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Immigration, Population, and Environmental Justice

Immigration is once again at the center of national debate, deemed a major threat to U.S. national security after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Capitalizing on the 911 1 backlash, the anti-immigrant movement rapidly added terrorism to its list of social and economic ills to blame on immigrants, reviving longstanding arguments against immigration. Fueled by the economic slump, the 9/11 anti-immigrant hysteria now threatens to devour the civil and human rights of immigrants and non-immigrants alike, giving new life to unbridled calls for racially restrictive measures. This volatile situation presents the immigrant rights movement with tough challenges and opportunities that put the defense of the rights of immigrants at the center of the demands for social, environmental, economic and racial justice.

Immigrants have always been subject to repression and abuse in times of economic decline and political crisis. But anti-immigrant violence, hate crimes and a new type of racial, ethnic and religious profiling have spiraled out of control since 91 11. Thousands of Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, Middle Eastern, African and Asian immigrants are being harassed, arrested, jailed, and many deported, as part of the domestic "war on terrorism." The three major anti-terrorist laws—the USA PATRIOT Act, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act—severely restrict immigrant rights. Growing numbers of immigrants and citizens working in industries or sectors of the economy considered vulnerable to terrorist attacks—including airports, energy, transportation and even kiosks—are being subjected to heavy scrutiny and immigration raids, job loss, deportation and imprisonment.

Certain right-wing groups, especially the Federation for American Immigration Reform, have never stopped blaming immigration and immigrants, in particular, for sprawl, traffic congestion, deterioration of services and education, environmental degradation and pollution, unemployment, crime, over-population and even the cultural decline of the U.S. Besides drastically curbing immigration and further criminalizing immigrants, the anti-immigrant agenda calls for prohibiting citizenship to the children of the foreign-born;   curtailing or ending public benefits, education, social and health services for legal immigrants; intensifying border militarization and expanding border enforcement strategies into the U.S. interior to detain and deport "illegal" immigrants, among other restrictions. In their view, immigrants do not have or deserve environmental protections or other civil liberties and rights.

The consequences for the environmental health of communities are devastating. While the right-wing groups want to dose the border and drastically limit immigration they have no qualms about importing natural resources and exporting pollution across borders. Like ecological systems, communities of color do not have borders. Environmental justice recognizes that environmental racism has global and disproportionate impacts on sister communities, which are being subjected to toxic waste and industrial polluting production. For environmental justice community groups, organizers and advocates, the challenge is to protect all communities of color, regardless of their immigration status.

Globalization and Migration

In the debate over immigration's impact on the United States' population growth and the environment, anti-immigrant and right-wing forces fail to address or acknowledge U.S. liability for the displacement of communities that are forced to migrate. One of the main causes of involuntary migration is environmental degradation, resulting from economic restructuring. Globalization, or international economic restructuring, is driven by unsustainable social and economic development that puts profits before environmental protection and community. U.S. intervention—whether economic, cultural or military—triggers displacement and forces people to move in search of survival. As long as the U.S. and other Northern hemisphere countries do not pay for the costs and effects of displacement, the benefits of migration will naturally accrue to the U.S. or receiving country, and the burden will be placed on immigrants and their home communities.

The International Office for Migration reports that one in every 35 persons worldwide is a migrant with some 175 million people migrating across borders. That is almost three times the number of individuals displaced by World War II. While this represents a very small portion of the world's population, global migration is an indicator of the severe displacement being caused by "free" trade and the social, political and economic disruptions being visited upon communities across the world. For many, migration becomes the only option for survival.

The U.S. receives less than two percent of the world's migrants and refugees. The immigrant community grew rapidly during the 1990s, with over 13 million people entering the country, according to the U.S. Census. Now there are over 3 1 million immigrants in the U.S., representing about 11 percent of the population—still lower than the record level of 15 percent set in 1900. The Urban Institute reports that in  2000, while over two-thirds of all immigrants lived in six states (California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois), those states' actual share of immigrants declined from 75 percent in 1990 to 68 percent of the total in 2000. Many new immigrants have settled in other states, especially in the U.S. South, that had not seen significant immigration in over 100 years.

Over 85 percent of immigrants in the U.S. are considered "people of color," hailing from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and other parts of the world. This is the demographic revolution that troubles anti-immigrant groups. The majority of immigrants do not only share the same color, they also share the same strata of poverty and exposure to environmental degradation and toxic waste. The Census reports that one in five children and one in four low-income children is the child of an immigrant. Twenty-five percent of low-wage workers are foreign-born.

While the Right blames immigrants for the plight of inner cities and increasing racial disparities, the scapegoating of immigrants draws attention away from the government and business agenda institutionalized in the 1980s by then-President Ronald Reagan. That agenda imposed cutbacks and privatization of public services, and reversed and curtailed civil rights, environmental protections, and labor rights in order to maximize profits and capital mobility. Services, investments, industries, jobs and capital have since moved to the suburbs and across international borders, facilitated by "free" trade agreements. Low-income and working people, communities of color and immigrants bear the brunt of these changes.

The anti-immigrant agenda pits low-wage workers of color against immigrants and against each other, obscuring the structural conditions that deny access to living wage jobs and services to all workers. Repeating the mantra that immigration poses the greatest threat to the environment and dwindling resources, anti-immigrant groups are successfully promoting their belief that population—and not consumption—is the problem.

While the U.S. is home to less than five percent of the world's population, it consumes more than 35 percent of the world's energy and natural resources. Not all consumers are created equal; some have a bigger ecological footprint or impact than others. A Bill Gates or even the average white middle class suburbanite has a bigger ecological footprint and environmental degradation caused by unsustainable profit-driven development. A more equitable redistribution of the resources accumulated through globalization could ameliorate and even lessen the impacts that force people to leave their communities.

Justice for Immigrants, People of Color

Immigration is not a law enforcement or anti-terrorist problem. The immigrant rights movement is ultimately about securing sustainable community development and human rights, including labor, cultural, civil, social, economic and environmental rights, for everyone. Immigrant rights are also about equality and racial, economic and environmental justice. Immigrants, people of color, and low-income and working people share the same problems of poverty, access to jobs and housing, and suffer the same levels of unemployment and exposure to environmental degradation. Together they form a majority in the U.S. whose combined agendas have the potential to transform the human and political landscape of our country.

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