Many Unitarian Universalists and UU congregations are in a position to shine a spotlight on some of the issues involved in environmental justice and immigration and to work toward changing the system.  

We are called to strive for a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every human [and other creatures], and to respect the interdependent web of all existence. Let us also consider and respect the interdependence of these issues.

What power might we gain as a movement if we saw the deep connections between immigration and environmental issues? The environmental movement can’t afford to be silent on this issue. Environmental issues profoundly impact immigration. We must work together.

This call to action is divided into four sections focusing on the main issues at the intersection of immigration and environmental justice – HealthClimate ChangePopulation/Scapegoating, and Border/Migration. Each section contains three parts – framing the issue, more information (web links and resources), and actions to help you get started. Go to More Resources for books, films, and links to the extensive UUA resources on immigration.

We hope these resources provide inspiration for your activities on Earth Day and beyond. Use the “Jump to” and “Back to Top” feature to help you navigate the page.

Jump to . . .

Health Issues and Actions

The impacts of environmental issues on the health of immigrants are disproportionate and unjust.

Immigrants and other people of color in the US are more likely to live in areas that do not meet the federal government’s safe air quality standards. Immigration status contributes to a nearly doubled likelihood of living in close proximity to a toxic release facility. Migrant farmworkers and their families are regularly exposed to harmful pesticides in both the air and water.

Chronic exposure leads to shorter life spans and a greater likelihood of death from asthma, along with increased risks of cancer, birth defects, and neurological damage. On top of this, undocumented immigrants are less likely to be insured or to have adequate access to health care. This means that they stand a high chance of getting sick from pollution and being unable to afford treatment.

In a fiscal climate that forces government to cut spending, politicians are choosing to keep subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and tax breaks for the rich, but slash measures that protect their constituents from polluted air and water.

Learn More

No Way to Treat a Guest (Farmworker Justice) – This report offers an in-depth look at the violations and abuses of the federal H-2A agricultural guest worker program – exposing the fundamental flaws of guest worker models – and proposes viable solutions. Read online or download the PDF. The website also includes a page with links to health and safety resources and a section on the danger of pesticides for farmworkers.

U.S. Latinos and Air Pollution: A Call to Action (Natural Resources Defense Council) – This Sept. 2011 report from NRDC and other major environmental and environmental justice groups shows that burning fossil fuels not only creates immigrants/climate refugees, it also harms the immigrants who are already here.

“How What We Eat Affects Immigrant Growers” (713KB PDF) (Food Conspiracy Co-op) – Explore the link between your food choices and immigrant growers. Susanna McKibben, Sustainable Food Program Organizer at BorderLinks, wrote this article about the connections between migration and food for the Food Conspiracy Co-op Community Newsletter. Find out more about the Sustainable Futures Program on the BorderLinks website.

Environmental Health Policy Institute (Physicians for Social Responsibility) – The monthly question for August, 2011 was: “How does our nation’s reliance on pesticides affect the health of those who plant and harvest our food?” Seven experts address the question and lift up action opportunities.

Why the EPA is Important for Latino Families” (Center for American Progress) – This article discusses how low-income and minority Americans are those most impacted by the air, water, and land that the EPA protects. Latinos both show strong support for the EPA and bare the highest risk if EPA programs are cut. Watch a short film: Why Should Latinos Demand a Strong EPA?

Take Action

  • Join the push to ban the use of cancer-causing Methyl Iodide in California strawberry fields. Inform your congregation through a newsletter article, etc., including information from the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). Encourage everyone to send a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown through the United Farm Workerswebsite.
  • Present a community screening and discussion of the documentary The Harvest/La Cosecha – The Story of the Children Who Feed America (see reviews at More Resources) and include a potluck of local foods.
  •  In your Covenant Group or other small group, devote several sessions to the extraordinary Oct. 2011 TedxFruitvale: Harvesting Change, which brought together farmworkers, farmers, activists, artists, students, professors, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs to celebrate the people upon whom we depend to harvest our food. Links to all the videos and bios of the speakers are on the website.
  • Host a day of workshops or set up a table at a community Earth Day event to increase awareness of pesticide issues for both farmworkers and eaters – lots of information on the “Pesticides on Food” section of Pesticide Action Network.
  • If you live in an area with a large migrant worker population, investigate Project Clean Environment for Healthy Kids, which trains individuals within migrant farmworker communities as promotores de salud – lay health educators. Although the program dates to the late 1990s, the training modules are still on the Farmworker Justice website and might be of interest to supporters of your migrant community. Physicians for Social Responsibility and partners have developed a similar curriculum, Niños Seguros y Sanos: Safe and Healthy Children, which is available for download. This outreach could be a project for your church’s ESOL program.

