Immigration Law and the Butterfly Effect: The Impact of Immigration Reform on the Natural Environment

By Fabiola Galguera*

The effects of immigration law ripple through many areas of law and many aspects of society, in some ways very obvious and in others obscure. Its effect on the economy is amongst the easiest to spot: immigrants affect the makeup of the labor market, affecting wages.[i] Oftentimes these very notions are brought forth in heated debate as evidenced by the amount of literature that can be found supporting the claim that immigration does impact a certain area and also supporting counterclaims.These debates are less frequently sparked in context of the environment. Climate change and environmental issues will often make headlines, but never in connection with immigration law. This is rather ironic; humans have impacted the natural world with their movement since the beginning of time. From transitioning to farming after nomadic origins to the introduction of invasive species of fauna and flora due to globalization, we continue to alter Earth in drastic ways.

American immigration reform specifically can be evaluated for its impact on the environment. Depending on the policy being examined, it can be concluded that the impact can be either positive or negative. By taking President Donald Trump’s immigration reform goals piecemeal and evaluating the effect that those policies may have on the natural environment, it becomes unclear whether the new direction of American immigration law may destroy or improve the environment.

President Donald Trump has pushed for immigration reform based on the following three principles: “A nation without borders is not a nation…A nation without laws is not a nation…A nation that does not serve its own citizens is not a nation.”[ii] Under the first principle falls the much discussed wall along the United States’ southern border. Notwithstanding how the proposed $15- to $25-billion-dollar wall may effectively or ineffectively impact illegal immigration[iii], the environmental impact is shocking. The loss of flora and fauna would be concerning enough to initiate discussions on extinction.[iv] When it comes to plants, physical barriers inhibit trees’ abilities to root in the ground[v], thus inhibiting its opportunity to grow and reproduce.[vi] This then impacts animals native to the area because these trees provide shelter and a source of food.[vii] When it comes to animals, a physical barrier can be devastating to their natural, instinctual migration patterns.[viii] Animals do not recognize the political borders we have created; some of the species in the area have been migrating between the U.S. – Mexico border for three to twenty million years.[ix] This allows animals to scavenge farther for food and to, notably, find mates in genetically diverse pools.[x] Without the ability to do so, these animals will become weaker and eventually begin to die off.[xi] Even the construction of the wall is problematic. The heavy machinery, increased presence of humans, and potentially harmful products needed to make the wall will cause destruction (trampling and removal of local flora, relocation and killing of animals in order to complete construction, etc.).[xii] Animals are already struggling with the fencing that already covers approximately 35% of the border[xiii]: birds like pygmy owls, known for being low flyers, have been unsuccessful at times flying over the fence.[xiv]

Returning to the Trump Administration’s basis for immigration reform, the other two principles – the importance of a nation to have laws and to serve its people[xv] – are much broader and all-encompassing. These principles encompass the hiring of more Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, reducing the amount of H1-B visas granted, mandatory return for all detained illegal aliens[xvi], and other such measures with one ultimate goal in mind: to stifle the influx of people into the country.[xvii] Again disregarding the humanity of these measures and their effectiveness in accomplishing their goal, the question remains what does these measures mean for the natural environment. There seems to be disagreement on the issue.

People immediately jump to the always increasing population of the U.S. for evidence that immigration needs to be more tightly regulated.[xviii] While the rate of births in relations to death has somewhat evened out, our populations continues to grow every year because of immigration.[xix] At the current rate of immigration, counting both legal and illegal immigration, the population of the U.S. will skyrocket to 420.3 million in 2060, approximately a third higher from 2010 (309.3 million).[xx] Furthermore, an estimated 74% of that increase will come from future immigration.[xxi] At a population increase beat only by China and India,[xxii] there are serious questions as to the ability of the natural environment to sustain that many people.

