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Connecting the dots: what do immigration rights have to do with the environmental movement?


Published on

02 - 08 - 2017

poster with a construction crane displaying an image of a white bird with a peace sign hanging from their talons. A the bottom of the poster it reads, "Our brand is justice. We are migrants. We are human. We are home."

Art featured above by Ernesto Yerena Montejano

Grab some snacks. This is a longer than a usual blog post, but we think all of it matters.

Last July, we wrote a blog post connecting Black Lives Matter to the environmental movement. In our second installment of the Connecting the Dots series, we are connecting issues of immigration and refugees to the environmental movement. In case you haven’t been keeping up with the news, President Trump has issued a flurry of troubling executive orders, including three that relate to immigration and refugees. If you need to catch up, the executive order summaries are here:

In the wake of these orders we have noticed an outcry from many environmental, conservation, and outdoor organizations. Though this has been heartening, we’ve also noticed that few have acknowledged how environmentalism and conservation can actually be complicit in the anti-immigration narrative.

If you don’t think immigration rights are related to your work in conservation, outdoor and environmental education, or environmental advocacy, read on for some ways to connect the dots:

PART 1: History

Anti-immigration sentiments show up early in the history of environmentalism. One of catalysts for America’s love of natural spaces was the See America First campaign, which urged Americans to travel West by the new railroad lines to partake in the natural beauty of the West. What is not talked about in this history is that the railroads were built on the backs of Chinese immigrant laborers, who were paid only two thirds what their White counterparts were paid, and who soon thereafter were banned by executive order from staying in the United States or entering in to the United States. (Interestingly it was this executive order and ensuing litigation that established the President’s plenary power to enforce immigration bans like the bans issued last week).

As modern American environmental movement gained steam in the 1960s, its narrative was partially fueled by the fear of increasing populations and finite resources. The publishing of Elrich’s Population Bomb and Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons popularized the notions that our nation was in dire straits due to an increasing population and our inability to sustainably share natural resources, respectively. Elrich and Hardin’s ideas firmly planted anti-immigration views in the environmental narrative with the theory that more immigrants meant more people in our beautiful, yet finite and delicate natural spaces. This fear, coupled with racist attitudes (particularly toward Latin Americans), made immigrants of color a perceived enemy to environmental causes. In his 1988 essay “Immigration and Liberal Taboos,” environmental icon Edward Abbey galvanizes this theory by arguing that immigration (specifically from the south) will result in a takeover of the U.S. by “millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people” who have an “alien mode of life” that will undermine American culture and values.

The logic that more people (and specifically people of color) equals more environmental degradation is also deeply flawed in that it fails to consider the complexity of human relationships to land and water. We need to remember that lack of environmental protection policy, consumerism, and the commodification of natural resources are at the root of environmental degradation. Indeed, the hyper-focus on immigration as an environmental issue says more about our racial politics than our concern for the environment.

Moreover, we’d be remiss if we didn’t remind our readers that in the wake of several environmental crises, we are in desperate need for innovation and creativity. Abundant research indicates that a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences can actually result in increased innovation and more creative problem solving with respect to our environmental crises.  So, more people doesn’t equal worse environment. Rather, it equals more solutions to environmental problems.

PART 2: Current Sentiments

For those of you who think we’ve left this history behind us, think again. Troubling views about immigration remain in the environmental movement. For example, it was not until 2004 when the Sierra Club began to deeply examine and debate their long-standing stance connecting immigration to unsustainable population growth that would purportedly cause environmental degradation. And it was only 2013 when they finally explicitly disavowed its anti-immigration stance. Though we are impressed and grateful for the Sierra Club’s transparency around their immigration stance today, as well as their focus on equity and justice, anti-immigrant attitudes and actions persist in our sector. These sentiments manifest in many ways, such as:

  • The complaints by land management agencies that their parks (now visited increasingly by immigrant families) are being “loved to death.”
  • The way we decry trash left behind near the border as a threat to “pristine landscapes,” without understanding the complexity of immigration politics (or the complexity of “pristine landscapes,” for that matter).
  • The accusations that immigrants don’t have the same conservation ethics when it comes to trash and other human impact on nature (my colleague Aparna, who is South Asian American, was recently asked “why don’t Indians care about litter?”)
  • Our rhetoric. Have you ever noticed the correlation between our love of nature and the phrase, “naturalized citizen”? It conflates the purity of nature with U.S. citizenship.
  • The resistance to building public lands infrastructure that honors the ways different communities, including immigrant communities, connect to nature and the outdoors.
  • Modern environmental journalism that continues to highlight outdated theories from The Population Bomb and amplify the voices of so-called “population stabilization advocates” (i.e., anti-immigrant activists)—we were shocked to find this High Country News article from 2014.

PART 3: Impact

Of course these anti-immigration attitudes, actions, and policies continue to impact immigrants and refugees in the environmental world. We’ve listed just a few impacts here:

  • Indigenous tribes like the Blackfeet to the north and Tohono O’odham to the south were divided by political lines and then subjected to immigration policies that prevent them from traveling across their own lands (The Tohono O’odham are also the community that may be at the front lines of this wall and its resistance, given their unique location).
  • Public lands management processes inherently exclude the voices of immigrant stakeholders (either because they are not invited to the table or because the process is not culturally responsive, e.g., no translators provided).
  • The mainstream environmental movement continues to separate itself from environmental justice and climate justice. This means the movement rarely advocates for immigrants and refugees, who are disproportionately impacted by environmental and climate justice
  • Misinformation abounds about Latinos’ attitudes toward the environment. Though we fully understand that not all Latinos are immigrants, we hear that conflation often. And contrary to this belief, Latinos (immigrant or otherwise), do care about the environment.
  • Similarly, Muslims are not included in environmental conversations, although Green Muslims tells us that Muslims (immigrant and otherwise) care deeply about the environment and consider it an essential part of Islam.
  • Immigrants and their US born children make up 26% of the US population; failing to engage the immigrant population means leaving out a large constituency.

Now what?

Colleagues and partners, we urge you to own the unsavory history of our movement and resolve not to repeat it. Support your immigrant staff and constituents. Publicly speak out on the executive orders. Make the connection for yourself as to how your organization specifically can leverage your power to support for rights surrounding immigrants and refugees. And finally, identify ways you mission and environmental ethic supports, not disparages, immigrant rights.