For more information and action ideas, see the 2010 Earth Day: Food and Environmental Justice Labor page.

For additional resources and links, including books and films, go to the More Resources page.

Climate Change Issues and Actions

Immigrants by and large contribute less to climate change than most Americans, but are among those most impacted by it.

When many of us think of climate change, we most often think of the framing that has dominated mainstream environmental discourse: polar bears and parts per million. By focusing instead on the way climate change affects communities and their economic and physical health, is embedded in social justice, and is intertwined with wasteful, fossil-fuel-based transportation, energy, and industrial facilities, we can look at the connections between the abuse of the environment and oppression of groups of people with the least power. As the environment changes, we can focus on green jobs, cooperatives, and alternatives to traditional means of economic support.

Immigrants typically pollute less than other Americans. Wealth is the best predictor of fossil fuel consumption – and the subsequent carbon footprint – as consumption of goods, fossil fuel products, and products made with high carbon emissions rise, as income rises. The median income level of people born abroad is three-fourths of the national median. Furthermore, cities with large immigrant populations have some of the lowest per capita emission rates.

Immigrants are also particularly vulnerable to the environmental changes caused by global warming. As the climate changes, weather emergencies, like severe hurricanes and droughts, will increase in frequency and severity. Industries dependent on natural resources will fare the worst, which won’t bode well for the immigrants that make up 40 percent of the farming, fishing, and forestry industries in the US. Additionally, low-income families are less likely to be financially prepared for a hit to their industry or to their homes. As this kind of devastation increases around the world, migration will intensify.

Learn More

Everybody’s Movement: Environmental Justice & Climate Change (Environmental Support Center) – Successfully addressing the scale and urgency of the climate change crisis will require strong partnerships between mainstream environmental organizations and organizations from low-income and communities of color. This report is the result of a year’s research and interviews with leaders who work closely with organizations in low-income communities and in communities of color.

“Climate Change and Forced Migration” [52KB PDF] (Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office – UU-UNO) – Gary Quinlan, of the UU-UNO Climate Advisory Group, has written an excellent summary of the issues involved, followed by links to additional information. Visit the Climate Action Task Force Website for more climate related articles and resources. You may also read this paper online. For a scholarly and comprehensive look at the issue of forced migration, explore the Forced Migration Online website, coordinated by a small team based at the Refugee Studies Centre, Department of International Development, University of Oxford.

“Climate Change Drives Migration” (IPS – Inter Press Service News Agency) – This Sept. 2011 article by Emilio Godoy discusses climate change (primarily droughts, floods, and other changes in rainfall and crop production) as a driver of immigration from Mexico.

Environmental Degradation, Climate Change, Migration & Development  [244KB PDF] (National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights – NNIRR) – One of the current initiatives in NNIRR’s International Migrant Rights & Global Justice Program is Climate Change and Migration: analysis of the impacts of climate change, and advocacy for real policy solutions, from a migrant rights perspective. This paper by Stephen Castles and Colin Rajah, presented at the 2010 5th People’s Global Action on Migration, Development & Human Rights Conference (Acción Global de los Pueblos sobre Migración, Desarrollo y Derechos Humanos), focuses on the consequences of environmental degradation to development and migration and presents an excellent balanced review of the issues. Visit the NNIRR website for more information on migrant rights and its other programs.

Health Implications of Global Warming: Impacts on Vulnerable Populations [196KB PDF]  (Physicians for Social Responsibility – PSR) – This is one of several fact sheets produced by Physicians for Social Responsibility that examines recent scientific evidence of global warming’s impact on health. Explore PRS’s vast resource collection by issue and resource type, beginning with the Global Warming fact sheets page.

