Photo by CPB Photography (Flickr)

Photo by CPB Photography (Flickr)

Continuing the Green Case for Immigration Reform

In case you missed it, the Sierra Club came out in support of comprehensive reform—and more explicitly, a path to citizenship.

This keeps the debate alive, and the “green bandwagon” going for immigration reform as we continue with working out the details of what “comprehensive” immigration reform will look like—as well as the reasons to make this happen. The Senate “Gang of 8” unveiled their proposal already and as of this writing we will see what the House may propose.

It was bold of the Sierra Club to take this public step on immigration, following initial outings by Bill McKibben from 350.org and Phil Radford from Green Peace. It was also bold because the Sierra Club is a mainstream environmental organization—and the nation’s oldest.

Not surprising, in making this statement,  it also opened itself to attacks—but this also presents the opportunity to keep exploring the “green case” for immigration reform, the issues connecting the two, and whether more environmental organizations should come out in support.

In responses to the Sierra Club’s statement on Huffington Post, one sees comments such as :

“I guess the Sierra Club hasn’t consulted with the BLM about the total destruction of our national parks and monuments in the Sonoran Desert along the US/Mexico border that is being caused be illegal migration.”

“Ahhhh someone with their thinking cap on. Yes, no issue and nothing else are as vital to Earth and mankind as Zero Population Growth. As we can only act locally, why do we want to add more and more human hordes to our society? Don’t we already have too many folks, too many problems and our ecosystems are going, going, going.”

“Read somewhere one of the club’s leaders invested heavily in big solar. More and more humans, ‘destroying it through population growth.’”

“I just wrote to the Sierra Club and cancelled my membership. I am not anti-immigrant in the least, but I do believe in controlling the population that moves into environmentally overtaxed regions, regardless of where they come from or who they are, and evidently the Sierra Club no longer thinks protecting wild lands from too many people is important.”

“This is why I chose to not join the Sierra Club. Just because someone is for clean energy and against fossil fuels doesn’t mean they are for the environment. What about the doubling of the population due to all of this unchecked immigration? What about the loss of arable land needed to house these new immigrants? What about the severe water shortage that’s predicted for the west in about 60 years due to all of these new immigrants? What about the trees that will have to be cut down to build houses? The extra pollution that comes from doubling your population? This is ridiculous and I can’t believe the Sierra Club has lost their way in such a stunning manner to actually think this is good for the environment.”

The list could go on, many recalling a past nativist frame or with some attempted disguise of “common sense”.

But this sampling does point out two to three arguments that reasonable people can explore and discuss, so long as they are open to some nuance and an understanding that people are not just problems but also powerful tools for solutions.

Here are some common threads of argument, with some considerations to “chew on”:

  • Immigrants are destroying our public lands through border crossings
  • Immigration is increasing our population which puts further stresses on our environment
  • Immigrants are an addition to the problem, not part of the solution

For further consideration I offer these thoughts and responses.

Immigrants are destroying our public lands. At a time when agencies like the National Park Service know and want to increase diversity and Latino outreach, it is a mistake to assume that immigration or “immigrants” in general equate deteriorating public lands. Yes, there ARE issues of litter and habitat disturbance with border crossings. I wrote some reflections on that in this column. But at the same time, consider issues like this as causes of broader policies and with other actors. Migrants crossing the border do not simply choose a potentially deadly desert trek with the intent of littering. It is a decision done in the context of drug and economic policies between the US and Mexico—where people get caught in the middle and are easier to blame, as opposed to digging deeper into what these policies do. Read Aura Bogado’s piece for a little more digging. We want keep borders open for economic policies, but not people.

In addition, if individuals or organizations want to look at habitat destruction, a bigger issue may be how proponents for border walls and enforcement routinely seek exemptions from environmental regulations.

Immigration is a population problem. Well, yes, the population is increasing and we are taxing our ecosystems—worldwide. Though it is easy to assume that more people equate more of a problem, there is also the issue of the impact each person has. Many parts of the world do not “live like Americans” where we have a disparate environmental impact through our lifestyle, not just our population figures. Also, addressing an immigration system is not the same as saying that “11 million new people will just appear”.  They are already here, and we have the opportunity to engage them (us) in a meaningful constructive way that will help deal with our environmental and conservation concerns.

Immigrants are an addition to the problem, not part of the solution. This relates to the second point but it is broader. If as a default one sees recent and established immigrants as “part of the problem”, without considering the opportunities they present for solutions—then we are not really having a progressive discussion and will only really focus on shouting talking points. Poll after poll shows a broad and focused range of support among Latinos for conservation and environmental issues. A recent poll by Voces Verdes and Latino Decisions shows high Latino support for action on air pollution and climate change.

Most of these polls focus on Latino voters (out of necessity) but the opportunity is there to engage would be and potential voters. What if environmental/conservation organizations worked with voter registration efforts? What if they worked with citizenship drives? If you want to engage with the Latino community, you have to put in the long-term effort, not just come calling by campaigns.

Another point is that in the broad spectrum of Latinos there are conservation ethics that have been there for generations. Whether it is a cultural connection to mother Earth Pachamama, habits of reduce-reduce-recycle, or historical traditions of working the land, there is much that Latino communities bring to the table to inform an “American” conservation ethic. As Van Jones put it if you are not engaging diverse communities, “You’re leaving out too many good ideas.” Basically, we cannot allow potential solutions to be off the table because of misunderstandings, biases, or simply non-engagement.

So—what to do? It brings us back to the question: does comprehensive immigration reform make sense from an environmental/conservation stand and should other organizations join in?

It may be that you can pick your reason. An environmental/conservation organization may want to join in for the quest to diversify the movement and grow the support base, politically and economically. One may join as a basic question of social and economic justice. Another may want to join in because based on their experience they know that Latino communities are not “new” to conservation ethics, can deliver successes, and have long historical traditions of conservation work in the US.

But regardless the reason, the outcome is still one in which conservation and environmental organizations can play a positive role in this process—even if they risk some ire and a share of piercing comments.

Diversity is strength in the natural world—that can be reflected in our social efforts as well.


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