Immigrant rights marchHow many enviros can you spot in this picture?Photo: Salina CanizalesI grew up in a family that sorted recyclables, reused containers until they were no longer reusable, and walked whenever and wherever we could. We turned off our lights and carefully monitored our energy consumption. We made sure that we didn’t leave the water running, and my sisters and I competed to take the shortest showers possible. Our travel often took us to nature preserves and national parks, where we learned about the importance of wildlife and conservation.

Sounds like a typical childhood for a kid in an environmentally conscious family, right?

It was typical — except that my parents spoke Tamil at home and had only just emigrated from India a few years before my oldest sister was born, while my friends and neighbors spoke English at home and had families that had lived in Spokane, Wash., for generations.

Mine was and continues to be a classic immigrant family, blending the best of the American dream with traditional values and beliefs from India. It never struck me as odd to be an immigrant and an environmentalist.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

So after I began working in the environmental community, I was disturbed to find that when friends and respected colleagues talked about immigration and the environment, it was often (albeit unintentionally) from an anti-immigrant perspective.

Much of this seems to stem from large anti-immigrant organizations “greenwashing” — using environmental messaging to cloak anti-immigrant sentiments. Publicly, the mainstream environmental community has largely remained silent on immigration issues (with the exception of a couple of contentious debates in 2004 and 2005 that sprang up around Sierra Club board elections). In this silence, anti-immigrant groups have co-opted the green messaging and started gaining public support from those who generally ascribe to environmental values. These groups suggest that limiting immigration would be a good way to slow the population growth of the U.S. — and without any prominent environmental voices countering them, they’ve had plenty of room to make the case that immigration is a main driver of environmental degradation.

While their argument might sound green at first, it is far from it. The argument blames individuals rather than focusing on the main causes of degradation — polluting industries, bad policies, and rampant consumption. Author Betsy Hartmann calls this “the greening of hate — blaming environmental degradation on poor populations of color.”

There are good reasons for environmentalists to be pro–immigrant rights:

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

First, people who are invested in and connected to their communities are more likely to value things that will impact them and their families over the long term: clean water, clean air, parks and open spaces. When our broken immigration system keeps families split apart for years — children without parents, spouses without partners — their lives are marked by impermanence and uncertainty. It’s hard to raise your children to be good environmental stewards when your family is always wondering if they will still be in the same place tomorrow. If we care about healthy environments, then we need to care about making sure that families stay together, investing themselves in their communities and building stable futures.  

Second, most environmental protections are funded by tax dollars, and immigrants contribute a lot of those dollars.  The 14 percent of U.S. residents who are foreign-born and the additional U.S. citizens who live in mixed-status families foster environmental protection every day, by paying their taxes and contributing to economic growth that generates still more tax revenue.

Third, the demographics of our country are changing. We have a president who is the son of an immigrant. In recent elections, the votes of new Americans have been tipping outcomes — electoral power that will only continue to grow. If the environmental movement were forward-thinking, we would be strategizing — like both the Republicans and Democrats — about how to court immigrant voters. For environmentalism to be relevant to the future voters of America, we need to proactively seek to diversify our movement and connect with new Americans who could support pro-environment candidates and sustainable policies.

Fourth, in the coming years, immigration pressures are likely to increase as climate change disproportionately affects people living in developing countries.  Environmentalists should help poorer nations adapt to the effects of climate change and work to develop compassionate immigration policies so those who must leave their homelands have a decent chance to rebuild their lives.  To be effective, we must build partnerships within immigrant communities now so that we can address this future challenge. If we turn our backs on immigration reform, we are not just enabling but creating a future in which climate refugees become one more forgotten byproduct of an unjust political, social, and environmental system.

Finally, our global challenges are big enough that we need everyone working together to solve them. Our movement should be about taking care of each other while taking care of the environment; we must act on these values and advocate for the rights of our immigrant friends and neighbors.

Immigration reform and climate change are both poised to get attention in Congress over the coming months. Is the environmental community going to engage in one debate and completely ignore the other? 

I believe we environmentalists must take action on immigration reform. If we truly want to build a long-term movement reflective of the entire United States, we need to understand that immigrants are an essential part of the future. Unless we recognize the changing demographics of the country, support immigrant integration that helps people build stable and connected lives, and take an active role in promoting a more just immigration system, the relevance of the environmental community — and our ability to affect real change — will never reach its full potential. 

I have three young nieces whose parents are raising them with strong environmental values. I hope when they are older, they won’t find a divide between being pro-immigrant and pro-environment. Instead, I hope they find an environmental movement that promotes equity and justice for all and embraces the pro-immigrant culture on which this country was built.