Climate Migration In Latin America: A Future ‘Flood of Refugees’ To The North?(Council on Hemispheric Affairs – COHA) – This 2010 research paper, by COHA Research Fellow Alexandra Deprez, explores the migratory consequences that environmental manifestations of human-induced climate change may have in Latin America. The second section includes a case study of Mexico, a potential hotspot for environmentally induced migration in Latin America and the largest immigration feeder to the United States. The paper ends with a speculation of which potential actions the United States might eventually take to address what could be a looming problem.

Take Action

  • Present a community screening and discussion of the multiple award-winning documentary, Climate Refugees (see reviews at More Resources). Discuss how your community or congregation is, or can be, prepared to show hospitality to the suddenly displaced, who may seek refuge in your area.
  • Organize a group read of the Book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (see reviews and links to videos at More Resources), which explores how climate change and the resulting extreme weather events link to unrest, poverty, migration, and violence in the Global South and the role the Global North must play in helping to avert the worst disasters.
  • In your Covenant Group or other small group, watch and discuss the video Weathering Change, which tells the stories of women around the world who are shouldering the burdens of climate change. It is available on the Population Action International website where you can also download an advocacy guide.
  • Take action for climate refugees through the Environmental Justice Foundation. Organize a “Write Here, Right Now” campaign in your congregation to send letters to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary, urging closer cooperation between their institutions to address the humanitarian and human rights impacts of climate change. Have a copy of the book Climate Refugees on hand to inspire letter-writers (see reviews at More Resources).

For additional resources and links, including books and films, go to the More Resources page.

Border and Migration Issues and Actions

Border Walls negatively impact ecosystems and wildlife, plant, and human mobility.

Construction of the Border Wall on the US–Mexico boundary has created significant and often irreversible effects on surrounding ecosystems. Many environmental protection laws have been waived over the course of construction and the wall has degraded and fragmented the area immensely. The impacts on wildlife and plants are numerous; the fences have restricted movement and gene flow, induced stress on wildlife and plants, imperiled the recovery of endangered species, and disturbed the migratory flight patterns of birds by their artificial lighting at night.

As the Border Wall grows, those people seeking to migrate across the US-Mexico border face increasingly dangerous passages through hostile desert environments. All risk their lives. Sadly, many do not survive the ordeal and many others encounter abuse at the hands of border patrols in the US.

More Information

“Wildlife: Border fences more effective against wildlife than illegal immigrants”(Border Wall in the News) – This article by biologist Scott Shalaway in the Jan. 1, 2012, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is one of many news features cross-posted to the “Border Wall in the News” section of the No Border Wall website (browse news articles in the archives back to 2008). On the Environmental Impacts page, learn more about how the US-Mexico border wall has negatively affected the ecosystem, creating erosion and impacting water, habitat fragmentation, and endangered species. No Border Wall urges our elected representatives to reject the border wall and repeal the Secure Fence Act and the Real ID Act.

“Wildlife Segregated by U.S. Border Policy” (Animal Welfare Institute – AWI) – This article in the Spring 2010 AWI Quarterly provides an overview of border policy history, affected areas and species, and suggested legislation solutions.

Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign (Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club is the lead) – Check here for the latest border wall updates and additional resources, including Wild Versus Wall, a 20-minute Sierra Club film covering the ecological effects of the border wall constructed in all four states that share boundaries with Mexico. View the film online or order a DVD. Take a tour of the borderlands with Google Earth.

Wildlife and Border Policy (Defenders of Wildlife) – Download resources such as the in-depth report On the Line: The Impacts of Immigration Policy on Wildlife and Habitat in the Arizona Borderlands and a shorter paper, Continental Divide: Borderlands, Wildlife, People, and the WALL.

Border Links – This organization offers border immersion opportunities in Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico for groups and individuals. Community workshops are also available on immigration, free trade, etc. The “Beyond the Borders” program brings the experience to communities in the U.S. where immigrant justice and other border issues are present, currently Santa Barbara and Chicago. There are excellent immigration resources on the website.

