Beyond Environmental Justice – Immigration Reform

Los Angeles Sierra Club showing support for immigrant families at local gala.

Los Angeles Sierra Club showing support for immigrant families at local gala.

There are moments that define a generational shift. This is one of those moments. The Sierra Club has announced it fully supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. This is a historic step for the organization. The Sierra Club is America’s oldest, largest, and most influential environmental organization. Where large national organizations like the Sierra Club go, the rest of the environmental movement in the U.S. tends to follow. The move comes at a critical juncture for those of us that are proud environmentalists and happen to either be undocumented or have close relatives that are undocumented. I am one of the millions of U.S. citizens – an immigrant – that happen to have undocumented relatives.

Just recently, my parents and brothers were able to obtain an adjustment of status that allowed them to remain in the country as legal residents. This victory for our family came after a legal fight that went on for over twelve years and threatened to deport my parents and brothers back to Mexico. They were not allowed to leave the country while their fight was tied up in the courts, not even to attend funerals – like when my grandparents passed away because it would bar them automatically from re-entering the country. A humble but determined worker that toiled in farm fields, restaurants, and construction jobs, my father paid taxes for decades. Now in his late 60’s, he was facing deportation along with my mother and brothers. All because of a rabid soulless immigration agency that was intent on deporting him because of a registration mix up.

The nightmare for my parents and brothers may be over, but the struggle still continues for so many others. In fact, it continues for some of my cousins, aunts, and uncles that find themselves without status. The nightmare of living in the shadows still continues for over 11 million undocumented immigrants. My family’s case is one of countless others that should have never been thrown into ever lasting deportation proceedings. My family’s case was what John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement would deem as ‘low priority’. Yet immigration officials continued to aggressively pursue deportation even when new supposed national guidelines to deprioritize cases like my family’s were in place under directives from President Obama. Smoke and mirrors directives – that’s what they ended up being.

So as we come to this defining moment just as another attempt to pass immigration reform is set to be debated in the halls of Washington (and there will be plenty to fight about), let us pause to savor the moment. For those of us that have been working within environmental organizations for a number of years and are staunch supporters of immigrants’ rights, this moment represents a culmination of many years of working and living in two worlds that seemed oftentimes disjointed. Many of us have worked for environmental justice issues ranging from ocean to air to land and groundwater pollution. We have been environmentalist warriors by day and immigrant rights activists by night, so to speak. We have poured our hearts and souls for our respective ‘green’ issues precisely because our immigrant communities tend to be affected the most by pollution and environmental devastation.

Now with the Sierra Club announcing their support for immigration reform, the environmental movement is coming full circle and is arguably going back to its ‘immigrant roots’ if you will. As Michael Brune, Executive Director for the organization put it – the founder of the Sierra Club was an immigrant himself. With the Executive Director of Greenpeace and the founder of having already come out in support of immigration reform in their respective ways, the Sierra Club piling on is the nail on the coffin of the historic intolerance that has repeatedly tried to demonize immigrants. Make no mistake – this moment will define a whole new generation of environmental activists.

Being an environmentalist and being an immigrant rights activists will no longer be a schizophrenic disjointed thing. We, immigrants, are neither “illegal” nor “criminals.” We are human beings that have lived in this country and have contributed with our hard work and our taxes to strengthen this country for decades now. Some of us are also environmentalists – like me, who happen to work or volunteer for the Sierra Club or other organizations like NRDC, Greenpeace, etc. Yes, we do exist. Heck – the majority of us Latinos that live in the U.S. have environmentalists views by wide margins already even if we don’t happen to work in a formal organization. The time has come for us all to recognize that ‘green’ issues are immigrant rights issues. The time has come to recognize that immigrant rights issues are environmentalist issues.