Supporting Immigrants to Advance Environmental Justice

By Zoe Lee-Park

Chevron oil refinery, Richmond

Activists for environmental justice have shown that the most powerful and privileged members in our society still devalue the lives of poorer people of color in subtle but powerful ways: they put toxic sites and hazardous operations in and around the most vulnerable neighborhoods. Immigrants have a unique precarity in this regard, particularly in our country. Our current federal policies do not incorporate nor educate newcomers so that they can have a voice in planning decisions, such as in zoning industrial plants and in energy generation. We need to adopt immigration integration policies to empower immigrants to use their political voice in safeguarding their health.

We should partner with environmental justice organizations who can ensure that immigrants have a seat at the decision-making table, while also apprising them of foreseeable risks.

Our immigrant communities today are especially vulnerable, outside of the decision-making processes, and our scientific data and empirical evidence reveals this. In Oxnard, California, for example, which is predominantly Latino, and where more than one-third of residents are foreign-born, three gas-powered power plants and an EPA Superfund toxic waste site are adjacent to the densest immigrant communities. Residents there suffer in the 90th percentile of the state for asthma rates and cardiovascular disease. Similarly, in Richmond, California, one-half of the population surrounding the city’s two oil refineries, three highways, and coal transport terminal is foreign-born. Air monitoring initiatives have shown how these neighborhoods have notably higher averages of particulate matter. As a result, almost one-third of children suffer from asthma, as the extremely high levels of particulates impair their bodies’ immune responses.

As scholars like Lori Hunter have found, Oxnard and Richmond are not isolated cases: nationwide, counties with higher proportions of immigrants and non-English speaking households have greater numbers of hazardous waste generators and proposed Superfund sites. UCLA researchers recently found that foreign-born Asians and foreign-born Latinos have the poorest health outcomes, compared to U.S.-born Asians and Whites. National ecological studies and risk assessments have also revealed how working-class, non-English speaking immigrants have significantly higher risks of cancer from hazardous air pollutants.

Immigration scholars can provide explanations for why communities with high proportions of immigrants are so often targets for environmental harms: Irene Bloemraad, in her book on immigrants’ political incorporation, found that the U.S. does not help immigrants integrate into society, expecting, instead, that they find their own way. In contrast, she noted, by setting aside public funds, the Canadian government promotes settlement, citizenship, and participation for new immigrants. Through federally-sponsored language classes, employment trainings, and naturalization assistance events, Canadian newcomers are more likely than their U.S. counterparts to develop a sense of belonging and to participate politically. But, as environmental justice scholars have shown, polluting corporations and “dirty industries” in the U.S. often target immigrant communities, knowing that they are among the least politically resistant and informed communities. Our own government officials do little or nothing to warn them away from polluted or hazardous neighborhoods.

But, as environmental justice scholars have shown, polluting corporations and “dirty industries” in the U.S. often target immigrant communities, knowing that they are among the least politically resistant and informed communities.

To address these problems, we must provide public funds to community organizations like the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), which works in Richmond, and the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which works in Oxnard. We need to cultivate “public-private” partnerships to inform immigrants about possible dangers, and to see that they become involved in the political system. These environmental inequities are far from new: throughout our history, the more established descendants of immigrants have often made newcomers live in the most polluted and degraded places. But, in contrast to the past, we are now armed with mounting scientific and social science evidence, such that if we make efforts to encourage our newcomers to participate in governance, in environmental justice policy-making and regulatory arenas, we will strengthen both them and the public health of the nation. Through working with already-established, immigrant-serving environmental justice organizations, we can safeguard their health from the moment that they arrive here. By enabling their civic engagement, we can incorporate the very people who will become our fellow citizens. Only then will elected officials prioritize their well-being.

About the Author

Zoe Lee-Park is a second-generation Korean-American double majoring in Legal Studies and Society & Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.

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The Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI) is a partnership of migration experts at UC Berkeley who investigate the social, political, legal and economic dynamics of migration globally as well as locally. We strive to advance thoughtful and substantive conversations on migration that leverage the university’s cutting-edge scholarship and its public mission to educate current and future generations. We embrace new data-gathering technologies as well as embedded, on-the-ground fieldwork, drawing from the interdisciplinary expertise of faculty, students and the communities with which we engage. Bringing together research, training and public engagement, BIMI aspires to inform, educate and transform knowledge to improve the well-being of immigrants and the communities they live in.

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