Ecoscience: The Immigration Debate in 1980

The immigration debate surrounding the number of Mexicans entering the U.S. illegally was as heated in 1980 as it is today. Noted ecologists Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich offered their own perspective in this essay.

| January/February 1980

  • 061 ecoscience immigration debate - Fotolia
    In the immigration debate one oft-proposed but completely impractical solution, according to Anne and Paul Ehrlich, is to close the U.S.-Mexican border. 

  • 061 ecoscience immigration debate - Fotolia

Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. As well they should be. Because it was Paul and Anne who through their writing and research gave special meaning to the words "population," "resources," and "environment" in the late 1960's. (They also coined the term co-evolution, and did a lot to make ecology the household word it is today.) But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us, for instance, have read Paul's book The Population Bomb) . . . far too few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (research of the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college textbooks). That's why it pleases us to be able to present—on a regular basis—the following semi-technical column on the immigration debate by authors/ecologists/educators Anne and Paul Ehrlich.  

Immigration in the Future

In our last column, we described the growing alarm that many Americans feel over the ongoing "invasion" of this country by illegal immigrants . . . mostly from Mexico. During the mid-1970's, reports carried in the popular media claimed that as many as 12 million illegal aliens were residing in the United States, with thousands more pouring in daily. However, recent—and more carefully compiled—estimates have put the number of such unlawful residents at about four million . . . and indicate that the flow—the actual volume of which remains undetermined—is heavy in both directions.

Most illegals apparently come to this country for temporary work, sending the money to families left behind. They move back and forth across the border, working here and returning home frequently to see their kin. The underlying causes of the migration are the poverty and lack of jobs in Mexico (roughly half of that nation's work force is unemployed or grossly underemployed) and the availability of work at high pay (by Mexican standards) in the United States.

A Danger to Human Rights

People who are strongly opposed to Mexican immigration claim that illegals are taking jobs away from American workers and that they are a huge burden on our welfare system. But our studies, as well as those of other students of the problem, indicate that neither of these claims has much basis in fact. Still, although the nature and size of this unauthorized influx have been distorted and vastly overblown, a real problem does exist.

One central issue is that of human rights. People who come to this country illicitly are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Because they fear exposure, illegals can't protest when an employer fails to pay them or when someone robs or cheats them. They rarely apply for welfare or unemployment benefits—even though they have often earned them—for the same reason.

Furthermore, when they cross the border into the U.S., many migrants are preyed upon by border bandits. Robbery is almost usual . . . and rape and murder aren't rare. Not uncommonly, the very smuggler who was hired to bring the men and women into the U.S. will rob and abandon his charges.

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