Stories of struggles for environmental justice are replete with the often valiant efforts of community organizers, “citizen science,” and battles against polluted air and water. Increasingly, environmental justice advocates are recognizing that the changing climate is exacerbating longstanding or creating new vulnerabilities for communities already subject to other forms of inequality. For transnational Mexican families, divided by punitive immigration policies that magnify their geographic and social distance, the potential for serious environmental harm is simply one on a long list of problems that infuse their everyday lives. Separated by borders, but sharing each other’s social and environmental concerns, these transnational communities of Mexican immigrants act as a link between two unjust environments in the United States and Mexico.“The injustices for community members occur at many levels, as their quality of life is simultaneously harmed by changing climates, punitive immigration policies, failed efforts at economic development, and political disenfranchisement.“
Based on research in New York City and Puebla’s Mixteca region, I describe here one such community.1The findings described here come from a research project funded by the Fox Fellows Fund of Wagner College, which is also a supporting partner of NewYorkTlan. The author would like to thank Margarita Sánchez, Sarah Donovan, Jazmin Diaz, Gonzalo Mercado, Marco Antonio Castillo, Atala Chávez, and the team at IIPSOCULTA as well as members of Ñani Migrante for their participation and support in these projects. Special thanks to Joey Sergi for substantial comments on an early draft. The injustices for community members occur at many levels, as their quality of life is simultaneously harmed by changing climates, punitive immigration policies, failed efforts at economic development, and political disenfranchisement. Addressing these injustices requires first recognizing the multiple drivers of inequality and suffering, and then creating pathways toward alternative visions and spaces for community empowerment and policy improvements. The Mexican immigrants within these communities in places like New York City recognize the multivariate nature of their struggle and work hard to organize and find ways forward for themselves and their families on both sides of the border. But their efforts are continuously hampered by the sheer magnitude and complexity of policy and other structural limitations on their ability to enact more just environments.
“We are sad because of the situation with our families,” Doña Clementina said to me, her body shifting in such a way that the sadness overwhelming her being in that moment became palpable. With three sons living abroad in the United States and two daughters at home, Clementina embodies the older generation of today’s transnational Mexican families, living a mostly traditional economic and social life in rural Puebla. Using remittances, her sons contribute to their family’s well-being, and have built a house in their home town, investments in the possibility of return. But with families of their own now living in the United States, return is most likely to happen only under strong political duress.
Families like Clementina’s struggle financially on both sides of the border, but in distinct ways and seeking different solutions. For those living in the United States, work and economic opportunity have always been at the core of their desire to immigrate north. For example, in New York City in 2014, 5 percent of the population (886,983) were undocumented immigrants; of that group, 86 percent were of working age (25–64), and most were actively working. While many worked in hospitality, construction, and retail, 11 percent were entrepreneurs.
Those living in New York help support their family members in the Mixteca Baja Poblana region of Mexico mainly through remittances, which are a substantial input to the local economy. This area of Mexico has long struggled with economic development, as it is geographically difficult to reach, has limited infrastructural resources, and has suffered from the overall decline in smallholder agriculture. Earlier studies have found that transnational Mexican communities in the United States tend to continue contact and investment in their home communities when family connections there still exist.2See e.g., Monika Stodolska and Carla A. Santos, “‘You Must Think of Familia’: The Everyday Lives of Mexican Migrants in Destination Communities,” Social Culture and Geography 7 (November 2006): 627–647. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14649360600825752. This remains true for communities such as those in New York City, but two key issues are pushing the boundaries of their abilities to harmonize their transnational lives: increasing threats to their security in the United States and the persistent drought in their communities of origin.
Climate and resource realities
Family members I spoke with who remain in the Mixteca region frequently referred to the dryness of their region. “It has always been dry, but it is definitely drier now than it used to be,” noted Doña Clementina, after I had spent the morning with her daughter herding goats in their pastures. Like many remote pueblos across Mexico, this small town has been hit hard by the triple impact of outmigration, drought, and infrastructure challenges.3Ursula Oswald Spring, ed., Water Resources in Mexico: Scarcity, Degradation, Stress, Conflicts, Management, and Policy, (Springer, 2011). Even those connected to a main water line (which Doña Clementina is not) have had reduced access to water, as larger towns, cities, and agricultural installations are draining the supplies of water that could be available.“Environmental challenges in Puebla can seem remote to family members in New York, who face different injustices. “
The environmental differences between family members on both sides of the border put in perspective their increasing distance: those who live in the United States—especially in places like New York City, where water is abundant and often included in rent—can have trouble understanding the everyday plight of those in the Mixteca. “When I talk to him about food scarcity, my son says, ‘Mami, why don’t you grow your own tomatoes and chilies, like I do?’” Doña Clementina told me. “Where would I get the water to water them? It’s just not that way here.” In the dry season especially, fruits and vegetables are very hard to sustain, and trees that once gave fruit more consistently are faltering. Thus, environmental challenges in Puebla can seem remote to family members in New York, who face different injustices.
