Thursday, May 05, 2005

Unplanning Immigration

Immigration has been a hot subject in the US and some European countries in recent years. Any discussion of the issue, regardless of the side one takes, always manages to strike a raw nerve. It is an issue that has direct impacts to all of us, even those who may never actually encounter an immigrant in their daily life. Regardless of your personal position on the matter, the subject of immigration permeates deep into the planning field (although most planners may not aware of this) and both impacts and is impacted by energy issues. As the amount of available energy available to us humans begins its inexorable decline in the coming years, it will have a dramatic and unpredictable effect on the size and composition of immigrant flows worldwide.

Humans have historically been a mobile lot. Whether it was to follow the herds or to seek out new lands for settlement and cultivation, we would relocate ourselves as desired. Throughout most of history, people did not understand what drove most migrations was the need to acquire better access to natural resources (agricultural land, energy, water etc). More recently, economists have attempted to explain migratory factors from an economic perspective, describing a variety of push (lack of employment, poverty) and pull (job opportunities, prospect of wealth) factors. While this assessment is reasonable enough to rationalize, the ultimate factor for most migrants was related to the availability of resources. Here are some examples:

* Overcrowding in the British Isles in the 1600s and 1700s spurred immigration to North America
* The potato blight of 1846-50 drove 20% of the Irish away for good, mostly to North America.

Granted, those were extreme examples. While recent immigrants to the United States often cite economic prospects or political freedom as a reason why they moved, in most cases the underlying cause is often a resource limitation or scarcity. Many countries that are the source of immigrants also have resource issues to deal with. In some cases, the connection is obvious. The country of Haiti clearly has severe resource issues to contend with. Due in part to overpopulation, most of the native forests were cut down for fuel. With the vegetative protection gone, soils washed away with passing tropical storms, affecting agricultural production and housing. Haiti currently has over 7 million people, clearly in excess of its local carrying capacity. The lack of even the most basic resources is the primary driving factor behind the emigration to just about any where else.
Mexico’s problems are more complex. The country’s long and difficult relationship with its northern neighbor and its ineffectual national government have spectacularly failed most of its citizens. While a select few prospered by controlling most of that nation’s resources (and later trade arrangements), the masses continued to grow in population, stressing both the rural and urbanized locations. Left unattended the population pressure would have ultimately resulted in a revolution, civil conflict or outright famine. Instead many formal and informal agreements and understanding between the US and Mexico led to the immigration of tens of millions of Mexicans to the US since WWII. By 2003, 25.3 million people in the US were either Mexican or of Mexican ancestry.
The US government formally invited Mexicans to pick crops in the fields during the war (the Bracero Program) when there was a legitimate shortage of labor. We continued this arrangement after the war as a subsidy of sorts to farming interests so they would not have to pay increased wages for farm labor.
Various industry executives and southern state governments conspired to bust unions in key industries by relocating operations such as meat packing to southern locations, free of union influence (and higher wages). With low wages and difficult working conditions, was it any surprise the only takers would be recent immigrants?
Added to that fact our only real immigration enforcement occurs at the borders. Once in, the risk of capture decreases for the immigrant and virtually no penalty exists for the employer of that immigrant. It should not come as a shock when immigrants rather stay put and bring their family rather than risk crossing back and forth on a seasonal or temporary basis.
Business owners bear a significant responsibility for the promotion of both legal and illegal immigration streams. Their desire operate at the lower end of the wage spectrum (particularly with low skilled jobs) led to the pressuring of Congress to pass favorable immigration statutes such as the H-1B as well as failing to pass significant penalties against the use of illegal labor. Classic economics dictate that if a supply of willing labor remains large, wages will not increase significantly. In effect, industries that cannot outsource for obvious reasons are able to insource their labor needs.
Finally our agricultural and economic policies displaced numerous individuals in Mexico (and other countries) with the advent of free trade agreements such as NAFTA. Mexico used to be self-sufficient in corn production prior to NAFTA. Since then native production (often by small scale farmers, operating without mechanization) was displaced by a flood of cheaper imports from the US Corn Belt. By 2002, corn imports reached 6 million metric tons. As a result, a number of Mexican farmers were displaced from farming. Some of those newly unemployed farmers migrated north to seek work.
Large-scale immigration is at best a means to relieve pressure in a particular area when resources (for natural or economic reasons) grow limited. At its worst it is a means to exploit the most vulnerable to enhance the profit of a few. In the process it often harms the non-immigrant population. Areas receiving population experience growth pressures that force expenditures on everything from child care and health care to road and housing construction. The County of Los Angeles is a great example of this. In addition, since most destination areas have higher average energy expenditures than the source locations, overall energy consumption increases.

Too rapid amounts of immigration also stress the local population by subjecting them with to what many individuals would characterize as an “invasive” feel. Many counties, particularly in the US Southwest have seen strong and dramatic changes in ethnic composition. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, the destination point for many immigrants, Hispanics now are the largest single ethnic group and in Merced and Tulare counties, they comprise an absolute majority of the population. Slow, gradual changes are tolerable to many but a rapid arrival of many new individuals in a given area forces a defensive reaction, especially when the newcomers increase the local crime rate. That reaction often results in a backlash by the locals against the immigrants that helps neither group.
The source location for the immigrant stream often fails to benefit as well. Although some families and even towns do financially benefit from the remittances, the long separation causes family and social problems between the emigrants and those left behind. But a more fundamental problem can occur if the source location continues to experience population growth that replaces those individuals that left. In this case, immigration functions as a safety valve preventing the location from truly experiencing a resource-driven collapse. As long as that safety valve exists, the local government can postpone making those hard decisions that would address the underlying problems.

As global energy supplies begin to peak and decline over the next few decades, global migration patterns will undoubtedly be impacted as a result. Many areas on Earth exist well in excess of their local carrying capacity and only continue to survive because of cheap energy subsidies and migration. When those subsidies fail, conditions in those locations will be ripe for social and civil unrest, out migration and eventual die-off.

Early on in the post-peak period, continued immigration patterns may continue until the declining economy (in combination with rising local hostility) will slow or even halt immigration patterns that have predominated since the late 1960s. As conditions continue to deteriorate in the urban and more densely populated rural areas, population pressures will trigger an exodus to any less densely populated area. Unlike now, most future migratory flows will be highly localized as the resources that permitted thousand mile migrations will also suffer from declining energy. Like everything else in the future, people will find themselves re-localized.

In other words, the age of mass intercontinental migration patterns may soon be drawing to a close, if not most transnational flows altogether. If you have a hankering to relocate, better do it soon. If your neighbors are immigrants and you are hoping they relocate back to where they came from, you may be waiting a long time.


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