Since last November’s Presidential election, immigration reform with a road map to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country has been gaining momentum. On April 16 the bipartisan Senate “Gang of 8” introduced their immigration bill, and diverse groups such as organized labor, evangelical Christians, and business leaders have lent their support for reform.
Just last month, the board of the Sierra Club, the oldest environmental organization in the United States voted to add their voice to the movement, officially supporting immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship. In doing so they joined other well-known environmental leaders like Bill McKibben and Van Jones.
Immigration reform and environmental protection are progressive issues that are in alignment, as the Sierra Club’s support illustrates: immigrants are affected by climate change and care about the environment, and the environmental movement is in turn strengthened by the inclusion of immigrant voices.
Here are the top five things you need to know about immigrants and the environment:
- Immigrants are already a part of the environmental movement. Immigrants and people of color have long been key players in the environmental justice movement, which has been fighting back against environmental injustice that has disproportionately affected communities of color and low-income communities. Environmental justice organizations, for example, often speak out against polluting and toxic businesses, like power plants and fuel tank facilities that are sited in or near communities of color. But while immigrants have been active in the more localized environmental justice movement, they need to have a larger role in the overall environmental movement which has all too often been criticized for a lack of diversity. In a recent Grist post, One America board member Sudha Nandagopal wrote, “… 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.”
- Immigrants have a big stake in the health of the planet. Historically, immigrants and people of color have borne a greater share of environmental burdens in their communities and at their jobs. According to the Sierra Club, 43 percent of Latino voters either live or work near a toxic site (such as a power plant, refinery, highway or factory.) This figure has increased by close to 10 percent since 2008, showing a dangerous uptick in the number of Latinos potentially exposed to dangerous environmental conditions, and the need among this community for a cleaner, healthier planet.
- Immigrants tend to lead low-carbon lifestyles. More than half of all immigrants live in large metropolitan areas, which have some of the lowest per capita emissions in the U.S. In fact, CAP analysis has found that cities with the lowest carbon footprint had an average immigrant population of 26 percent, while the 10 highest per-capita carbon emitting cities have an average immigrant population below 5 percent. In addition to living in big cities, immigrants are almost three times more likely to take public transportation and nearly two times more likely to carpool than native-born residents.
- Immigrants are helping to drive the green economy. Immigrants are leading new businesses in the green and high-tech industries, having launched 40 percent of publicly traded, venture-backed companies and nearly half of private, venture-backed startups. Additionally, immigrants occupy many “green-collar” jobs (blue-collar jobs in the green goods and services industry) and use their skills to advance energy efficiency, clean energy and sustainability. Green-collar employment includes jobs in wind turbine manufacturing, solar power project construction, home weatherization, solar panel installation, etc.
- Immigrants support environmental policies. A recent poll found that 7 out of 10 Latino voters support environmental protections while 9 out of 10 feel a sense of “moral responsibility” when it comes to protecting the environment. A similar study of Asian American voters in California found that 3 out of 4 are extremely or very concerned about environmental issues, and 7 out of 10 believe that environmental regulations “provide an important benefit to society and protect health, air and water.” Immigrants from Latin American and Asian countries represent more than 60 percent (over 24 million residents) of the U.S. foreign-born population and these polls indicate that they can be strong advocates for environmental protections.
In coming out in support of immigration reform, Sierra Club President Allison Chin stated, “By establishing an equitable path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America today, we can empower those in our society who are most vulnerable to toxic pollution to fully participate in our democracy, fight back against polluters and demand public health protections and clean energy solutions.” The intersection of environmentalism and immigration reform will continue to benefit and strengthen both movements.
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Anh Phan is Manager of the Anti-Hate Table in Immigration Policy and Mari Hernandez is a Research Associate in Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Special thanks to former American Progress staffer Jorge Madrid for his help.