Panel of experts sit to discuss relationship between climate change, migrant issues
A panel of leading experts discussed the correlation between migrant issues and climate change, as well as how the Green New Deal could impact both, on Tuesday’s event, “Migrant Justice is Climate Justice: A Series on the Green New Deal.” The event was held by the Institute for Women’s Leadership, with the help of the School of Communication and Information, the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and the Leap.
The discussion, which was moderated by Naomi Klein, Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies, began with an overview from each panelist.
Maxine Burkett, a law professor at the University of Hawaiʻi, addressed the context in which this topic arises. She said it has been estimated that between 25 million and 1 billion people could be moving as a result of climate change impacts.
“Researchers are trying to find a good way to make this more direct causal link between what would be a climate migration versus survival migration generally, or any other way in which you might decide to move,” Burkett said.
Burkett said having this many people moving at once is not plausible and creates a struggle for host communities that have to deal with circumstances that are constantly changing. She also touched on how migration is often looked at as a security problem as opposed to a climate problem.
“This is really bright fuel for xenophobic undercurrents and in fact you see a lot of discussion about migration, especially the border, happening in hyper-securitized spaces,” Burkett said. “If you frame it as a security issue, all of your solutions will look like borders and those sorts of details.”
Saket Soni, founder and director of Resilience Force, recalled a time when he visited Panama City, Florida, following Hurricane Michael. He said two immigrants from Honduras, Gustavo and Mario, were repairing a damaged roof when Mario had slipped and fallen off.
“There have been, in the last 15 years, a rising set of workers who are preparing and repairing our societies for climate change. They include people, like Gustavo and Mario, who rebuild and repair, but they also include workers in the healthcare industry,” Soni said. “They include workers who are care workers doing elder care and other kinds of care. They include counselors, teachers and transportation workers.”
Soni said these workers, who today are largely immigrant workers, were originally left out and disregarded by the Green New Deal despite their involvement in repairing damages done by climate events. He said another group of migrants connected to climate change, including the person whose house Gustavo and Mario were fixing, who had to leave their houses and never return.
He also said our knowledge on migration is limited, especially when it comes to through the eyes of the migrants themselves and hard decisions they have to face.
“These facts of life for an immigrant are about to become the facts of life for many, many people in the United States,” Soni said. “Our nation knows very little about immigration from the point of view of immigrants at exactly the moment where it needs to know the most, because it is about to have the most vibrance it ever had.”
He finished by saying the Green New Deal is the most promising vehicle in changing our relationship to climate change and its effects on migrant issues.
Maria Alegria Rodriguez, the first executive director for the Florida Immigration Coalition (FLIC), said the coalition focuses on getting people to realize that their migration may be less of a personal problem and more of a systemic problem.
“Our mission statement is to build a connection of consciousness and capacity so that people can live, love and labor without fear,” Rodriguez said. “When people share their story, they feel emboldened and encouraged, and feel the courage to take greater and more escalated action.”
Political education though, Rodriguez said, is not the only way to spread this ideal. The intentions of leadership, the spaces we create and the capacity we allow for action are all contributing factors. She said FLIC wants to be seen as less of a protest movement and more of a nonpatriarchial governing power.
“(It is) really exploring governments and helping people govern their body, their homes, their unions, their institutions, their schools, their churches, their budgets,” Rodriguez said. “We feel like that’s a very important part of democracy, especially for so many of our families who have been marginalized and exploited.”
Rodriguez said FLIC was also able to defeat systems such as the Corrections Corporation of America, the Florida Retail Federation and the Tea Party governor.
“The exploitation of immigrants is linked to the lack of consciousness. So, we were able to pass some of the most progressive wage theft ordinances in the country in a state that not only has no income tax, but also has no Department of Labor,” Rodriguez said. “So, people have nowhere to turn.”
She said in order to impact policy, we have to shift our culture and impact the politics within that. She said immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, are the most vulnerable, offering the example of Hurricane Irma.
“More than 6.8 million Floridians sought refuge in New Orleans or Atlanta,” Rodriguez said. “It was a huge internal migration and a sheriff from Polk County said he was going to check everyone’s paperwork as they came into a hurricane shelter.”
Patrice Lawrence, recently appointed co-director for the UndocuBlack Network, said while you can prepare for a natural disaster, you can only do so to a certain extent.
“You can do all the prep work you want, you know, combine all the batteries and have all the bottles of water in your home,” Lawrence said. “We have no control or power over wind, over water, over what might happen if a branch strikes through that window, what might happen if that roof decides to lift up.”
She also touched on the way in which legal barriers help create this correlation between climate change and migrant issues.
“It really brings up the question of who deserves to be stable in this country, who deserves certainty in this country,” Lawrence said. “I see when we look at our laws, when we look at the way how we treat folks who have had to leave from disaster, who have had to go from an unsure situation to something that they thought would be sure in the United States, it is very clear that stability is not a value that we think is inherent to non-citizens.”
Klein continued the discussion, saying her understanding of the climate crisis is those who have done the least to create it are still the ones who most affected by it.
“Part of that conversation is looking at the real causes of migration and linking our foreign policy, economic and military foreign policy to the displacement of people and really making sure that there is a tangible recognition that this policy or that policy actually displays and actually quantifies some of that,” Rodriguez said.
Following the conclusion of the discussion, the panel opened up for a question and answers session, where members of the audience could pose new questions or ask for clarification on information that was already covered. One member of the audience drew attention to his own personal experience of immigration and climate change, connecting himself to the content discussed by the panelists.
The panelists offered their final thoughts as the event wrapped up.
“We’ve won nothing without a fight. You have to demand, you have to fight and you have to realize there’s gonna be pushback,” Lawrence said. “I think when you’re in that fight, ask for the boldest thing possible, no matter if they tell you it’s impossible. Don’t negotiate with yourself.”
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