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Urban Sprawl and American Immigration - 2002-04-18

English Feature #7-34199 Broadcast October 23, 2000

The Washington area has recently been the focus of a controversial advertising campaign that links urban sprawl - land overdevelopment, traffic congestion, crowded schools - to immigration. The ads urge voters to demand that Congress pass legislation that will reduce immigration levels.

Sound of traffic in radio ad

This advertisement, heard on the radio, also appears in the capital's foremost newspaper, the Washington Post. It features a large photograph of bumper-to-bumper traffic clogging a highway - an everyday experience for most people in the Washington area who drive to work. The caption reads "Don't get mad at the traffic. Get mad at Congress." The ad claims that urban sprawl and congestion are the results of overpopulation, which can be blamed directly on the immigration laws passed by Congress.

A number of groups are involved in financing the ad campaign. This particular ad was placed by an organization called Numbers USA. The executive director of the organization, Roy Beck, says that the advertising campaign is not directed against immigrants, but against immigration levels.

"The main problem of immigration, in terms of changing the quality of life, is simply the numbers. It's not that immigrants are bad people or bad Americans, they simply are people, and the more people that we have the more congested our communities. It changes the whole feel of what life in the United States is like."

A recent poll indicated that a majority of people in Virginia and Maryland, the two states adjacent to Washington, D.C., believe that urban sprawl will increase and the quality of life deteriorate if current population and growth trends continue. When asked, a majority also expressed concern with the current level of immigration to their state. The poll, which received a lot of attention in the media, was commissioned by an organization that contributes funds to the ad campaign of Roy Beck's Numbers USA. The aim of the campaign is to encourage Congress, through voter pressure, to change existing immigration laws. In recent years, a million people have been entering the United States legally each year, and this, according to Mr. Beck, is far too many.

"Well, we'd like to bring immigration back down to the traditional levels. Before 1965 for the history of this country we'd averaged about 235,000 immigrants a year. We'd like to bring it down to under 300,000, to 250,000."

The attempt to link the problems connected with urban sprawl to immigration has generated a fair amount of controversy. Peter Kostmeyer is the executive director of Zero Population Growth, a national nonprofit organization supporting population control and working - as its mission states - to achieve a balance between the earth's resources and its people. He says that blaming immigration for problems associated with increased population and growth is a false issue.

"There's a lot of research, in fact, which points with great specificity to the very opposite conclusion, that it's not immigration that's contributing to these problems. Over two thirds of the growth in the U.S. is due to non-immigration causes, very high levels of teenage pregnancy, very high levels of unplanned pregnancy, sprawl is occurring in areas where population is actually declining, as a result of people moving from the cities to the suburbs. I don't think immigration is an issue here."

Before becoming the executive director of Zero Population Growth, Peter Kostmeyer served in Congress for fourteen years as a Democratic representative from Pennsylvania. He thinks there is little chance that his former colleagues in Congress will address the issue of changes in immigration laws anytime soon.

"I don't see any possibility that Congress will deal with this issue. I think there's very little likelihood that either party will get involved with this because of the issues of racism and the xenophobia that it raises, and I think quite realistically. We know how to solve the problems of sprawl, and it has nothing to do with reducing the number of immigrants, which is less than a third of our population growth. It has to do with the way in which we consume, the way in which we live, our commitment to rebuilding our cities and especially our public school system in our big cities, so that young middle class families of all races are willing to remain and live in cities and put their kids in schools which will give their kids a good education. Those are really the problems, and they're tough, they're difficult problems to solve, but we can solve them and we don't have to turn to bashing people who come from abroad, which of course has an important history in the growth of this country."

Next week, immigrants who have settled in Northern Virginia will talk about their participation in the election campaign and in the American political process.