Group says California immigration policies contributed to drought

A Santa Barbara-based advocacy group says immigration is to blame for California's historic drought by contributing to population growth. Above, the receded shoreline of Lake Oroville.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

In a television commercial that has aired across the state, a young boy asks: “If Californians are having fewer children, why isn’t there enough water?”

The ad is part of a wider media campaign blaming California’s historic drought on the state’s large number of immigrants. The group that paid for it, Californians for Population Stabilization, has long called for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, arguing that the state’s natural resources cannot sustain high levels of population growth.

The group has used the recent spotlight on California’s dwindling water reserves to try to gain support for its many favored causes, which include ending the right to citizenship for every child born on U.S. soil and opposing state efforts to give immigrants in the country illegally access to Medicaid.


This month, CAPS asked its 128,000 Facebook followers to “‘Like’ if you agree California’s drought could have been prevented with responsible immigration policies and limited population growth.”

Last month New Jersey Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine said analysts were overlooking the root causes of the drought — that while immigrants to California “may be nice people … they’re competing for water resources.”

In an article in the National Review, Stanford academic Victor Davis Hanson argued that while California’s current dry spell is not novel, “What is new is that the state has never had 40 million residents during a drought — well over 10 million more than during the last dry spell in the early 1990s.”

Hanson and others point to the recent pattern of population growth in California, where census data show that 1 in 4 residents was born outside the country.

As domestic immigration into California has slowed in recent decades, with more American-born citizens leaving the state than moving in, foreign immigration has continued, albeit at slower rates than in previous decades.

The state continues to add about 3 million to 4 million people each decade, census data show. A large percentage of them are immigrants or their children.


“Essentially all of California’s rapid population growth has been due to people from other countries and the children of immigrants,” said Ben Zuckerman, an astrophysics professor at UCLA who sits on the board of CAPS. “The larger the population of California, the more difficult it will be to deal with the effects of the drought.”

Some drought experts have taken issue with such claims, pointing out that the majority of the state’s water supports agriculture.

Blaming the drought on immigrants “doesn’t fit the facts,” said William Patzert, a climatologist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The drought is caused by meager snowpack and poor planning, he said, “not because the immigrants are drinking too much water or taking too many showers.”

Others point out that many immigrants probably use less water than the average California resident because they tend to live in multi-family dwellings, not higher-consuming single-family homes.

“It’s unlikely that the ‘burden’ of immigrants is very significant,” said Stephanie Pincetl, professor in residence at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.

She said Californians would be better served by tearing up their lawns than expelling immigrants who contribute to the economy. “Do we want to have economic decline?” Pincetl said. “Do we not want to have agriculture? Do we want to not have housekeepers?”


Groups such as CAPS say recent conservation efforts, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandate of a 25% reduction in urban water usage, are shortsighted and hypocritical, especially given recent immigrant-friendly measures backed by Brown and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“You can’t have that proclamation at the same time you’re inviting everybody from everywhere to come here,” said Jo Wideman, executive director of CAPS.

Her group fought efforts to create special California driver’s licenses for immigrants in the country illegally as well as state legislation that limits when local law enforcement can collaborate with federal immigration authorities.

It also opposes increases in the levels of legal immigration, waging media campaigns against federal attempts to raise the number of available work visas.

At a time when California’s anti-illegal immigration movement has lost much of the momentum it had two decades ago, when voters passed Proposition 187, a ballot measure intended to deny taxpayer-funded services to those in the country illegally, CAPS is often one of the few voices of opposition when pro-immigrant measures are being considered in the state.

The walls of its Santa Barbara headquarters are hung with framed copies of print advertisements it has published in newspapers across the country, including in The Times.


One targets Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who coauthored a bipartisan bill that would have paved a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Another shows a dripping spigot and text that reads: “Every newcomer to California adds 140 gallons of water demand per day.”

The group, whose motto is “save some California for tomorrow,” was founded in 1986 by conservationists who felt that mainstream environmental groups weren’t advocating enough for population controls.

One of its major funders is the Colcom Foundation, started by Cordelia Scaife May, an environmentalist who backed birth control efforts and wanted to curb legal and illegal immigration.

The group has periodically found itself at the center of controversy, including in 2013, when a member of its board of directors, Marilyn Brant Chandler DeYoung, warned about the children of immigrants.

“A baby can join a gang and then commit a crime. A baby can drop out of school and become a criminal. A baby grows up,” she said in a videotaped interview with Cuentame, a Latino advocacy group.

Immigrant advocates say population control arguments are racist and neglect California’s immigrant past. “It’s too soaked with irony for the colonizers to be making this argument,” said Chris Newman, an attorney with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network.


Wideman insists her group is not bigoted. “We’re innocent on that charge,” Wideman said. “It’s not about who, it’s about how many.”

She said she hopes the drought is a wake-up call about how many people the state can support.

“As the drought gets worse, we think people will begin to think more about overpopulation,” she said.

Twitter: @katelinthicum