11 Million Reasons to Reform Our Broken Immigration System

US Capitol building
US Capitol building

During an interview with a Florida radio station about the dangerous working conditions for undocumented Latino workers, the story of one of the listeners who called in got us all on the edge of our seats.

He told us his job consisted of being lowered into a huge hospital waste collector to unclog the drain, which fills with syringes, hypodermic needles, used dressings and a long list of other medical waste. He added his only protections were rubber boots, a paper mask and a helmet with a flashlight to light up the belly of the monster where he worked.

Asked why he did not look for a less dangerous job, he answered, "I can't. I don't have papers. And if I don't work, my family back home won't eat."

In the US, there are at least 11 million undocumented workers who -- contrary to the myth that they come to America to live off welfare -- are willing to work in whatever job to escape the abject poverty that expelled them from their countries in the first place. And that "whatever job" all too often constitutes a clear and present danger to their health and security.

According to a national survey conducted by NCLR and the Sierra Club last year, 43 percent of Latino voters live or work dangerously close to a toxic site, whether it is a refinery, an incinerator, a coal-burning plant, a major freeway or a farm field.

If Latino voters suffer the consequences of pollution and environmental degradation in such disproportionate numbers, it's obvious that for those 11 million undocumented workers quietly living in the shadows of society, that percentage will be much higher.

Yet these people are the target of another bombardment, a more subtle but not less pernicious one. They are the recipients of the rage and rejection of an intense anti-immigrant movement that dehumanizes and demonizes them by calling them "illegals" and "criminals."

Which begs the question: Who wants to abandon family, friends and culture, then risk their lives to travel to a hostile country with the almost certainty that, once there, they will be considered criminals?

America's history, however, has been written by people who, just like these 11 million undocumented workers, risked everything to escape persecution, poverty or both in search for a dignified life and a future for their children. We immigrants have been the force that has fueled the optimism, hard work and progress that have made America such a great country.

But that crucial cycle is as broken as the immigration system that is supposed to regulate it. That's why the Sierra Club's board of directors has unanimously approved supporting an equitable path to citizenship for those 11 million people.

"By establishing an equitable path to citizenship, we can empower those in our society who are most vulnerable to toxic pollution to fully participate in our democracy, fight back against polluters and demand public health protections and clean energy solutions," said Allison Chin, Sierra Club president.

The Sierra Club thinks these people have been denied their civil rights to protect themselves not only from a daily toxic bombardment but also from the effects of climate disruption, to which we Latinos are especially vulnerable, regardless of our immigration status.

If we are to keep the vitality and vibrancy of the American Dream alive, we have 11 million reasons to reform our immigration system and open up a just path to citizenship.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @javier_SC