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The Green Economy and a Path to Citizenship

+David Foster is the founding executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a national partnership of labor unions and environmental organizations dedicated to expanding the number and quality of jobs in the clean economy.

President Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion that “far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing” rings as true today as it did a century ago. While that pursuit is something that unites us all, in today’s world many people never have a chance to work, much less to have “work worth doing.” For more than 200 years, our immigrant nation and our American Dream have inspired the world to believe that both were possible. And it’s why today, as environmentalists, we need to support an equitable path to citizenship.

The rise of immigration is not solely a US phenomenon. Globally, immigration between countries and within countries has increased dramatically as a result of a variety of factors. However, two important ones are economic desperation and climate-related disasters. The two are mutually reinforcing. As far back as 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast that the greatest effect of climate change on human society would be forced migration. In the mid-1990s the International Red Cross estimated that there were already 25 million environmental refugees. Today the IPCC estimates there will be as many as 200 million climate refugees by 2050.

In the case of the US, droughts in sub-Saharan Africa and the resulting conflicts over land and water brought thousands of Somalis to Maine and Minnesota. In the 1990s, monocrop agriculture pushed by US agribusiness drove Mexican and Central American farmers off their land, leading to a northward exodus to the US. While the causes are always complex and multifaceted, climate change is an amplifying factor. For the environmental movement to turn a blind eye to those whose lives have been uprooted by climate change would be both tragic and a missed opportunity to change the politics of climate change.

Almost everyone would agree that America’s immigration system is broken. Approximately 11 million people live in the US without the rights citizenship affords. The hope of a job with better opportunities is what brings people to leave everything they know for a new life – “the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

But the system as it exists too often allows unscrupulous employers to violate minimum wage and overtime laws, and to force undocumented immigrants to work in dangerous working conditions. Every year, thousands of undocumented immigrants are injured or killed on the job due to unsafe working conditions. In contrast, those with citizenship and union members whose working conditions are protected are less likely to suffer injury on the job.

In addition, undocumented immigrant communities are more likely than other populations to bear the brunt of the effects of severe weather associated with climate change. Take, for example, two of the most destructive hurricanes in recent memory – Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. While non-citizens are eligible for disaster relief if they have the proper documentation and verification, undocumented immigrants affected by Hurricane Sandy were left out of federal relief efforts. The Mexican Consulate in Manhattan has estimated that at least 380 of its citizens in New York and New Jersey suffered losses because of Sandy. Without insurance and without a Social Security number, immigrants suffer in silence, rebuilding on their own rather than risking deportation. The environmental movement has a responsibility to give voice to those who bear the heaviest load of severe climate events.

Beyond severe weather disasters, undocumented immigrants are also disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards where they live and work. Farmworkers, most of whom are undocumented, are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides on fruits and vegetables. A 2007 study of the San Francisco Bay Area found that immigrants are nearly twice as likely to live within one mile of a pollution facility.

It would be an oversight to debate immigration reform without acknowledging the contributions of immigrant communities. The reality is that our economy needs immigrants. Our nation’s competitiveness has historically relied on the hard work and rich perspectives of immigrants. America’s factories, cities, and scientific know-how have benefited from their contributions. Where would we be without, for example, Albert Einstein who was granted citizenship in 1940, or lesser known inventor Elihu Thompson, who is credited in part with the formation of General Electric? Immigrants are 40 percent more likely to start businesses than native-born Americans.

small excerpt of a poll pageReader OpinionWhat do you think: Will immigration reform help or hurt the environment?
Vote and be counted.

Some environmental opponents of immigration reform believe that encouraging immigration reinforces overconsumption of resources and energy in the US. But restricting immigration simply tries to check environmental problems at the border. Disenfranchising those who, in many cases, are climate refugees is indefensible. As the effects of increasingly severe weather events unfold, who can be in favor of denying the core human rights of up to 200 million climate refugees?

In the US, this disenfranchisement alienates a key constituency – the broader immigrant community – from supporting comprehensive climate action. Polling shows that some of the strongest support for environmental reform is among immigrant communities. Standing up for an equitable path to citizenship for our country’s 11 million undocumented workers is morally right and, politically, an essential part of the strategy to win comprehensive climate legislation.

Immigration reform itself is “work worth doing.” I would challenge my environmental colleagues to join with me in pushing for an equitable path to citizenship.

For an opposing view, read what Dave Foreman has to say.


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You speak of denying the core human rights of up to 200 million climate refugees? Are you aware of the fact that 80 million new souls per year are added to the planet? Given your arguments, America should open its borders to each and every one of them. But, in the unlikely event that’s not what you’re asserting, please advise how many and under what circumstances, and which individuals will qualify? Who will choose? You?

Environmental damage associated with mass migration across our public lands is enormous and costly.

The following are just some of the impacts:

DEFORESTATION: the permanent destruction of forests in order to make the land available for other uses results in an estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest lost each year. Significant deforestation is occurring in Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, Africa, and parts of Eastern Europe. Roughly half of the world’s tropical forests have been cleared to make more land available for urbanization, cattle ranching, large scale agriculture and logging, half used for firewood. The effects of deforestation impacts: Loss of Species; Carbon Emissions; Water Cycles; Soil Erosion; and of course Life Quality, to name a few. Over half the logging of tropical forests is illegal, yet it continues. Who thinks that will stop at our borders?

