the resurgent population-control bandwagon through their patronage of the Optimum Population Trust, a British organization that rehabs eugenics for the era of climate change. It holds that drastic population reduction is the most efficient way of averting global warming, and among its programs is a carbon-offset project for the affluent in the global North to subsidize “family planning” in poor countries.

In 2008 CIS jumped into the carbon calculation game with its estimate that the average immigrant emits four times more CO2 in the United States than he or she did in the home country. This factoid, like others trotted out in FAIR’s greenwashing, was clearly aimed at influencing left-leaning minds, but per capita figures of this kind tell us nothing about the source of national carbon outputs. As Ian Angus and Simon Butler observed recently (in Monthly Review), “most emissions are caused by industrial and other processes over which individuals have no control.”

Unfortunately, CIS’s pseudoscience is a harbinger of things to come in the fickle world of climate politics. In retrospect, Arizona’s bitter fight over immigration may be the first real skirmish in what the security state will see as “climate wars.” The threat of global warming will increasingly be used to shape immigration policies around a vision of affluent nations or regions as heavily fortified resource islands. Is this mentality already at work? Internationally, the ugly side of the debate about emissions has centered on who has the right to go on polluting and which portions of the world’s population will be sacrificed. Even as cities in affluent countries compete with one another in the sustainability rankings, the same kinds of triage calculations are being made locally, and as resources tighten, the most vulnerable citizens and migrants are cut loose.

The ongoing rollout of fiscal austerity by local governments across the country offers many examples of triage, but the actions of Arizona’s legislature merit special attention. The greater-Phoenix area is the bull’s-eye of global warming in the Northern Hemisphere, and because the area is in a semiarid state that is always on the lookout for its next bucket of water, the Malthusian belief that there simply isn’t enough (of everything) to go around is never far from the surface. As one of the fastest-growing American cities for several decades, Phoenix has seen more than its share of residential anxieties about the impact of population growth. But the tenor of these fears shifted when the growth rate of Latinos, with or without papers, began to outpace the volume of white-flight retirees (or “amenity migrants”) from the Midwest and California. Population pressure was now coming from the wrong kind of people, and it was threatening Anglo numerical superiority. If SB 1070 enacted the FAIR policy known as “attrition through enforcement,” the state’s budget cuts have shredded the services that nativists claim are being gamed by immigrants, old and new. No one can accuse Arizona’s lawmakers of “wasting the recession.”

Is there an alternative to a future of racially fueled climate conflicts? At the World People’s Conference on Climate Change at Cochabamba in April, the subject of environmental migration—how global warming affects migration (but not vice versa)—was high on the agenda. An estimated 50 million people have already been displaced by the impact of climate change, and the numbers will escalate in years to come. In northern Mexico, a primary source of migrants to Arizona, soil is eroding rapidly from the decline in precipitation, and studies predict that regional rainfall could decrease by 70 percent by the century’s end. Are the emissions pumped into the desert air above central Arizona’s sprawl already responsible, however indirectly, for some portion of the 500,000 undocumented migrants in the state?

If so, the evolving principles of climate justice point to a very different conclusion than the war on immigrants urged by FAIR. At the very least, those displaced by climate change have a right to sanctuary if their path of flight takes them northward. Sanctuary is the most minimal of the debts incurred, but other forms of recompense may be appropriate. Since these migrants are victims of the high-carbon policies enjoyed by industrialized nations, they may also be entitled to reparations. Either way, climate migrants will have their own carbon-conscious version of the retort offered by postcolonials when they settled in cities like London and Paris: “We are here because you were there.”

Cochabamba ended with a call for international recognition of the rights of climate migrants. The risk of pursuing this path is that official identification may create yet another class of immigrant to be held in the limbo of refugee camps and detention centers, or lost in the maze of temporary visa categories. Besides, how easy is it to distinguish between border-crossers displaced by neoliberal trade policies and those set in motion by climate change? As long as the former are treated like invaders and felons, is it likely (or even just) that the latter would earn a special status? These are tough questions, even for movement people, but they are not going away. FAIR’s shadiness aside, there are real connections between clean energy policy and immigration reform—the two bullets Congress is trying its best to dodge. But they will be made only if we swear off single-issue politics and push for decriminalization and decarbonization at one and the same time.

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