No More Deaths – This organization’s mission is to end death and suffering on the U.S./Mexico border through civil initiative, including providing humanitarian aid and documenting human rights violations, and encouraging humane immigration policy.

Take Action

  • Learn more about HR 1505 and other extreme bills currently in the House and Senate that would exempt large areas of the nation from environmental laws. Urge your representatives to reject HR 1505. The Sierra Club currently has an online action alert urging members of the Senate to reject HR 1505 if it passes the House. HR 1505, authored by Rep. Bishop of Utah, would waive thirty-six laws for any Border Patrol activity on federal land within 100 miles of either border.
  • Organize a community workshop or begin recruiting a delegation of teens and adults from your congregation to participate in an immersion program with Border Links, described above. In preparation for the Justice General Assembly in Phoenix, AZ (June 20-24, 2012) the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) Faith Without Borders program (FWB), and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) have jointly organized three opportunities for service/learning trips to the U.S./Mexico. Find out more on the UUA website.
  • Host a screening and discussion of border and migration issues using the Sierra Club’s Wild Versus Wall film and other resources listed above.

For additional resources and links, including books and films, go to the More Resources page.

Population and Scapegoating Issues and Actions

Recent and current immigrants are unfairly blamed for environmental degradation.

Some anti-immigrant advocates in the US claim that population growth is bad for the Earth, our country and the environment.  They claim that immigrants harm the environment by contributing to urban sprawl, congestion, pollution, waste generation, water consumption, land conversion and loss of biodiversity. In particular, some advocates for population control focus on unfounded connections between population, immigration, and damage to nature. Often their arguments fail to consider the complexities of the situations and mistakenly assign blame for environmental degradation to the poor. (For more details, see The Center for New Community’s report on “Race, Migration and the Environment” in resources listed below.)

What are the facts? It’s true the US population is growing, due to both immigration and increased fertility rates. Current estimates of US annual population growth and immigration can be hard to pinpoint because of the difficulty in accounting for undocumented immigrants. The US Census Bureau 2011 figures estimate that the “foreign-born” comprise 40 million of a total 311 million US residents. Of those 40 million, 7 million have immigrated between 2005 and 2010. Looking ahead, a 2008 Pew Research Center report projects the US population will grow by 117 million between 2005 and 2050; 82 percent of that growth, or 96 million, are expected to be new immigrants and their US born descendants, who will represent 30 percent of the US population by 2050.

What should we expect? For centuries, changes in environmental and economic conditions have driven human migration. As climate change continues to escalate, we can expect an increase in migration across and within our borders, as people move to meet basic survival needs and to seek better economic opportunities. For example, the worsening drought and crop failures in Mexico are pushing workers northwards into the Southwest US and beyond.

Doesn’t the increase in immigration hurt our environment? Placing blame for environmental degradation and climate change on the growing immigrant population is unfounded and unfair, and shifts attention away from the damage created by our society’s patterns of over-consumption and fossil fuel dependency. Assessing the net change in local or global environmental impact of a single person or family crossing a border is difficult – it may be negative, positive or neutral; factors include the differences in environmental practices, pollution and biodiversity found in each country, and the degree of changes in the immigrant’s lifestyle and consumption patterns.

“The assumption that immigrating to the US necessarily turns people into super-consumers is a spurious one,” according to Betsy Hartmann, director of Population and Development Program at Hampshire College. As she points out, “many immigrant communities bring with them traditions of greater respect for the environment,” and are often actively involved in urban renewal and agriculture projects in their neighborhoods. She also points out “carbon emissions are not strongly linked to population growth in America (or elsewhere).” The Center for New Community (“Race, Migration and the Environment”) also notes “the relationship between population increase, immigrant communities, and environmental degradation is complex and dynamic. In the United States, wealth is the most comprehensive indicator of high fossil fuel consumption and the subsequent carbon footprints. [In addition], a broader look at immigrants’ impact on the country’s carbon emissions also shows that immigrants have a small effect on total emissions. When we look at large urban communities where many immigrants live, no correlation is found between increased per capita emissions and an increased immigrant population. In fact, the opposite correlation is found; cities with large immigrant populations like New York and Los Angeles, where immigrants make up 36% and 40% of the population respectively, have some of the lowest per capita emission rates. In contrast, cities with the highest per capital emission levels, like Toledo, OH, and Indianapolis, IN, have small immigrant populations, comprising on average 5.1%.” Like others of low- and medium-incomes, immigrants and their families are most often disproportionately among the victims, not perpetrators, of environmental degradation and climate change.

