A Green Case for Immigration Reform?


By Jose Gonzalez, NewsTaco

Immigration is THE topic for most Latino communities right now and it has the right political buzz in the wake of the 2012 elections. As part of the process are the different ways that groups and coalitions are forming to negotiate this opportunity to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality this year.

Also in that process are all the pro and con arguments for comprehensive reform, ranging from a basic point of social justice, to health, to the economics of it, and so forth.

So in this mix, can an environmental case be made for immigration reform?

Well, if you missed it, recently there were two key opinion pieces from two different environmental leaders calling for immigration reform and a path to citizenship. Both pieces elicited a variety of responses, which I would generalize from a general “you’re missing some key points”, to a “right on brother.”

But it does make it a good question to ask: is there an environmental case for immigration reform? And if so, how does it make sense to frame it, and by whom?

The first piece was in the LA Times by Bill McKibben, a well-known progressive environmental figure, especially in the area of climate change. Most recently, he has been the lead figure for 350.org and the battle over the Keystone XL Pipeline.

In a nutshell, McKibben argued that it was time for the environmental community to embrace immigration reform. His piece elicited a stronger negative response from a variety of Latinos, the “you’re missing a point, or don’t get it” response. The title of the piece “Immigration Reform—for the Climate” may be indicative of the framing that many saw as condescending, misguided, missing the point, or  worst of all, downright racist. Part of the issue was that it was seen as using the call for immigration reform as a self-serving way to move the climate change agenda.

To give credit to McKibben, he acknowledges that many environmentalists have had difficulty with Latino and immigrant communities when framing the issue of population—essentially framing immigrants as a problem that leads to more disparate effects on the environment. Most memorable in that history were the troubles the Sierra Club had as it struggled with the issue of population control, and a potential board takeover that hinted of nativist themes framing migrants as the bad guys.

But a missing point is that in tying increased population patterns as directly correlated with immigration, we can miss the point that a greater threat is to not critically examine our consumption patterns, immigrant or not.

Caroline Selle, from We Are Power Shift, offers a good deconstruction McKibben’s piece and further outlines some general problems with it. She sums it up as such:

“That argument makes me very, very uncomfortable. First, it has echoes of the ‘noble savage.’ Second, McKibben lumps all immigrants into one giant group. Third, he glosses over the responsibility we over-consumers have for creating the problems that spur mass immigration in the first place. And, finally, he skims past the barriers to entry immigrants face when trying to make their voices heard. Immigrants often don’t have a voice in the public sphere, but that’s often not for lack of want or trying.”

To further add, Selle notes that it ignores some history and deeper systemic issues, again focusing on the reasons as to why people need to migrate in the ways they do now.

A fair point to note, and question to ask, of the McKibben piece is who is the audience? Or what specific purpose does it seem to serve?

The piece reads more of a “conversion” piece, where he acknowledges how he is changing on the issue. If we read it with that perspective, two things come to mind. The audiences are himself and those in similar places. Second, the purpose comes across as a way to serve the climate change audience more so than the immigrant community.  This does not necessarily excuse how the overall message comes across, but at least it provides more of an understanding of where he is coming from.

Part of the problem is that to several readers, the piece read a bit clunky, like “it’s ok, Latinos are not that bad, and we can use their political clout for the change we want.”

Mind you, I too have called on Latinos to use their demographic and political clout for conservation and environmental issues. But I think part of the key difference is that you can say it so that it is an empowering statement or you can say it so that it sounds too self-serving or missing key background context on immigration.

Nonetheless, I trust Bill McKibben as he takes this risk. In fact, in the comments section of Selle’s story, he admits to needing to “learn his way forward”,  and acknowledges that his audience was those resisting immigration reform—and that I would  also surmise are ones who care about the environment but may not necessarily see a sound connection with immigration reform.

The second opinion piece was over on the Huffington Post. Philip Radford, Executive Director of Greenpeace had a very direct call for a path for citizenship. But in his piece, he did not explicitly call for immigration reform as a way to help with climate change. Rather, it was more a call of unity. As he noted:

“Every society is judged by how well it embodies its highest aspirations and how it treats its most vulnerable people. It’s not who we are as a society to create a separate class of people and force them to risk exposure to dangerous pollution or toxic pesticides simply because our immigration policies lag behind reality… Only a roadmap to full citizenship will enable all of us, including aspiring Americans, to achieve the safety, sustainability, and dignity that everyone in America deserves.”

Again, asking who the audience is and what is the purpose, this piece read clearer in terms of addressing the same environmental/conservation demographic and that it was a call for working together as a social justice issue. He was not saying that immigration reform was good for the environment. It read more of a “we’re with you”.

Having said that, there would still be many points to bring out that if mainstream environmental organizations are “with us”, then why does it not seem reflected in the movement? Why are there are so many stories about how the environmental justice movement has been wary of some of the work of mainstream environmental organizations?

But that is not to detract from exploring the connections between immigration and the environment. The connections are not new and there are genuine and valid areas to explore between the two issues. You can read some exploration of the issue, connections and conflict, in this piece by Jorge Madrid: From a Green Farce to a Green Future. And the Sierra Club too has attempted to tangentially explore the issue via interviews in its magazine articles.

But if we come back to the question of making an environmental case for immigration reform, I would argue these questions would be useful to keep in mind:

  • Who is the audience? How might other audiences respond and does it matter?
  • What is the purpose and what is your intent? Can it be misread?
  • Has genuine outreach efforts been made to partners on the other issue? Are they with you? Does it matter?
  • Do you understand the messages of the other issue or the “other side”? Are you missing something?
  • Are you touching on the core issues? What may be missing and how important is it to partners on the other side?
  • Are there ways to frame the issues in constructive ways?

Others may have more to add or disagree. People may also come up with different answers along with different questions. But to continue that dialogue, here is a closing thought that may help:

Latinos can and should wield their growing demographic and political weight for conservation issues and especially climate change. Pressing right now is immigration reform, which has had many vitriolic politicized moments. So allies are needed and there are valid connections with conservation organizations for mutual cooperation, but a cooperation that is complementary, not coming across as possessive. For years, this has been a genuine concern by environmental justice organizations,  that cooperation is not balanced and issues are “possessed” in unhealthy balances that lead to “feeling used” or neglected. As a leader of an environmental justice organization once told me. “We’ll work together, we’re here. But we will speak with our own voice and they need to be careful they are not speaking for us or at us. If they are going to do that, then it’s just another way of continuing to exclude us.”

With that in mind, there is the opportunity to, as McKibben said, learn forward. And we can learn forward together, from each other, with each other.

[Photo by CBP Photography]

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