Let’s Build Back Better For All

In the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, families and communities also faced turbulence in surviving floods from New York City to New Orleans and wildfires all over the Southwest and California. This year continues to remind us that the climate crisis is in fact already upon us. Extreme weather is already the world’s leading cause of displacement: three times more than conflict and nine times more than persecution. Scientists predict mass migration in the next thirty years due to climate change, displacing the people who are already bearing the biggest brunt of the effects of environmental racism and systemic oppression. Human mobility due to climate-related disasters and events, often called “Climate Migration,” refers to the mobilization of people (often entire communities) who are forced or compelled to leave their homes due to climate-related disasters or environmental changes that make their habitual homes no longer safe or adequate to live in.

Our immigrant communities carry an extensive history of exposing the reality of this climate crisis and its devastating consequences. Despite our decades of efforts, politicians and community leaders are just now beginning to wake up and endorse our call to action. I’m a proud immigrant from Guatemala, a country that has seen the destruction caused by climate change first hand as hundreds of thousands of people seek relief from extreme drought and storm patterns and the hardships that follow, like poverty and food insecurity. This displacement continuously separates and rips families aparts  in their quest for survival. Through this disheartening reality, stories like mine become a generational cycle; I was separated from my ancestral lands and my family – our rich history of subsistence agriculture ended with our departure from Guatemala. The climate crisis and the harms it causes do not exist in a silo; environmental injustices are linked to racial, gender, reproductive, health, voting, and so many more inequities.

We often think of environmental and climate justice as land-focused movements that are disconnected from people-centered justice, but that is far from true. Environmental justice – particularly as it relates to climate justice – is inherently tied to the fight for human and civil rights. And, as we see more and more wildfires, hurricanes, once-in-a-century storms, floods, and other climate disasters, there is a clear connection between the environmental justice we seek and the immigration justice our allies seek for our communities. Our work must go hand in hand because our fight is intersectional. We must shift our climate action solutions to no longer address singular or isolated issues, and instead, make bold changes to structures and systems that caused the injustice in the first place. A sustainable, equitable future for Latinx includes the dignity of stability and freedom from the fear of the next looming climate disaster. The climate crisis knows no borders, so why do our climate solutions? 

One thing is for certain: our movements await critical and timely action from Congress on both immigration and climate relief. Despite increasing support, we were unable to include citizenship in the Build Back Better Act in the House, and we are left to hope that the existing provisions, including work permits and other critical benefits, remain in the Senate’s version of the bill, so that at least some relief comes to our undocumented community. We cannot address the climate crisis without addressing immigration rights and reform. Congress sets our country up for future failure and turmoil if we do not address the ways in which climate disasters are disproportionately harming immigrant communities. 

Getting our respective priorities into the final Build Back Better Act package, legislation, or other legislative vehicles should not be a competition for who gets the best or biggest piece of the pie. Justice for our communities is an and instead of an or; we need both a pathway to citizenship and bold investment in immediate climate action to ensure our future generations can benefit from a safer, more equitable country – particularly for the Latinx community as we face xenophobic narrative and policies, underrepresentation in government and in the media (and overrepresentation of harmful stereotypes), and targeted disinformation in both English and Spanish. This is a historic opportunity to stand together and ensure that pandemic rebuilding efforts and revisioning of a more just future include relief for our communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to decades of disinvestment, discriminatory practices, higher pollution burdens, inequitable access to healthcare, and so much more. 

The millions of undocumented and differently documented people and families in the U.S., as well as the millions who will be displaced in the coming years due to extreme weather and the climate crisis, need a reliable mechanism of safety, certainty, and sustainability – and they need leaders who are willing to work together today to build our communities better for tomorrow. 

About the author 

Alejandra Ramírez-Zárate, National Campaigns Manager, Chispa LCV a grassroots community organizing program in the fight for climate justice. 

Alejandra Ramírez-Zárate is a civil rights leader dedicated to achieving greater racial and economic equity for marginalized communities. She works to advance democracy reforms that reduce barriers for participation, empower low-income people of color to participate in policy decision-making processes, and increase government responsiveness to their needs. Alejandra is a proud immigrant from Jutiapa, Guatemala and grew up in Los Angeles, CA. 

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