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Jan Lee headshot

Would Immigration Reform Help the Environment?

Words by Jan Lee

Environmentalists are the latest group to jump on the bandwagon for immigration reform. Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org and Philip Radford, executive director of Greenpeace both stepped forward last month to express their support for an overhaul of immigration legislation and a reasonable pathway to citizenship for the United States’ 11 million undocumented residents.

Their announcements were followed by a press release by the Sierra Club last week, stating that it also felt that undocumented residents “should be able to earn legalization and a timely pathway to citizenship, with all the rights to fully participate in our democracy, including influencing environmental and climate policies.”

McKibben’s editorial, which first appeared in the L.A. Times, boldly tackled the issue of population control by suggesting that there was merit in limiting conception to one child per American family, while Radford’s Huffington Post editorial addressed the human rights of immigrants, and the benefits that come to a society that stands behind them.  All workers, he said, deserve “the dignity and right to stand up to polluters in the workplace and at home without fear of being deported and taken from their families.”

Allison Chin, Sierra Club’s president, echoed Radford’s stance by suggesting that by creating a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, the country would be able to “empower those in our society who are most vulnerable to toxic pollution to fully participate in our democracy, fight back against polluters and demand public health protections and clean energy solutions.”

The endorsements from these three prominent advocacy groups have received a wide range of responses from readers and media pundits in the last few weeks. McKibben’s statements clearly made a number of readers uncomfortable. Caroline Selle, in Hyattsville, MD, lambasted McKibben for what she saw as the antiquated and narrow view of the “noble savage.”

“McKibben is focused on the present and future at the expense of the past, and he's reducing people down to numbers,” said Selle, because in her opinion, he sees immigration as a way to reduce the need for larger families in developing countries where poverty and disease can decimate a smaller family’s future.

“It's misleading and unfair to put the burden of solving the climate crisis on the shoulders of those who have already born the impacts of our lifestyles for generations.”

But the most intriguing comment came from Jose Gonzalez on Green Chicano,  who supported Selle’s comments, but bluntly added that “(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?"

He suggested that McKibben is actually directing his editorial to environmentalists, or those Gonzalez says are “in similar places” as McKibben; that is, those who are not members of the immigrant community and not undocumented residents.

While Gonzalez gave higher marks to Radford for his ability to add inclusiveness to his discussion, he asked his readers to consider an important question:

“(Then) why does this (multiculturalism) not seem reflected in the (environmental) movement?”

His question relates criticisms that have been levied at large environmental organizations that have failed to connect with minority groups. Some organizations, like Sierra Club, have admitted that expanding their multicultural membership base is a work in progress, and one that takes time to complete.

But from Gonzalez’s point of view, the real audience that the environmental lobby should be courting isn’t the environmentalists who may read editorials in the Thursday edition of the Times or the Post, but in the very communities they are talking about: the immigrants and the populations that make up the support network for those 11 million undocumented residents.

A family member of mine once made a perceptive observation about consensus: if you want to enlist the cooperation of the person you are concerned about, speak to her, not about her. And – make sure your points are relative to her perspective, not just yours.

What is missing in each of the environmental lobby’s editorials is the acknowledgement of accomplishments that are continually made by Latino ecologists and Latino small businesses in promoting and ensuring sustainable practices – both in the U.S. and in Latin America.

Some of these entrepreneurs have been written about in a previous post on Triple Pundit: Jason Aramburu, founder of Re-char, the collective members of We Can Do It!/Si Se Puede!  and Armando and Lilia Ocampo, restauranteurs and owners of Los Ocampo Restaurant in Minneapolis MN are just a few of the Latino entrepreneurs who have been acknowledged for incorporating sustainability measures it into their businesses models. Other posts we have written concerning entrepreneurs in Latin America, such as our story on María Rodriguez, founder of Byoearth in Guatemala, and another on Juan Rodriguez, CEO of Quetsol, also in Guatemala, suggest that the environment is already core concern for many Latino-owned businesses abroad as well.

It has probably occurred to members of North America's largest environmental organizations that a way to increase diversity in their membership is to stand behind movements that are important to potential members. Supporting immigration reform therefore benefits not only immigrants, their communities and businesses, but the environment as well. But let's not forget that potential membership comes with its own cultural - and historic - understandings of the environment and what it means to be good stewards of the world we live in.

As Gonzalez concluded when he quoted McKibben's modest acknowledgement that he was still "learning (his) way forward" in his effort to connect with others in this forum, success is often a matter of hearing and learning from each other, before attaining consensus.

"We can learn forward together, from each other, with each other."

Photo of child courtesy of Jordan Fischer.

Mosaic courtesy of Lucy Nieto/Angélica Violeta Vargas Mergold.


Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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