Two more environmental activists.
Salina Canizales
Hey, look, more environmental activists.

Philip Radford of Greenpeace and Bill McKibben of 350.org recently joined the growing crowd of people calling for comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship.

I see their leadership on this issue as a promising step. As I explained in Grist three years ago, there are many good reasons for environmentalists to be pro–immigrant rights. Yet it can still take courage for environmental leaders to talk about the important intersections between the green movement and the immigrant-rights movement.

As Radford points out, workers need stable immigration status to better fight pollution and hold politicians accountable: “Current immigration policy forces vulnerable communities to keep silent about corporate pollution for fear of having their lives and families torn apart,” he writes. In my work with Service Employees International Union, I hear of migrant agricultural workers in Washington state who, due to cuts to child-care programs, have to take their children to the fields with them. The children are then exposed to high levels of pesticides, but their parents, because of their shaky immigration status, have little recourse to push for safer farming practices or organize for better child-care programs.

Being under constant threat of deportation, or having to wait anywhere from 15 to 30 years to bring family members to the U.S., undermines an immigrant’s ability to put down roots and engage on environmental issues. This has to change. With the challenges we face, we need to ensure that everyone can join together to push for a healthier, greener, and more sustainable world. And as McKibben points out, Latino immigrants in particular tend to be more concerned about climate change than other Americans and more likely to believe we have a moral responsibility to care for the environment.

So it makes great sense for environmentalists to support a path to citizenship. But it’s not enough. We must go deeper.

People of color make up a fast-growing proportion of the American electorate, a fact that changes our political landscape and underscores the long-standing need to broaden the mainstream environmental movement. Right now the leaders and members of most national environmental organizations do not reflect the changing demographics of our country. Latinos, Asians, other immigrants, and non-immigrant communities of color are largely left out of mainstream environmental discussions. Though there are environmental-justice and green-jobs organizations that make racial equity a core value in their work, big green groups have historically undervalued diversity and inclusiveness.

The environmental movement has to start looking out for the health and well-being of all communities, regardless of race or immigration status. We must engage, educate, and organize communities that mainstream environmentalists have too long ignored. And we need to embrace environmental justice by paying attention to the racial and income impacts of environmental decisions.

Consider the threat posed by coal trains to communities in the Northwest where many residents have only limited proficiency in English. We need to make sure they find out about the dangers coal dust could pose to their families and have the opportunity to join campaigns to fight coal exports.

And let’s not forget about the people who will have to leave their homes and even their countries as the worst effects of global warming become reality. These future “climate refugees” need advocates now in conversations about immigration and the environment.

But we don’t just need to add diverse faces to the crowds at environmental protests. We need inclusive strategies and a diversity of ideas. Communities of color must be equitable partners in identifying problems, crafting solutions, and pushing for change. “Without equity you get diversity lite, where lots of people can come to the party but only a few — of the same kind — can change the music,” says Rinku Sen, executive director of the Applied Research Center, a racial-justice group.

We will have to employ many different approaches as we work to build an inclusive environmental movement. Reconsidering how we engage on current issues is one. Another would be for green groups to work directly with immigrant-justice organizations on immigration reform. Strategic partnerships of this kind could have long-term benefits for both camps. Environmental organizations are a powerful force for grass-tops lobbying, fundraising, and strategic political thinking. Immigration groups and communities of color have a deep understanding of movement building, multicultural and multilingual organizing, shifting power, and large-scale activism. The power of each of these movements alone is substantial; combined, we could be an unstoppable force for change in our country.

Even after we win common-sense immigration reform, there will be years of work ahead of us to integrate 11 million people who will have a path to citizenship, as well as the future flow of immigrants. Green groups and immigrant-justice organizations should partner to ensure that integration efforts include education and organizing on a variety of environmental issues: standing up to corporate polluters, holding elected leaders accountable, learning about water and air quality, advocating for urban parks, and engaging in a clean energy economy, to name a few.

Simultaneously, we must educate and organize current members of the environmental movement to understand the connections between racial equity and core environmental issues. What’s the impact of pesticide use on migrant workers who are such a key part of our food system? What are the racial-equity effects of mass-transit decisions? How can we better communicate and engage a multicultural, multilingual base on environmental issues? How can we ensure that aspiring Americans, Native Americans, and black community members are part of the conversation about climate solutions?

Immigration reform will happen with or without the environmental community’s support. I urge environmental leaders to be part of this huge moment in history and reshape our vision into one that builds leadership with and for communities of color and shifts power from a few to many. To preserve the health of our natural spaces, tackle global warming, ensure clean air and water, and address future challenges, we must develop a movement whose members, leaders, and values reflect those of our changing country.

So let’s get to work on building the 21st century’s strongest movement yet — an inclusive, equitable, multiethnic environmental movement with justice for all. It will lay the groundwork for new campaigns and victories that we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

Editor’s note: Bill McKibben is a member of Grist’s board of directors.