Flooded community
The USA and other rich countries must make room for climate migrants, as they themselves are increasingly vulnerable to this 21st-century crisis. Photo by Pok Rie/Pexels

Anti-Immigrant Howl Worsens Climate Crisis Toll

The xenophobic U.S. treatment of refugees exacerbates the scourges that climate chaos unleashes–and bars people who might help to fight those ills.

The worsening climate crisis and the increasingly xenophobic, anti-immigrant response to the immigration it causes are colliding, and this ongoing collision can only put us farther away from a solution to either the climate crisis or to rising fascism. Any real solution requires an end to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and the building of a successful ecosocialist movement to replace the root cause of both the climate crisis and fascism — capitalism.

A recent article at TheConversation.com, a website that describes itself as “the world’s leading publisher of research-based news,” showed the migratory force of the climate crisis even inside the United States. As it observed, “The Census Bureau found that…nearly 2.5 million people [were] displaced last year in the U.S. by tornadoes, wildfires and hurricanes,” the frequency of which is boosted by global warming. Moreover, the article noted, “socially vulnerable groups were more strongly represented” among those displaced.

The same phenomenon is happening planetwide, driving immigration to the rich northern countries. The most vulnerable in those countries and in the “global south” countries are primarily indigenous and black- and brown-skinned people who suffered most from colonial oppression and the imperialist violence and racial domination that followed and continues.

Already crushed by this legacy of violence and longstanding, ongoing robbery of their own natural resources at the hands of U.S. and other capitalists, they now suffer the climate effects of unrestricted fossil fuel extraction and emissions produced by the very same imperialists who put them in such desperate straits — emissions they had little role in producing.  Moreover, colonialism and imperialism raised the standard of living in the north, distracting workers there — already poisoned by the self-interest taught by capitalism — from the plight of their fellow wage slaves exploited in the south.

Now, as the investigative news outlet ProPublica puts it, “Climate change is remapping where humans can exist on the planet.” As ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten writes, “More than 600 million people have already been stranded outside of a crucial environmental niche that scientists say best supports life.” As early as 50 years from now, he continues, “3 to 6 billion people, or between a third and a half of humanity, could be trapped outside of that zone, facing extreme heat, food scarcity [and insecurity] and higher death rates, unless emissions are sharply curtailed or mass migration is accommodated.”

n the ecosocialist society we envision, the long-term suffering we see today in refugee camps around the world could be eliminated. Photo by Ahmed Akacha/Pexels

If violent anti-immigrant rhetoric and the repressive policies boosted by capitalist politicians and rightwing billionaires persist, the streets will surely run red with the blood of millions of immigrants seeking respite from drought, floods, and other climate-induced catastrophes they had no part in producing.

Meanwhile, the War Machine Grinds On

Christian Parenti attests to that in his 2012 book Tropic of Chaos — so titled because the areas suffering most from the climate crisis also suffer most from the legacy of colonial and imperialist oppression and expropriation — falling largely between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Parenti cites military reports and studies that give the lie to those reactionary elements of the capitalist class who rail against the science of the climate crisis. They show that the U.S. military is not only taking the matter seriously, but theirs is a largely inhuman, militaristic response to the crisis — the “politics of the armed lifeboat,” Parenti calls it.

While the rest of the world ostensibly struggles — completely ineptly to date — to come to terms with ways and means of halting and reversing the increasingly intensifying climate crisis, the U.S. military itself is responding in predictable ways.

But planning a military response to events can exacerbate problems and preclude peaceful responses. Parenti writes that the United States’ “overdeveloped . . . military-industrial complex has created powerful interests that depend on, therefore promote, war”— and anti-immigrant violence. Today a variety of newer security companies join the older members of that fraternity to form a “security-industrial complex,” Parenti notes. This complex “offers an array of services at home and abroad: surveillance; intelligence; border security; detention [mostly in privatized for-profit prisons]; facility and base construction; antiterrorism consulting; military and police logistics, analysis, planning, and training; and, of course, personal security.”

In short, they have a compelling profit interest in promoting and maintaining a repressive response to the largest humanitarian crisis we have ever faced — the existential climate crisis.

A Long, Sordid History

This is hardly out of character for the United States, which has a history of reactionary and racist anti-immigration laws dating back to its first, the Naturalization Act of 1790, which granted the right to apply for citizenship only to “free white” persons of “good character” who had been living in the United States for two years or more. Native Americans who had been living here for 15,000 to 30,000 years and people of African heritage, mostly kidnapped, forcibly exported, and enslaved, were denied citizenship as well as constitutional protections like the right to vote, to testify in court, or to own property — despite almost one in five Americans at the time being of African descent. The racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 excluded almost all immigration by those of Asian descent. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s racist 1942 Executive Order 9066 imprisoned more than 120,000 Japanese-American individuals, including citizens. Two decades of the so-called Bracero Program, between 1942 and 1964, which callously used Mexican labor and then deported the hopeful workers after harvests ended, followed the pattern of racist exploitation and oppression.

U.S. immigration law has always sought to punish nonwhite immigrants. Such laws rarely stopped those capitalists who relied on cheap immigrant labor from profiting off that labor (they often ignored the laws with impunity) while serving the political needs of rightwing politicians and movements seeking to bolster anti-immigrant xenophobia to further their own authoritarian agendas. In short, U.S. immigration policy is a political and economic tool for the benefit of the class that owns and controls the economy. The inhumane response to immigration — especially to asylum seekers who have both U.S. and international human and legal rights to seek asylum — ignores studies that show immigration bolsters the economy and that far from bringing more crime, immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than those who already live here.

In the ongoing collision of the climate crisis and the use of immigration as a racist tool to serve capitalist interests, the bloody catastrophe it is building can do nothing to liberate Earth and humanity from either the climate crisis or the exploitation of all workers. As the American Marxist Daniel De Leon wrote in 1910, “What the age calls upon the working class to do is abolish capitalism altogether. For that the army of labor must be divided by no prejudicial lines of race or color whatsoever — lines which the anti-immigration howl tends to create.” In an ecosocialist economic democracy, with production for human needs and wants instead of profits for the tiny minority that already hoards most wealth, we could use all human labor power to renew the ecology of the planet and assure a decent life for all.

Historian Ken Boettcher recently joined the System Change Not Climate Change coordinating committee. Formerly a longtime editorial staff member of The People, the journal of the Socialist Labor Party, he writes on ecosocialism, Marxism, and the climate crisis.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission