When hundreds of thousands of demonstrators clogged New York City’s streets last month chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, climate change has got to go,” their message was mostly a familiar one: world leaders need to act to save the planet.
Here and there in the crowds were some pockets of protestors with a less obvious chant. “Hey Obama, don’t deport my mamma!” they yelled.
That message came from immigrant community groups, using the huge rally to promote a lesser-known climate cause – the push for formal acknowledgement that environmental issues are a major factor in migration, and that those who flee to the U.S. from Mexico and other countries ravaged by the environment should not be penalized.
In the last 20 years, Mexico has seen an uncharacteristic drought robbing many rural farmers of their livelihoods. And a 2009 report by the United Nations University predicts that rain levels and runoff could continue to decrease in parts of Mexico by up to 70 percent over the next century.
Those climatic changes are a factor pushing migrants from Mexico into the U.S., according to a 2010 National Academy of Sciences study. There are “numerous reports and anecdotes of Mexican farmers fleeing to the United States because they no longer could maintain their previous way of life because of climate-driven crop failures,” the study said, adding that the issue “has not received sufficient attention in the immigration literature.”
Up to 7 million Mexicans are projected to emigrate to the United States over the next 65 years due to displacement from climate change, the study said.
The issue has drawn the attention of City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who represents the heavily Hispanic Sunset Park and Red Hook neighborhoods. “There are floods and droughts and hurricanes that are right now going through Mexico,” Menchaca said while on the march in last month’s climate change protest. “This is what the country is experiencing and so they’re coming up here. They’re coming north.”
While climate change may be just one factor pushing migration from Mexico, it’s an important one, said Marco Castillo from Ñina Migrante, a local migrant advocacy group that participated in the climate march. Migrants who come to the United States feel they have no choice, said Castillo, but once they arrive “we find ourselves criminalized here because of that decision.”
On the street at the march was a multitude of artwork that consisted of realistically shaped, two-dimensional wooden props in the shapes of corn, turtles and life-sized printouts of people.
The people represented on the signs: migrant farmers from around the world who have been displaced due to climate change.
The marchers also highlighted other causes of displacement: pollution, or land takeovers by large multi-national companies in Mexico.
“I think that a lot of the messaging fails to mention how migrant communities are being impacted. And we’re directly impacted,” said Sonia Guinansaca, from Culture Strike, a Latino migration organization that uses artwork in its advocacy for immigrant rights.
Fernanda Espinosa’s group, Ropavejeros – part of an immigrant worker art collective, manufactured a float mounted on four bicycles in the shape of a large tree trunk – with a bird’s nest atop and axes protruding along the sides.
While peddling in the back corner of the float during the parade, Espinosa said her group was “here today because we wanted to build something that portrayed our displacement from Latin America.”
Emigrating from Mexico or Central America does not guarantee an escape from pollution or climate change. “A lot of the people who have migrated in the US come to live in neighborhoods like the Bronx or east Harlem,” said Eliana Godoy, marching with Culture Strike, naming two neighborhoods where high asthma rates are often attributed to air pollution.
Councilman Menchaca noted that some of his immigrant constituents in Brooklyn’s Red Hook and Sunset Park neighborhoods, which are nearly a third Central American, suffered damage to their homes during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. “They’re talking to me from their experience – from the mold that’s in their homes, to the fact that some of these homes have yet to be re-constructed. This is a crisis.”