It is also important to take a broader perspective of the contribution of individuals’ consumption and lifestyle choices to climate change. For instance, individual usage accounts for only about 25 percent of worldwide energy consumption, with nearly 75 percent attributable to commercial, industrial, corporate, agribusiness, and government usage. Agriculture and industry account for 90 percent of all water use and 97 percent of waste is generated by non-municipal sources.

For some, immigrants are a convenient scapegoat for our environmental woes. But, perhaps the real offenders include industrial civilization, our consumer mentality, policy makers in the fossil fuel industry and our military-industrial complex. It is important to be aware that anti-immigration agents are active today and are continuing to seed their agenda throughout the environmental movement.

More Information

Race, Migration and the Environment (537 KB PDF) (Center for New Community) – This paper examines the way nature and society are interconnected, the destructive impacts of the “population stabilization” movement, how immigrants are impacted by environmental injustices, and what they’re doing to prepare for a more equitable and sustainable future. The Center for New Community provides a number of articles and resources on this topic.

How Immigration Hastens Environmental Destruction” (FAIR: Federation for American Immigration Reform) – This article on the FAIR website provides a succinct explanation of anti-immigration environmentalism. More information on this viewpoint may be found on the websites of organizations with ties to FAIR, including Center for Immigration Studiesand Progressives for Immigration Reform.

“The Greening of Hate: An Environmental Essay” (Southern Poverty Law Center – SPLC, 7/2010) – Betsy Hartmann, professor and director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, reflects on the scapegoating of immigrants for environmental degradation and sets the record straight. This is one of a series of essays in SPLC’s publication Greenwash: Nativists, Environmentalism and the Hypocrisy of Hate. All are available on the SPLC website.

“Why Environmentalists Should Get Involved In Immigration Reform” (Grist) – Sudha Nandagopal gives a good first-person account of growing up in an environmentally conscious family AND being an immigrant family; she makes the case for why environmentalists should be pro immigrant rights. This article would make a good reading for a discussion group.

Turning Off the Water: How the Contracting and Transaction Provisions in Alabama’s Immigration Law Make Life Harder For Everyone (Immigration Policy Center) – This Nov. 2011 paper by Joan Friedland for the Immigration Policy Center addresses the consequences of HB 56, Alabama’s extreme new immigration law. Activities which had never been considered relevant to immigration law – such as having safe water – are made much more difficult, if not impossible, by this new law. The impact of these extreme provisions will touch all Alabamians, not just unauthorized immigrants, and all Americans should be concerned.

“Slowing Growth. Protecting the Planet.” (4.11 MB PDF) (Sierra Club) – This slide presentation, shared by Kimberly Lovell, head of the Sierra Club’s National Global Population and Environment Program Team, provides an excellent introduction to how the current generation can protect the global environment and preserve natural resources for future generations by advancing global reproductive health and sustainable development initiatives (e-mail Kim if you would like the PowerPoint version). Visit the Global Population and Environment Program web pages for more information.

Take Action

  • In your Green Sanctuary committee, environmental team, or social action committee, identify one or more environmental justice issues impacting area immigrants. Research opportunities to build alliances to work towards solutions in your community.
  • Explore actions your congregation might take to “Stand on the Side of Love” with immigrants in or near your community. Visit for a range of resources on advocacy and immigration reform, including their blog and links to other organizations.
  • Study the immigration laws in your state and others to learn more about their consequences, intended and unintended. Are basic services in your area affected by citizenship status? As an example, study Alabama’s HB 56 immigration law and learn how it has impacted immigrant rights, including the right to safe water (see resource listed above).
  • Research your local, regional, and state environmental organizations to see if there is anti-immigration language or activity. If so, speak up – whether by letter, a petition, a presentation, or by hosting a dialogue to present the issue fairly.

For additional resources and links, including books and films, go to the More Resources page.