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.
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.
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