Immigrants on the Frontlines of Climate Change

Stories from the field | Nov 17, 2023 02:11 am

Announcing the Climate Justice Collaborative

In the summer of 2017 wildfires were raging across the Pacific Northwest, turning the sky a murky red. As the fires spread into Eastern Washington’s agricultural communities, emergency broadcasts directed residents to evacuate the area. But emergency planners had largely overlooked the region’s substantial farmworker community, many of whom spoke limited English and didn’t listen to English language radio stations where the warnings were playing. With the darkening red sky raining ash from nearby fires many immigrant families were forced to make the choice of when and how to evacuate without reliable information about the risks.

Immigrant communities are on the front lines of nearly every aspect of the climate crisis as it reshapes our economy, politics and lives. Our communities are among those hit first and worst by extreme weather like storms, floods and fires. And, when the storm passes, immigrants are often on the frontlines of care and recovery work for impacted communities.

Many of our neighbors now weathering hurricanes in Florida or fires in California previously experienced climate change upending their livelihoods and communities in their home country. But there is no permanent immigration pathway or protection for climate displaced people. When immigrant communities are discussed in the context of climate change, it is most often as the threat of climate migrants, mimicking nativist rhetoric as an incentive for climate action.

That’s why the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) is partnering with member organizations including OneAmericaCASA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA)Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC)Michigan United, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC), and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Organization (TIRRC) to launch the Climate Justice Collaborative.

Although immigrants are often living on the frontlines of climate disasters, we are often left out of recovery and adaptation. Local governments don’t have the language capacity or cultural competency to communicate with immigrant communities. Disaster recovery aid largely excludes undocumented immigrants.

For example, as communities in California’s central valley were experiencing extreme heat and severe drought, undocumented residents showed up to receive emergency water relief but were turned away for not having social security numbers. Southeast Michigan recently experienced record flooding that disproportionately harmed Black and immigrant communities. Many immigrants lost all of their belongings and had nowhere to turn for relief because of immigration status requirements in FEMA’s programs. Similarly, in the aftermath of devastating tornadoes that swept through Middle Tennessee, language barriers, status-based exclusions, and fears of immigration enforcement kept many residents from accessing emergency services and recovery programs. One man who was picked up and thrown out of his mobile home by the tornado was afraid to seek urgent medical care because of his immigration status.

But NPNA member organizations are already responding to the impacts of climate change — from helping communities recover from climate disasters, to welcoming newcomers who have been displaced by climate disasters in their home countries, to defending the rights of workers on the frontlines of climate change.

In California, CHIRLA led efforts that changed county policies to allow undocumented residents to get emergency water access during droughts; OneAmerica successfully lobbied in Washington state for language access plans in emergency broadcasts; and FLIC introduced into the Florida Legislature a bill to protect workers from heat stress.

Organizations like CASA, FLIC and OneAmerica are also leading local coalitions working for just and equitable climate action. These coalitions have led important environmental justice campaigns like directing pollution cleanup dollars into immigrant communities in Pennsylvania and passing clean energy legislation that invests in low-income communities of color in Washington state.

The immigrant and refugee rights movement can be a powerful constituency in the fight to win major action to slow climate change and mitigate its impacts. The Climate Justice Collaborative will build the capacity of the immigrant rights movement to engage in climate justice campaigns and to make immigrant inclusion and migration central pillars of the climate justice movement.

NPNA will bring its track record of successful advocacy, technical assistance, and civic engagement in solidarity with longstanding movements for environmental, climate, and racial justice in the fight to slow the impact of climate change on our world, our nation, and in our communities.

The climate crisis is a new challenge for the immigrant justice movement, and so far, most of this work has been reactive and isolated. With resources, technical assistance, and a national community of learning the Climate Justice Collaborative can bring the power of our movement into the work of tackling this crisis for our communities.

Whether new to climate justice work or a leader at the local level, state-based immigrant and refugee rights organizations can be powerful advocates for environmental justice and equitable climate action that invests in our communities’ resilience and prosperity.

As a powerfully organized constituency, we can ensure that federal climate policy and programs are inclusive of and center immigrants, both as frontline communities in the U.S. and as future flows of climate-displaced people.

For this to be possible we need to replace dangerous rhetoric with new narratives that uplift migrant communities. Together we will invest in narrative and culture change strategies, including with an organized base of climate-displaced people, to normalize migration as a solution to climate change, not a threat, and to position immigrants as protagonists in the fight against climate change and building more resilient communities.

It is now more clear than ever that all movements for justice need to become climate justice movements. The Climate Justice Collaborative will ensure that climate policy is inclusive of immigrants, that immigrant communities are protected from the worst impacts of climate change, and that the U.S. is a global leader on preparing for and welcoming migrants displaced by climate change.

For more information about the Climate Justice Collaborative, or to get involved, sign up here.

The Climate Justice Collaborative was launched with generous support from Unbound Philanthropy. Check out their recently published report On the Frontlines of the Climate Emergency: Where Immigrants Meet Climate Change researched and written by Nancy Youman. After a year of study, Unbound Philanthropy compiled analysis, resources, and advice for grant makers into this report.