TRASH: from illegal migration on public lands is becoming a festering open environmental blight. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Undocumented Waste Management Project has well documented evidence of the 96million to 160 million pounds (48,000 tons to 80,000 tons) of trash accumulating and decomposing (or not) in the environmentally sensitive areas along the border and beyond; and demonstrates just how seriously this environmental catastrophe is affecting human health, environmental quality and economic well-being.

WILD FIRES: caused by illegal migrants consumes public lands, destroys private property and takes the lives of people, pets and wildlife. The Border Agency Fire Council, formed in 1996 as a joint effort of 38 US and Mexican agencies is tasked with the responsibility of preventing, mitigating and controlling wild fires in this part of the US. Other State and Federal Agencies conduct other efforts to manage wildfires. In San Diego County alone during the period1996 to 2007 there were 6,561 fires caused by illegal immigrants, which developed into 247 wildfires and destroyed more than 1 million acres of land and thousands of homes and structures. In just one year, 2007, the total cost of these wildfires was nearly half a billion dollars.

By Brandon Ebeling on Sun, June 08, 2014 at 3:47 pm

My name is Brandon Ebeling. I grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and after service in the Navy earned a degree in forest management/production. I have directly worked alongside illegal immigrants planting trees in the rough terrain of Northern California’s coastal redwood forests. A past time for the past couple decades has been native plant rehabilitation on slopes overlooking the San Luis Rey watershed. I have been a consultant in Talent Acquisition and Human Capital Management. As such, I have an interest in the impacts of transnational migration on U.S. domestic labor demand, supply and trends.

That said, regarding your comment on Albert Einstein. This true genius didn’t just walk across the border. He truly met the definition of “Best and Brightest.” Had there been an H-1B program, he exemplified the intent of this program; hardly entry level. His emigration to America was no arbitrary act.

By Brandon Ebeling on Sun, June 08, 2014 at 9:01 am

If Foster is going to quote Teddy Roosevelt, he should perhaps mention that Roosevelt often lent his voice to the cause of immigration-reduction. Yes, we’ve been through this before, after the American people—fed up with industry,Robber Barons and government flooding the labor market and cities with too high immigration—demanded it be reduced from about one million a year to about 200,000 a year.  During the depression it was UNDER 10,000, but our leaders then grasped that perhaps in a slow economy you shouldn’t import more labor.
Reforms, incidentally that between 1918 and 1965, when Congress played into the hands of Big Business again, set into play an era of the most stunning advancement of labor in the history of the world.  Today, legal along exceed 700,000, and with illegal tops well over a million, part of why the economy stagnates and the American middle class decreases, we must create upwards of 75,000 jobs a month just to employ new immigrant arrivals.

But, more to the point, sorry Mr. Foster, I don’t want my children and grandchildren living in a United States of a China-like ONE BILLION people, exactly where we’re headed if the immigration-driven growth of the last few decades isn’t returned, quickly, to sane levels.  And since when is it our job to kiss it and make it okay for those who have created their own hardship by breaking our laws?

By Kathleene Parker on Mon, September 16, 2013 at 12:58 pm

One of the finest statements of reckless utopianism I’ve seen in a while.

Foster says it all in these lines:  “But restricting immigration simply tries to check environmental problems at the border. Disenfranchising those who, in many cases, are climate refugees is indefensible. As the effects of increasingly severe weather events unfold, who can be in favor of denying the core human rights of up to 200 million climate refugees?”

And how about 300 million refugees from civil wars, and 400 million from religious persecution, and 1 billion from corrupt governments? Surely you’re not going to discriminate, Mr. Foster? Have you no understanding of “core human rights”?!!!

By Stuart Hurlbert on Mon, September 09, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Well, I sympathize with David Foster, when you feel obligated to take on a point of view that is devoid of merit, it is pretty hard to come up with any supporting arguments that are not utterly absurd.

By lance sjogren on Mon, September 09, 2013 at 10:23 am

I am sorry,but this article is simply a bunch of nonsense statements. First off, if a person is not a citizen they aren’t entitled to vote or in your words be enfranchised I guess that you feel that any person on Earth has the right to enter and live in the US. That is simply absurd and since there are billions who would like to emigrate here,it is clearly impossible. Those who spit on us and our rights and laws, deserve nothing.

I was for the first amnesty in 1986 because the numbers of illegals entering was about 40,000/yr. That was not good, but not so bad as to require spending billions for border security. The latest flood has gone to over 500,00/yr which is an order of magnitude that is beyond our capacity to accommodate with jobs, or living space. To ratify this flood will be a disaster.

It is also wrong to say that immigrants are all equal. Legal immigrants are a welcome addition, illegals who start by spitting on our laws and traditions, and our rights, are not welcome any more than a burglar is welcome in your home.

By Randy Erb on Sun, September 08, 2013 at 7:21 pm

First and absolutely formost,that if the laws promised and were to be inforced had been done instead of the lax enforcement and constant opening more doors to promote and encourage more and more invasion of our country by the very government sworn to protect us from this,we would not be having this debate to, in actuality open our boaders. We allready acceptmore more LEGAL imigrants into our country than all countries combined!This push to keep putting the burden of even more freeloading,ever more demanding malcontents is for the sole purpose of our polititions, NOT in any way for the American citizens that are continually paying for their folly!

By Gordon Doege on Sun, September 08, 2013 at 5:49 pm

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