Our VoiceImmigration

Got Water? Immigrants Blamed for Water Shortages in the Southwest

Guest Blogger • Dec 03, 2010

By Martha Pskowski

The anti-immigrant movement, under groups like The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), blame immigrants and population levels in the American Southwest for lack of water and potential water shortages.  We know droughts are becoming more frequent and are lasting longer.  There are real causes for water shortages in the Southwest and equitable access to water is highly important.  The anti-immigrant movement, however, has only one cause and one solution: blame immigrants.

In The Center for Immigration Studies’ new report, “Population, Immigration, and the Drying of the American Southwest,” the group asserts that the key to addressing water scarcity is immigration.  According to CIS, immigration is causing the Southwest population to “explode” and making insatiable demands on “our” limited resources.  CIS encourages its readers to take action and even claims that the government is “afraid” to address immigration.

Kathleen Parker, writer for CIS, presents a flood of figures to relate the grim states of the Rio Grande, the Colorado River and the reservoirs and aquifers spread across California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado.  Parker paints a threatening picture in which wild fires are likened to atomic bombs and the local history is “dotted with violence and shoot outs over the precious resource [water].”

The impact of U.S. policies on economic and social conditions in Mexico is ignored in the CIS report, making it appear that migrants into the U.S. are taking what is rightfully “ours.”  Take the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which she describes in-depth.  The Compact divided the water rights of the Colorado River amongst the states it runs through, explicitly leaving Mexico out of the equation.  Droughts and increased demand on the River have reduced it to a trickle in Mexico.  Meanwhile, treaties such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) have put Mexican workers in direct competition with their Northern neighbors.  The social and economic conditions in Mexico causing migration to the Southwest are left out of Parker’s analysis, and will not be solved by numerical limits on immigration.

The true causes of the sprawl and loss of wildlife habitats lamented by Parker go beyond the increasing population of the Southwest.  Urban planning, environmental protection enforcement and education are all important aspects of a strategy to address loss of biodiversity and agricultural land.  Population control is not an acceptable replacement.

The “I = P A T” (Impact = population + affluence + technology) method that Parker employs (p10) is a throw-back to “Population Bomb” author Paul Erlich and vastly over-simplifies environmental impact.  CIS paints itself into a corner by only taking on the “P” in the equation.  Parker does little to question the “Affluence,” or level of consumption, which would be a direct affront to the white, upper-income population of the Southwest.  By honing in on population, Parker lazily blames immigrants.  This methodology does not question the status quo of golf courses, giant casinos and water-intensive agriculture in arid climates.  It is obviously not wasteful water consumption that Parker is targeting; it is immigrants.

Parker ignores the fact that immigrant and minority communities are acutely aware of environmental problems, and are often the most directly impacted.  Parker assumes that immigrants immediately reach the same levels of consumption as people born in the United States; however immigrants to the U.S. have a great variety of practices and do not necessarily aspire to or achieve the high consumption levels of non-immigrant Americans.  Many people migrating north into the American Southwest are coming from arid areas and understand the importance of conservation.  Recent immigrants coming to the area for work are not the inhabitants of the sprawling housing developments Parker derides.  Sprawl is a result of insatiable developers and local policies that encourage them, not immigrants.

A recent poll by the L.A. Times and USC confirmed the heightened environmental awareness of non-whites: “About 69% of Latino voters and 49% of Asian voters polled said they personally worry a great deal about having enough water to meet future needs, compared with 40% of white voters.”

To place the blame for environmental degradation on immigrants is inaccurate and overlooks the significant contributions these populations are making in advocating for more sustainable policies in the Southwest.  In Los Angeles, Latinos are a driving force behind the movement to shift the city away from coal and oil dependence.

Access to water is of crucial importance in the American Southwest.   By focusing on immigration, Parker and CIS overlook the big picture on the real causes of climate change and natural resource depletion.  This report demonstrates the anti-immigrant movement’s intent to misinform and mislead the public in order to blame immigrants for environmental disasters.


Martha Pskowski is a student from Hampshire College who also writes for the blog, It’s Getting Hot in Here.
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