Still, Mexican immigrants living in New York are no strangers to their own environmental concerns. When it comes to the injustices suffered by immigrant communities in the United States, problems in the physical environment4Raoul S. Liévanos, “Race, Deprivation, and Immigrant Isolation: The Spatial Demography of Air-Toxic Clusters in the Continental United States,” Social Science Research 54 (November 2015): 50–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2015.06.014. are often substantial. Groups of Mexican immigrants participated in local climate marches in New York, representing their awareness of the significant environmental concerns threatening the livelihoods of both them and their families, particularly following the destruction left behind by Hurricane Sandy. However, many undocumented immigrants find their ability to address these concerns to be limited by time, energy, and resources. It is often the case that even considerable threats from potential climate disasters and highly toxic sites in residential neighborhoods must out of necessity take a lower priority in comparison to more immediate social, political, and economic threats.
Current popular political discourse in the United States about immigration is flooded with debates about deportation, and the press has at times covered the harsh impact of this process on families more broadly. Yet little attention has been paid to the longstanding suffering of divided families that cannot visit one another across the US-Mexico border, many of whom have been separated for decades. Mexican nationals contemplating even brief stays (for business or tourism) must obtain a visa to visit the United States, a requirement not placed on US passport-holders wishing to make short-term visits to Mexico. Applicants who are unable to substantiate significant economic resources (and therefore an implied intention to return to Mexico) are likely to be denied.
These visa restrictions not only deter visits for pleasure, but also visits during times of tragedy. Members of these communities spoke of several occasions in which parents and grandparents have died, and their family members in the United States have been unable to see them, or to attend the funerals. In a few cases, the need to return has been deemed to be too great not to go, and, as one brother in a family of four children reports, he had to cross the border surreptitiously in both directions after his father’s death. Each crossing is often a trauma in its own right.
Other conflicts can arise over such distance, distance that is both cultural and geographic. Grandparents with little or no access to cell phones or the Internet in their rural villages strain to understand the omnipresent role of these technologies in the lives of their children and grandchildren. The disconnect is also linguistic, as Clementina’s daughter Esmeralda noted. “My nieces and nephews [born in the United States] can’t really communicate with us, they don’t speak Spanish,” she explained.“Despite these disconnects, however, the ties between families remain strong.“
Disagreements may occur over priorities across a range of issues—what may otherwise be typical generational disagreements over these kinds of cultural values are exacerbated and more painful due to the question of profound distance. Relatives in the United States may wish, for example, that their parents spent more money on medicine and gave less to the local church. Despite these disconnects, however, the ties between families remain strong. Outmigrant family members, no matter where they are born, are “seeds that come from a tree and reproduce in a new land,” explained Esmeralda. “They are still part of the same tree.”
Creative community-based programs that help maintain family connections across borders are one method of easing the pain caused by deeply entrenched social, economic, and environmental injustices. In New York City, one such program creates opportunities through which artistic performers of traditional music and dance are able to visit their families while performing in festivals like NewYorkTlan. Partners5The author is a board member of La Colmena, a community jobs and resource center for the immigrant community on Staten Island, which works with Ñani Migrante, an organizing committee working on these issues. in the educational and artistic communities are able to provide supporting documentation for visa applications, and programs such as these have been very successful in reuniting families for relatively short periods of time—strict adherence to the limited time frame of the cultural visas is very much a condition of participating in the program. These visits are vital to the lifeblood of families, but cannot repair the damage already done by long periods of separation. Communication between family members may be strained, even as they rejoice in seeing one another.
However valuable, these programs are not sufficient to address the core challenges faced by transnational communities, including environmental ones. Take, for example, difficult choices related to investing in scarce water resources. Doña Clementina’s neighbor, Don José, increased farm output through focused purchases of irrigation equipment. This enabled him to consistently grow feed for his family’s goats, even during the dry season, while their neighbors relied on sparse pasture lands. The family with irrigation capacity was able to grow their herds, and their daily animal caretaking routine was significantly less labor-intensive.
Still, there were clear trade-offs: they had irrigation, but had not yet built a bathroom with running water in their house. Doña Clementina’s family had a bathroom, making a more limited, traditional livestock investment by renting extremely arid lands on which to graze their goats. Underlying infrastructural issues also made a difference: not being connected to the main water delivery line, Doña Clementina’s house only had running water three or four times a week. Even with an installed system for irrigation, water for crops would be inconsistent. Such a household-level decision cannot address the systemic problems of water scarcity and economic isolation.“Families with more secure residential status and the ability to travel would then be able to focus time, energy, and resources on actions to address the physical environment.“ While the differences in household decision-making between these two families present an interesting comparison for social scientists, from a justice perspective both families are making choices and trade-offs in the midst of social, political, and environmental injustices. For the transnational families of undocumented immigrants in the United States, a more humane approach to securing their status as legal residents is a crucial precursor to addressing the challenges of their physical environments. A comprehensive immigration reform proposal is beyond the scope of this article, but it has become clear in recent months that new enforcement practices are increasing the anxiety and actual threat for families already struggling to hold together as functional units. Families with more secure residential status and the ability to travel would then be able to focus time, energy, and resources on actions to address the physical environment. They would be able to invest in economic infrastructure for the betterment of their overall communities, and create more stable access to a range of necessary resources. While climate change itself may be too great a problem for them to address at the local community level, there is no doubt stable immigration status would allow for the development of greater community-level resilience to climate change, and the potential to reduce environmental vulnerability.