Some say that the evidence shows that our immigration situation is unsustainable and must be curbed to save the planet.[xxiii] But setting aside the need to curb immigration, the amount of people entering this country may not be so unsustainable with a significant and already necessary lifestyle change. The U.S. is one of the largest consumers of natural resources.[xxiv] Our ecological footprint is a perfect illustrator of such. Ecological footprint is the comparison between “the demands of the human economy, or subsets of it, with the earth’s (or a given country’s) ecological capacity for regeneration and renewal, its ‘biocapacity.’”[xxv] Since 1968, the U.S.’s ecological footprint has exceeded its biocapacity.[xxvi] This so significant that if the rest of the world consumed like Americans, the ecological footprint of the world’s population would be that of approximately 4 Earths.[xxvii]

Looking at the full picture, American immigration reform teeters on the edge of being harmful and beneficial to the natural environment. While a barrier such as the wall along the southern border has the very real potential of ruining the biodiversity of the ecosystems in the area, a limiting immigration policy may be necessary to sustain the current American population. Regardless of the position taken as to the pros or cons of the potential immigration reform, it serves as another vehicle to highlight the importance of looking after our Earth. Every decision we make seems to impact the natural environment for better or for worse. The environment should not be the only consideration when it comes to reforming immigration, but it most definitely should be in the forefront of people’s minds if we are to save our one home.

*Fabiola Galguerais a Junior Editor on MJEAL. She can be reached via email at fabiolga@umich.edu.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[i] The Effects of Immigration on The United States’ Economy, Penn Wharton (Jun. 27, 2016), http://budgetmodel.wharton.upenn.edu/issues/2016/1/27/the-effects-of-immigration-on-the-united-states-economy

[ii] Immigration Reform That Will Make America Great Again, Donald J. Trump, https://assets.donaldjtrump.com/Immigration-Reform-Trump.pdf (last visited Nov. 29, 2017).

[iii] Darryl Fears, Endangered animals are already cut off by a border wall. Trump wants it to be much bigger., The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/01/27/endangered-animals-are-already-cut-off-by-a-border-wall-trump-wants-it-much-bigger/?utm_term=.3c48cc0adf95 (Jan. 27, 2017).

[iv] Id.

[v] Urban Threats, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/urban-threats/ (last visited Nov. 29, 2017).

[vi] Thomas O. Perry, Tree Roots: Facts and Fallacies, 49 Arnoldia 1, 3-21 (1989).

[vii] Lina Younes, A Future Without Trees?, The EPA Blog (Jun. 25, 2009), https://blog.epa.gov/blog/2009/06/a-future-without-trees/.

[viii] Leah Donnella, The Environmental Consequences Of A Wall On The U.S.-Mexico Border, National Public Radio (Feb. 17, 2017, 8:01 AM), https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/02/17/514356130/the-environmental-consequences-of-a-wall-on-the-u-s-mexico-border.

[ix] Jonathan Sullivan, What would Trump’s wall mean for wildlife?, British Broadcasting Corporation (Sept. 1, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-37200583.

[x] Darryl Fears, supra note 3.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Leah Donnella, supra note 8.

[xiii] Cally Carswell, Trump’s Wall May Threaten Thousands of Plant and Animal Species on the U.S. Mexico Border, Scientific American (May 10, 2017), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trump-rsquo-s-wall-may-threaten-thousands-of-plant-and-animal-species-on-the-u-s-mexico-border/.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Immigration Reform That Will Make America Great Again, supra note 2.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] See Id.

[xviii] Winthrop Staples III & Philip Cafaro, The Environmental Argument for Reducing Immigration to the United States, Center for Immigration Studies (Jun. 17, 2009), https://cis.org/Environmental-Argument-Reducing-Immigration-United-States

[xix] Leon Kolankiewicz, Immigration, Population Growth, and the Environment, Center for Immigration Studies (Apr. 17, 2015), https://cis.org/Report/Immigration-Population-Growth-and-Environment.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] How Immigration May Affect Environmental Stability, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/immigrations-effect-on-evironment/ (last visited Nov. 29, 2017).

[xxiii] Winthrop Staples III & Philip Cafaro, supra note 18.

[xxiv] Id.

[xxv] Leon Kolankiewicz, supra note 10.

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] Id.

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