Tale of Two Immigrants One wants to build bridges, the other walls.
What's the best way to deal with a growing world population?
by Marilyn Berlin Snell
(page 3 of 3)
COMMON SENSE AND EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE indicate that access to education and family planning, institutional emphasis on sustainability and conservation, and economic opportunity in one's homeland significantly weaken the "push" factors that lead to emigration. That's not good enough for Yeh Ling-Ling. "These policies take too long, and immigration policy is the quickest," she says.
But for one man who has actually tried to hammer out a workable and reasonable policy, the response to Yeh is: not so fast. Rick Swartz has witnessed the ebb and flow of immigrants — and sentiments toward them — since the 1970s, when war in Southeast Asia sent hundreds of thousands of refugees to American shores. After that it was the Haitians, then the survivors of Central American wars.
A lawyer and activist, Swartz observed that as the demographics of immigration were changing and growing, institutions-from government and churches to schools, ethnic and environmental organizations, and labor unions-weren't changing quickly enough to meet new needs. He founded the National Immigration Forum in 1982, bringing these disparate groups to the table. "There was a real need for interaction on an advocacy level on behalf of the immigrants and refugees," says Swartz. "We are talking about the dispossessed."
The Forum fought for the rights of these new arrivals and against groups like the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigration organization, and others who blamed immigrants for everything from rising crime rates and traffic congestion to pollution and overcrowded schools. In fact, several of the Forum's founding members, who came from the group Zero Population Growth, were worried that ZPG had become tainted, and therefore made ineffective, by an infusion of anti-immigration zealots.
"They recognized at the time, and it's true today, that if your goal is public education on the importance of family planning, you need to have good relationships with the organizations that are in communication with the people having the most kids," says Swartz. "If somebody feels you're treating them like dogs, are they going to be receptive to your family-planning brochures? No way."
Swartz, whose group backed the controversial Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986 that included sanctions against employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, says: "We think immigration is a good thing if you do it right and reasonably. The Forum would have broken up a long time ago if it was an open-borders, olly-olly-in-free deal." But, he says, it's important to face reality. "Population and the movement of people are extraordinarily important ecologically, but human beings are not flotsam. Immigrants are risk-taking souls with will and hope and aspiration."
THOUGH THESE SOULS get a lot of bad press from immigration restrictionists, there is evidence that immigrants could be a politically potent force in helping solve environmental problems. According to a 2002 poll, these new residents, especially Hispanics, are more concerned about certain environmental issues than the general population. Cosponsored by the California Wild Heritage Campaign and the National Hispanic Environmental Council (NHEC), the poll found that 81 percent of Hispanic respondents supported establishing more wilderness in California-a higher percentage than any other population group surveyed, including Anglos.
"No national or regional environmental organization in places where there are large numbers of Latinos can afford to say [Latino views] don't matter," says Roger Rivera, 46, head of the 5,000-member NHEC. Nor can political parties. The number of Hispanic voters grew by 54 percent between 1990 and 1998, with more than 7 million registered in the 2000 election.
Rivera has closely followed the immigration debate within the mainstream environmental movement, particularly last spring's push for control of the Sierra Club's board of directors by candidates advocating stronger restrictions (these candidates were defeated by a 10-to-1 margin in the membership vote). Rivera fights to control his anger as he lays out the stakes of the debate. "When you distill the immigration argument, it's clear who is being discussed: our community.
Those who argue that high birthrates coupled with high immigration rates are an environmental problem are essentially saying Latinos are an environmental problem. Believe me, that is so hugely offensive, so deeply insulting, that the pushback is enormous." By "pushback" Rivera means a refusal to have anything to do with what he calls "mainstream green groups," i.e., mostly white environmental organizations. As to whether this cold shoulder matters to environmental groups' chances of future success, Rivera says, "You do the math."
HUGO MORALES HAS done that political calculus. "The environmental movement should realize that Latinos as a whole do care about the environment, and this is increasing with time," he says as we pass the largely Latino agricultural town of Parlier, most of whose wells have been contaminated with pesticides. He adds that the concept of environmental health, from his perch in California's farm country, is complex-like an ecosystem-and includes not just the fight against toxics but struggles for educational access and economic security for the poor.
"Latinos still have the highest incidence of teen pregnancy in California, but look at the hot spots: San Joaquin Valley, Imperial Valley, patches around Salinas," he says-all areas with high farmworker populations. "That's where the poverty is. This is the common factor, and education is the key to getting out of poverty."
Morales understands their plight. He was only nine when he left Mexico with his mother and three siblings in 1958. His father, a farmworker in Healdsburg, California, had entered illegally but after six years had obtained a green card and sent for his family. Morales grew up in a tent in a farm labor camp, picking prunes, apples, and other fruits. He labored in the fields with his family, doing "underpaid, dirty, dangerous" work.
His parents, believers in education, also sent their children to school. Morales went on to Harvard and then Harvard Law School. After graduation he wanted to be an organizer for the United Farm Workers Union but they refused to hire him, saying he was wasting his degree. In 1975, he had a brief stint with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in Fresno, until growers organized to have the office shut down. It was then he began to dream about building a community radio station that would benefit immigrants. Morales won an Edgar R. Murrow award for his work in 1999 and a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1994.
"It was important for me that Radio BilingŁe be a vehicle of reliable information for Latinos in the United States," says Morales as we drive in 100-degree weather past orange, grape, peach, and olive groves alive with activity. "I also wanted it to be a forum of ideas among immigrants so they can improve their lives."
This summer, for example, Radio BilingŁe aired gavel-to-gavel coverage, in Spanish, of both the Republican and Democratic conventions. "We need to have an informed citizenry. Not enough Latinos are voting," Morales says. "This election is critical to our people. Issues involving immigration, the environment and economy, allocation of resources, and
appointments to the Supreme Court are all at stake."
In the battle to protect America's natural bounty, some in the environmental movement will persist in building walls. For starters, Yeh Ling-Ling advocates increased militarization of the U.S. border and argues that "we must assure that illegals can't work in the United States, that their children can't go to school." (See "Lines in the Sand," page 38.)
Others have concluded that taking a position on immigration is not the way to address the population dilemma here or abroad. They focus instead on the root causes of both population growth and forced migration (see "On Immigration," page 40), and on supporting domestic efforts like those of Hugo Morales and Radio BilingŁe to help people. "Our community has had the idea that environmentalists only care about streams and animals," says Morales. "I see opportunities to redefine what the environmental agenda is and should be."
MARILYN BERLIN SNELL is Sierra's writer/editor.
Photos courtesy Anne Hamersky
This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.