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June 19, 2006

Inequity of resource distribution drives immigration

By Mark Patrick Taylor

A glaring omission from the debate on how to deal with illegal immigration in the U.S., as well as many other affluent nations around the globe, is that 'we' in the developed world are living as we do because those on the 'other side of the fence' (in our case Mexico) live like they do, in relative poverty. Those living in the developed world are able to consume at current rates and prices because others produce goods or work in related industries at a wage rate that would be unacceptable here (if employed legally or all goods were produced on U.S. soil).

Photo of Mark Taylor

Mark Patrick Taylor is a visiting professor in the Department of Environmental Toxicology at UCSC.

The only long-term solution to curbing the flow of people across borders (locally and globally) is to reduce the economic poverty and resource scarcity while raising the living standards of poorer nations so that the 'pull factor' is lessened. However, I suspect the outcome of this would be less palatable to many as it would probably mean either a slowing of growth in developed countries or some form of 'leveling out' of living standards.

One effect of 'leveling out' living standards would probably be price increases as the cost of production rises (wages, workers insurance, etc.). The upside is that increased living standards usually equate to greater consumption, the principal driver of the economy. While increased consumption might appear advantageous in the short-to-medium term, it could well produce its own problems as total global resources dwindle.

The global resource issue was discussed by David Ignatius, a Washington Post journalist in his article "How to Weather The 'Red Storm'"(1). Using China as his example, he explained that if growth and consumption remained constant, by 2031 the per capita income of China's 1.45 billion people will be equal that of the United States in 2004. At this point in time it is estimated that China will be consuming about two-thirds of the world's total current grain harvest and her oil demand will outstrip the 2004 global production figures. So much for the current concern regarding the impending $4-per-gallon fuel costs!

Returning to the more pressing issue of the use of a workforce that sits outside of the 'legal' economy. This situation produces an artificially low cost for consumers because the real costs are born by the workers through lower wages and ultimately living standards. The cheap labor suppresses prices to a level that means production in the U.S. is still economically viable. Therefore, this allows us to live the way we do because others live in relative poverty. However, we can't have our 'cake and eat it' -- that is, we can't expect to have an endless supply of cheap, readily available products at the price we currently pay without also having the related illegal migrant problem.

The current cross-border inequity that is clearly the main cause of migration also affects social structures due to the movement of breadwinners to areas of work (cities) resulting in depopulation and gender imbalance at their place of origin. In addition, environmental resources, which form the very basis of sustenance, often become severely depleted or totally exhausted as consumption rises with population and economic growth in areas of growth. For example, fuel wood, soils, water, and native fauna are often plundered to the point of collapse or nonproductivity relative to population requirements simply because there are no alternative resources. Again, this forces people to migrate either internally in a country or across borders to access employment, resources, or more basic items such as food and clean water. There are several well documented examples of catastrophic historical population collapse due to resource depletion (2,3).

Are there any solutions to the problems? In the short term, to help society function more effectively and equitably, we need to reevaluate the distribution, use, and consumption of resources (economic, environmental, and social opportunities) so that the 'pull factors' are lessened. This will help reduce the number and rate of individuals who by necessity or desire illegally cross transnational borders such as that between Mexico and the U.S.

In the long term, the solution is less obvious because of the projected population growth to about 9 billion by 2050 and the compounding dual effect of increased per capita resource consumption coupled to total global resource consumption. This is particularly a concern with respect to water resources not only in the U.S. but in the more populous areas of the globe (4) (e.g,. China, India, and the Near and Middle East). In these areas the remaining groundwater reserves are being depleted at rates several orders beyond what is sustainable through natural rainfall recharge rates. Many regions face total exhaustion or contamination of supplies by 2020 or sooner (5).

The effect of delivering equity to our neighbors (local and global) will help to reduce long-held social and political tensions and produce more prosperous and harmonious societies across all borders. While this will be helpful in the short-to-medium term, it is quite likely that the intergenerational prospects will be vastly different due to the impending scarcity of resources caused by consumption patterns beyond what is sustainable. Nonetheless, in the short term, we can elicit a more progressive outcome from the current immigration situation by recognizing and dealing with the root cause of the problem.

1. Ignatius, D. 2006. How to Weather The 'Red Storm', Washington Post, April 19th, A17.
2. Saier, M. 2004. The Rise and Fall of Civilizations. Environmentalist, 24, 195-197.
3. Diamond, J.: 1992, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, Random House, London, UK.
4. Brown, L. R. 2006. Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilisation in Trouble. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 41-58.
5. Gleick, P. H. 2004. The World's Water 2004-2005. The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources, Island Press, New York, pp. 362.

Mark Patrick Taylor is a visiting professor of environmental toxicology in the Department of Environmental Toxicology at UC Santa Cruz. His home institution is Macquarie University in Sydney.

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