On Earth Day, April 22, the Fullerton College Sociology Department hosted a “Migration Symposium” featuring speakers and conversations which sought to draw lines between current issues surrounding the environment and human migration.
“Today we stand with millions of people around the world,” geography professor Aline Gregorio said, “This is the 49th anniversary of Earth Day, a day symbolizing the birth of the environmental movement in the 1970s here in the United States.”
Gregorio said that this Earth Day comes at “a sobering moment” in which environmental issues are not just about individual altruism, but about the future of human civilization. The consequences of climate change are spread unevenly around the world—the global rich constitute 20% of the population, but consume 80% of the global resources.
“While the nations of the European Union, North America, and Australia produce the overwhelming majority of carbon emissions per capita, floods, scorching temperatures, severe droughts, and desertification overwhelmingly affect those living in poor nations,” Gregorio said, “Pollution and deforestation caused by excessive consumption suffocates people of color, and expels indigenous people from their lands. The global poor carry most of the burden of environmental destruction.”
This environmental inequality results in the forced migration of millions. Since 2008, an average of 24 million people have been displaced by catastrophic weather disasters.
Demographic Change: California is the USA in Fast Forward
The keynote speaker for the symposium was Dr. Manuel Pastor, professor of sociology and American studies at USC. Dr. Pastor directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, and has a new book out called State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Means for America’s Future.
The main focus of Dr. Pastor’s talk was how the current political and social moment that America finds itself in is very similar to what California faced in the 1990s, and learned from. As he put it, California is America “in fast forward”—with lessons for the rest of the nation on issues of immigration and demographic change.
Dr. Pastor showed a chart indicating that the United States is on the path to becoming majority people of color by the year 2043. This is, for some people, a source of great delight, and for others a source of great fear and anxiety.
The current demographic changes happening in the United States are a mirror of what happened in California in the 1990s. Facing such changes in the population with the arrival of new immigrants, lots of Californians responded exactly the way lots of Americans are responding today—with fear and discrimination.
This was demonstrated by things like the passage of Prop 187 in 1994, which sought to strip access to social services and education from undocumented immigrants, and the elimination of bilingual education.
And yet California today has declared itself to be a “sanctuary state” with some of the most progressive immigration policies in the nation. The people who were anxious about demographic change began to realize that it wasn’t that scary.
Pastor quoted a book called There goes the Neighborhood which is about demographic change: “The Juan or Mohammad you don’t know is a lot scarier than the Juan or Mohammad you do know.”
Thus, the demographic changes (and anxiety) happening in America are changes that California already went through, learned from, and moved on to become the welcoming place it is today. In this way, those fearing demographic change can look to the Golden State with hope.
Message from an Asylum-Seeker
The symposium also featured a panel discussion on the topic of “Immigrant Resilience” which included three speakers, the first of which was Judge Najla Ayoubi, who is currently an asylum-seeker in the United States.
Ayoubi is a founder of the Women’s Regional Network, which is a network of women leaders “working together to advance women’s rights and regional peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.”
Having served in several important government posts in Afghanistan, including the Independent Election Commission, and contributing to the creation of Afghanistan’s constitution, Ayoubi had to flee her country out of fear for her life.
Despite the fact that she has two Master’s degrees and served as a judge in Afghanistan, here in America, as an asylum-seeker, Ayoubi works part-time as a retail cashier.
“Do you think this is my dream?” she asked rhetorically, “Being an accomplished woman, fighting all of my life for human rights and my own rights as woman, doing work here that is not meaningful?”
Because of her status, Ayoubi does not have financial security.
“The policies are very brutal here,” Ayoubi said, “They accept you to stay here—but you face limited resources and job discrimination. There are many forms of insecurity.”
Despite the challenges she faces, Ayoubi continues to work with the Women’s Regional Network (WRN).
She discussed some of the goals, mission, and accomplishments of the WRN, which seeks to amplify women’s voices and experiences in conflict zones and to maintain a strong foundation for new strategies for peace.”
The WRN works with governments and grassroots groups to help shape better policies.
“Last night I was up to 3-4am communicating with my colleagues back in Sri Lanka because we have to look at how we can protect human rights there” following the deadly terrorist attacks.
Ayoubi said that the work being done by the WRN is being replicated in Latin America and Africa.
The next speaker was Dilia Ortega from the local group Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), which seeks to empower low-income communities of color who are unequally affected by urban pollution.
Orteta’s passion for environmental justice derives from her experience of witnessing family members work various jobs in the industrial cities of Vernon and Walnut Park (in LA County).
She gave a definition of environmental justice, which is “People working together to make sure everyone is able to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live on clean soil, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, culture, ability, nationality, or income.”
Ortega showed map of LA county, which demonstrated that areas with majority people of color tend to overlap with areas containing factories emitting a lot of pollution, and Superfund sites. She called this “environmental racism.”
“Often times these companies go into our communities, communities of color, communities with a big immigrant population, because they assume we’re not going to stand up and fight them,” Ortega explained.
She mentioned a major battery manufacturer in the city of Vernon (which has been there for over 30 years) that caused a 4.5-mile radius plume of lead and arsenic soil contamination. The EPA and other regulatory groups knew this and were letting them essentially poison the land.
“We organized for over a decade until they were finally shut down,” Ortega said, however, “To this day, we’re living on toxic soil and the state does not have the money to help remediate the largest toxic cleanup in the history of California. This affects Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, east LA—a big radius.”
The purpose of Communities for a Better Environment is to get people involved in advocating policies that protect areas vulnerable to pollution.
“We do this work because this affects our lives,” Ortega said, “Often when people talk about Earth Day, they talk about protecting animals like polar bears. But we’re also talking about people and their right to clean air, drinking water, and soil.”
The final speaker in the “Immigrant Resilience” panel was Yosimar Reyes, a nationally-acclaimed poet.
Born in Guerrero, Mexico and raised in San Jose, Reyes’ poetry explores themes of migration and sexuality. He immigrated to the US at age 3 and has lived all his life here.
“I’m a poet who happens to be undocumented,” Reyes said, “So if you’ve never met an undocumented person before, this is what we look like.”
He read his poem “Undocumented Joy” which is as follows:
I don’t remember crossing
so I can not tell you about the journey
sometimes I close my eyes
and imagine a pitch black sky
with a thousand little stars
I image a poetic crossing
my grandmother’s hand tugging at my arm
a rush of wind
Abuelo leading the way
I image a crossing without fear
and Abuela’s goals
to raise my brother and I
into hardworking men
I crossed without the trauma
latching unto my body
mis viejitos tell me
how they had to
stuff the four of us under the backseat of a car
sometimes I wish I could remember
then maybe just maybe
I would have another story to tell
I can only tell you about how poor we were
living in that small apartment
in the Eastside
how embarrassed I was
to invite my friends over
even tho we all lived like this
I can only tell you about how proud I was
who asked me to teach her english
scribbled on our refrigerator door
you can sometimes see the residue
of the markers I used to teach her basic words
I wish you would ask of the memories
I had before my identity became political
about the laughs
the things I love
about the way I have managed to survive
I wish I could tell you about the journey
but all I know is that I am here
and I am not going anywhere
this is home.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The symposium ended with a “conversation circle” hosted by Students for Equitable Sustainability. The topic was The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone document in the history of human rights, signed by countries of the United Nations (including the United States) in 1948.
The conversation asked attendees to consider which of the 30 human rights established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are being violated by governments, including the United States, today.
Some of these rights include:
-the right to asylum
-no arbitrary detention
-right to life, liberty, and security of person
-right to privacy
-freedom of migration
-no degrading treatment
-adequate standards of living
And so on.