Supporting a Path to Citizenship is Key for Climate Action

Written by David Foster

President Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion that “far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing” rings as true today as it did a century ago. While that pursuit is something that unites U.S. all, in today’s world many people never have a chance to work, much less to have “work worth doing.” For more than 200 years, our immigrant nation and our American Dream have inspired the world to believe that both were possible. And it’s why today, as environmentalists, we need to support an equitable path to citizenship.

The rise of immigration is not solely a U.S. phenomenon. Globally, immigration between countries and within countries has increased dramatically as a result of a variety of factors. However, two important ones are economic desperation and climate-related disasters. The two are mutually reinforcing. As far back as 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast that the greatest effect of climate change on human society would be forced migration. In the mid-1990s the International Red Cross estimated that there were already 25 million environmental refugees. Today the IPCC estimates there will be as many as 200 million climate refugees by 2050.

In the case of the U.S., droughts in sub-Saharan Africa and the resulting conflicts over land and water brought thoU.S.ands of Somalis to Maine and Minnesota. In the 1990s, monocrop agriculture pushed by U.S. agribusiness drove Mexican and Central American farmers off their land, leading to a northward exodus to the U.S.. While the causes are always complex and multifaceted, climate change is an amplifying factor. For the environmental movement to turn a blind eye to those whose lives have been uprooted by climate change would be both tragic and a missed opportunity to change the politics of climate change.

Almost everyone would agree that America’s immigration system is broken. Approximately 11 million people live in the U.S. without the rights citizenship affords. The hope of a job with better opportunities is what brings people to leave everything they know for a new life “the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

But the system as it exists too often allows unscrupulous employers to violate minimum wage and overtime laws, and to force undocumented immigrants to work in dangerous working conditions. Every year, thousands of undocumented immigrants are injured or killed on the job due to unsafe working conditions. In contrast, those with citizenship and union members whose working conditions are protected are less likely to suffer injury on the job.

In addition, undocumented immigrant communities are more likely than other populations to bear the brunt of the effects of severe weather associated with climate change. Take, for example, two of the most destructive hurricanes in recent memory Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. While non-citizens are eligible for disaster relief if they have the proper documentation and verification, undocumented immigrants affected by Hurricane Sandy were left out of federal relief efforts. The Mexican Consulate in Manhattan has estimated that at least 380 of its citizens in New York and New Jersey suffered losses because of Sandy. Without insurance and without a Social Security number, immigrants suffer in silence, rebuilding on their own rather than risking deportation. The environmental movement has a responsibility to give voice to those who bear the heaviest load of severe climate events.

Beyond severe weather disasters, undocumented immigrants are also disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards where they live and work. Farmworkers, most of whom are undocumented, are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides on fruits and vegetables. A 2007 study of the San Francisco Bay Area found that immigrants are nearly twice as likely to live within one mile of a pollution facility.

It would be an oversight to debate immigration reform without acknowledging the contributions of immigrant communities. The reality is that our economy needs immigrants. Our nation’s competitiveness has historically relied on the hard work and rich perspectives of immigrants. America’s factories, cities and scientific know-how have benefited from their contributions. Where would we be without, for example, Albert Einstein who was granted citizenship in 1940, or lesser known inventor Elihu Thompson, who is credited in part with the formation of General Electric? Immigrants are 40 percent more likely to start businesses than native-born Americans.

Some environmental opponents of immigration reform believe that encouraging immigration reinforces overconsumption of resources and energy in the U.S.. But restricting immigration simply tries to check environmental problems at the border. Disenfranchising those who, in many cases, are climate refugees is indefensible. As the effects of increasingly severe weather events unfold, who can be in favor of denying the core human rights of up to 200 million climate refugees?

In the U.S., this disenfranchisement alienates a key constituency the broader immigrant community from supporting comprehensive climate action. Polling shows that some of the strongest support for environmental reform is among immigrant communities. Standing up for an equitable path to citizenship for our country’s 11 million undocumented workers is morally right and, politically, an essential part of the strategy to win comprehensive climate legislation.

Immigration reform itself is “work worth doing.” I would challenge my environmental colleagues to join with me in pU.S.hing for an equitable path to citizenship.

This post was originally published in Earth Island Journal

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Billie C.
Billie C4 years ago

our southern boarder areas are being turned into trash heaps thanks to the illegals dumping their trash. why should we support them ruining our country?
if mexico was so worried about their citizens after hurricane sandy why didn't they provide them aide? they should also be helping them return home.
illegals think they deserve everything citizens get plus more because they are "special" they are criminals and need to be sent home.
fix their own countries stop trying to turn ours into the same dumps they left.

Charlotte S.
Charlotte S4 years ago

I'm sorry but rewarding people for breaking the law isn't right. and it teaches our kids the wrong things. I'm all for immigration reform but as a Hispanic who is the child/grandchild of LEGAL immigrants I can not support any law that rewards criminal behavior. It's a slap in the face to EVERY LEGAL immigrant.

Lynnl C.
Lynn C4 years ago

Barbara L. said it for me. I suspect many times the reasons for these desperate migrations can be traced back to the counties that are major contributors to the horrible circumstances that these people face. Leaving home and family is not what the majority would choose. It's simply called survival.

Mark Kahle H
Mark Kahle H4 years ago

There you go again with "undocumented immigrant" talk..... It is not possible to be undocumented in today's world. They have the wrong documentation from the wrong country. They can apply, using those documents, for immigration at any US consulate or Embassy in the world and immigrate LEGALLY. If they do not follow the law as set forth they are neither immigrants (they are legally defined as "aliens") nor are they undocumented... they are as aliens without permission to enter or stay... that is a misdemeanor under the law ...or an ILLEGAL act.

DIane L.
DIane L4 years ago


Harley Williams
Harley W4 years ago

I support immigration reform not necessarily for this reason. But if people become US citizens does that not mean they will pay more taxes and help our budget. Does it not mean that we well have young people who will prop up Social Security since the population is dropping due a lower birth rate. If it were not for this knee jerk deport them all action we could have gotten this done already. If we did deport them all then the U.S. economy would be majorly damaged. Think about it there are more emigrants working at jobs then there are unemployed people. Also think of the jobs they often have.

Common sense is no longer common if it ever was.

Clara Hamill
Clara Hamill4 years ago

No they broke the law then send them back.

Will W.
Will Will4 years ago

Amazing that they are trying to link Global Warming with the Amnesty drive. I have seen Global Warming used to justify and motivate all kinds of things, but this is certainly a novel stretch. It is really just a desperate rationalization for why we should have open borders.

Letting endless poor people into our country is not going to solve the world´s problems, or Global Warming, or help us. Countries these days win by achieving at sophisticated technology and development, which requires high IQ and highly skilled and competent people. Letting in masses of poor and uneducated people to do manual labor is not the key to the future. What we get is a cheap exploited working underclass or welfare class. How is that great for America? Wages have been driven down for the lowest jobs in large part because of cheap exploitable immigrant labor.

As to the other comments it is absolutely true that overpopulation is at the heart of our world`s problems. Overpopulation is linked to every major stressor in out world. Environmental problems, energy shortages, water, etc.

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons4 years ago

The Mexicans have a larger precentage of Native american genes than most of us do. So who exactly is the illegal immigrant here? The problem is there are too many people in the world. Eventually mother nature will get fed up and wipe most of us out with some disaster or plauge.

Nicole W.
Nicole W4 years ago

thank you for posting