A migrant’s story of environmental justice
Guest blog by Giselle Lopez Ixta
Every morning feels too painful to wake up. I’m scared to hear about another death, another racist incident, another deportation, a family separation, and of politics. I am a migrant queer xicana. I was born in Apatzingan, Michoacán, Mexico. When I was five years old, I arrived in Woodburn where my parents had been farmworkers. When I was ten years old, I received my citizenship, even as my mother was deported for ten years.
In summer 2016, I was the Environmental Leadership and Justice Intern at Oregon Environmental Council (OEC). During my internship, OEC’s board voted to formally oppose anti-immigrant measures that were being proposed for the ballot: making English the official language of Oregon, creating obstacles to employment, and making it harder to register to vote. Also during that time, the Oregonian published an anti-immigrant op-ed written by Oregonians For Immigration Reform (OFIR) that blames immigrants for sustainability problems: Immigration driving population to unsustainable levels.
OFIR’s argument that immigrants are the cause of overpopulation is a major simplification that misses the true roots of our environmental and immigration issues. But this anti-immigrant rhetoric isn’t coincidental. It stems from the centuries and centuries of structural racism . Immigrants are vilified and accused of stealing jobs, being criminals, rapists, violent offenders—and even destroyers of the environment!
Working with OEC, I came to understand even more strongly want I already know: the violence, poverty and lack of opportunities that shaped my family come from the same institutions and systems that devalue and disregard or degrade our environment. What’s more, criminalizing immigration or upholding a white supremacy will not fix our most important environmental problems. In fact, environmental solutions must arise from people similar to me who are working directly at the forefront of some of our biggest environmental challenges.
Immigrants don’t increase population.
Migration is about moving from one place to another—not the reproduction of people. On the contrary, to migrate is to risk life.
When I was five, I crossed the border with my mom twice. We risked the journey despite the risk of being killed by a militarized Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), imprisonment and kidnapping. I remember that we walked, ran, and trudged over the hot grounds under high temperatures. We saw objects left by the walkers before us: backpacks, shirts, water bottles—and bodies. We saw snakes, the plants scratched my legs with their sharp thorns, and I cried all the way. We spent that night behind bars in a detention center. Later, my mom would be deported and not allowed to return to the U.S. for ten years. During that time, she sought refuge in Canada to escape the drug cartel violence in Michoacán.
According to the US Border Patrol, there have been 2,624 deaths since 2009, counting only those found on the US side of the border. In addition, Colibri has reported 2,500 missing people in that time. Furthermore, US farmworkers (largely Latinx and undocumented) live an average of 49 years compared to the average national age of 73. The story of immigration is not a story of increasing population. It is a story, however, of increasing U.S. profits.
Immigrants do increase economic profits.
My ancestors were indigenous Purepechas from Michoacán. My grandparents benefitted from Lazaro Cardenas’ land reform in the 1930’s, and my family still works the parcel acquired by my grandparents, cultivating lemon, mango and bananas and raising cows and horses. Unfortunately, US companies sell their products in Mexico, far outcompeting small agricultural markets like my family’s.
The lack of income forces many, including my family, to emigrate. Long ago, the bracero program recruited farmworkers from Mexico to work the land in the north. The US promised them compensation and other rights. During the great depression and World War II, braceros were praised for saving US agriculture. Years later, they were vilified and faced deportation, exploited and dehumanized, even as they pick the fruits and vegetables that we eat.
Whether a family immigrates or lives in Mexico, the US corporations have access make a profit from their labor. Under a capitalist system, people of color and immigrants are seen as “assets” rather than as humans. Yet migrants contribute to Oregon’s economy in many different ways.
To migrate is human; to erect fences is capitalist politics.
Money flows between the US and other countries, even as people are restricted from doing so. Migration is a natural occurrence. Every year, creatures from the monarch butterfly to the pronghorn sheep seek the ancient ritual. Some animals are restricted from migration by fences and borders; humans are restricted by political barriers.
Migrating from poorly resourced lands to richer resources is inherently human. Even before the European colonizers, migration shaped the continent. And yet the movement of people across politically constructed boundaries is now “criminalized.”
In other words, migrants are divested of their rights to vote, retain a lawyer, and gain access to health insurance and higher education. What’s more, these “criminals” become a source of profit for private prisons, paid to incarcerate immigrants while also profiting from their labor.
The difference between criminalized migration and European migration: race. The US has historically enacted racist immigration policies. These laws have not only affected Mexico, but also China, Japan, Haiti, Syria, other Latin American countries. And these laws reinforce a hierarchy that allows Whites to benefit from social systems as people of color continue to face exclusion and exploitation.
Systems of social oppression are also systems of environmental degradation
In Mexico, factories run by the US and other countries are called maquiladoras. These factories profit by allowing Mexico to bear the environmental burden of toxic metals, air pollution, and toxic waste, as well as the social burden of injuries, illness, and poverty from unsafe and under-compensated work conditions.
Within the US, some farms are able to profit by similarly neglecting both environmental and social burdens. Without effective stewardship, environmental chemicals may be used to increase profit without fully accounting for ways they degrade land and water quality downstream and create life-long, irreversible health burdens for workers who are exposed.
If a capitalist system were to account for the true cost of these burdens, it would require dismantling systems of oppression. And what allows these systems of oppression to endure is a racism embedded within institutions and policies, a racism that puts profit before the dignity of all people and the true value of our environment.
Pro-immigration is pro-environment
It’s a horror to live with constant messages of hate. To think that family members and friends could be deported at any moment is to live under a consistent environmental condition of stress. To live with a lack of information, resources and protections also creates greater susceptibility to health harm from toxic chemicals, pollutants and climate extremes that come from climate change. Without a doubt, a study of health disparities show that people of color are not only living with environmental conditions that contribute to health harm, but are also living it out with higher rates of chronic disease.
Nothing about this injustice contributes to a solution that will address over-consumption, end natural resource exploitation or curb greenhouse gas emissions. So: what actually does work to address environmental issues at the root, in a fundamental way? A proven solution starts with respect for human beings, diversity and difference.
Consider this: in the top ten U.S. universities for new patents, the 1,500 patents awarded came from people who hailed from 88 different countries. If we are to find new ways to power our economy beyond fossil fuels, new ways to create products that perform without toxic chemicals, and solutions to our most pressing environmental problems, we are better off if we embrace diversity.
What’s more, studies show that immigrants have lower per-capita emissions, are more likely to take public transportation and carpool, and come out strong in favor of environmental policies. To honor and support immigrants is to honor and support a strong environmental ethic and environmentally sound practices.
My internship has come to an end. I am confident that I will continue to work to reform systems of oppression. I have always worked hard for social justice; and social justice is not separate from environmental justice. It is clear that, in order to resist anti-immigrant policies, the environmental movement has a responsibility to reject arguments that make immigrants the culprits of environmental degradation, and instead embrace immigrants as a source of environmental solutions.
A racial bias among institutions and across society. It involves the cumulative and compounding effects of an array of societal factors including history, culture, ideology, and interactions of institutions and policies that systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color.