Refugees and the Impact of Immigration

Two things have been capturing our attention, the plight of Syrian refugees, and the environmental summit in Paris. They are in fact closely connected.

First, immigration is valuable to us. Immigrants bolster national power – it matters that China and India have a billion people each. Immigrants grow the economy and make it easier to sustain what’s left of our social safety net because they work and contribute. They are productive  partly because they are new blood, and look at things with new eyes. This country has been at the forefront of innovation since it was founded because mixing peoples from different countries and parts of the globe consistently stimulated and refreshed the American economy. With globalization that is even more important. So for national security, economic health and continuing the path of American innovation, immigration is a big plus. In the case of refugees, generosity is also a big plus, good for our hearts and good for making America the world’s destination.

Immigration is not without problems. In the short run, the impact on jobs seems to be a wash – immigrants compete for existing jobs but create new ones by expanding the market. There is reason for concern that some supporters of DAESH (also called ISIL) could get in, but DAESH now has American supporters with passports. So the problem is much broader and needs to be dealt with in a broader way – Americanizing immigrants by reaching out, welcoming and including them in our activities.

But there is a problem. World population has tripled since I was a youngster. That’s an explosion. Chinese authorities understood that China could not sustain population growth and slowed it precipitously. Immigration initially doesn’t change world population. But the ultimate impact will result from improved health, cultural change, and rising living standards. Americans consume far more than our proportion of the world’s resources and we produce far more carbon dioxide and other toxins than our proportion of the world’s population. That is ground for concern. And immigration will stress the environment of some states and communities.

We can enjoy the benefits of immigration IF we can limit and reduce the environmental damage. It means that we should, must, continue to invest in ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, and increase our use of passive solar heating and solar and wind energy. We must control our overuse of water, and invest in better ways to use it. We need to rethink our national land-use policies – irrigating deserts for farmland and building suburbs on productive lands with an abundance of water is wasteful, leading to drought, salinization of the land, and making many places unlivable.

Ultimately both our goals for immigration and our goals for America, our children and grandchildren must be driven by concern for the people who will inhabit it. That means care and concern for the immigrants and all of us, expressed through environmental policies that can keep the earth habitable. In that effort we have to be willing to share and accept effective regulation. There is no other way.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 1, 2015.

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