Climate change is emerging as a potent force shaping global migration patterns: its far-reaching impacts disrupt ecosystems, alter weather patterns, and threaten livelihoods. The consequences of climate change, such as rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and prolonged droughts, are compelling people to leave their homes in search of safer and more sustainable living conditions.
About Into the Weeds
We at Leff are, at heart, storytellers. We are dedicated to amplifying voices and causes from all over the world, regardless of gender orientation, race, or economic background. And the stories we tell as part of the Into the Weeds interview series are particularly important to us. We will be interviewing inspiring individuals whose work contributes to the achievement of the SDGs at every level; we’ll bring you insights from the leaders of global organizations, renowned experts and academics, and innovative local businesses.
Our goal for this series is the same one that underpins all of Leff Sustainability Group’s client work: to use our storytelling skills to build awareness of the issues that threaten our planet and to draw attention to all the people, initiatives, and innovations that are fighting back.
In December 2023, the United States’ migrant crisis continues to worsen—with little relief in sight as government resources are overwhelmed and northern cities brace for winter. A mile from my condo in Uptown, Chicago, families are living in thin tents, many of whom are Venezuelan migrants who were bussed or flown to Chicago from Texas.
It’s against this backdrop that I sat down with Oscar Chacon, the executive director of Alianza Americas, a national US network of Latin American and Caribbean immigrant-led organizations across the United States. Born in El Salvador, Chacon migrated to Brooklyn and has spent his entire professional life at the intersection of community development and migration. Our wide-ranging interview explores the Alianza Americas community’s belief that we live in a global village—connected, even interdependent, across borders—and considers the most pressing and fascinating debates occurring both at the highest levels of policy and academia and on the ground as the needs of migrants demand our urgent attention today.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
About Alianza Americas
Alianza Americas is the only transnational organization rooted in Latino immigrant communities in the United States focused on improving the quality of life of all people in the US–Mexico–Central America migration corridor. Their work brings an important perspective to all areas related to quality of life—economic, racial and social justice, humane migration policies, and protection for children and families seeking refuge.
“...the most pressing and fascinating debates occurring both at the highest levels of policy and academia and on the ground as the needs of migrants demand our urgent attention today.”
Brittany Williams: How have discussions about migration and climate justice shifted over the course of your career?
Oscar Chacon: Ten years ago, this was a topic that ordinary people had never heard discussed. That’s changing. As a society, we are becoming more and more comfortable talking about these issues. And we’re gradually coming to understand that climate justice and sustainability are, at root, about people’s lived experiences.
I see that as progress, even though we are still a long way from being where we should be in terms of level of engagement. We need to ensure that everybody who’s affected by these issues—both in the US and abroad—is properly represented in every space where decisions are being made. That is definitely still an uphill battle, though we are making progress.
Another shift that’s especially interesting as a Latin American immigrant is that a lot of the things that many of us grew up practicing—such as not eating more than we had to, eating fresh food as opposed to industrially produced food—are now back in the fashion in the US. (Though the attached price tag is higher than we remember.) In the past, we were often told that these practices were backward, but they are now recognized as far better for humans and the planet. The vindications of these ideas can ultimately help to reinforce a sense of community identity.
Brittany Williams: The energy of younger generations seems to be fueling the agenda. How real is the change they’re effecting?
Oscar Chacon: Young people are incredibly passionate about the issue of climate justice. Those born 20 years ago or less are much more exposed to the science behind climate change. They recognize that it is an existential threat to humanity, irrespective of where we are. Young people are therefore faced with a very profound dilemma that many of us don’t even consider: do I have a future? How do I play a role in tackling this existential challenge, while also dealing with other pressing issues that concern me, my family, and my community? Younger people are also better at understanding the multidisciplinary nature of the challenge and at coming up with creative alternatives to our current model of economic development.
“Those born 20 years ago or less are much more exposed to the science behind climate change. They recognize that it is an existential threat to humanity, irrespective of where we are. Young people are therefore faced with a very profound dilemma that many of us don’t even consider: do I have a future?”
Brittany Williams: Walk me through how someone makes the decision to leave their home permanently to migrate somewhere else.
Oscar Chacon: If we look at people in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, or Mexico, the details differ. But when you boil it down to fundamentals, the problems are very similar. If you ask people why they decided to leave, they will say, “I just couldn’t live anymore because my way of life changed.” They don’t generally mention climate change specifically, but—when asked further questions—they’ll say that they can no longer grow anything on the land due to factors such as droughts or flooding.
Ultimately, many came to a moment in their lives when they had to choose between dying slowly or making a change that would enable them to live. The lives of entire communities become so complicated that people don’t care if they die trying to escape. For us, the question is, “How do we intervene in ways that do not ignore the multiple layers of issues that have brought people to this point?” When you factor in indigenous or Afro identities in this already complex equation, it only becomes even more complicated.
“How do we intervene in ways that do not ignore the multiple layers of issues that have brought people to this point?”
Brittany Williams: In the United States, we’re quite focused on the migrants coming to the United States. Obviously that’s not the only option available. How do migrants decide where to go?
Oscar Chacon: Up until the 1970s, people didn’t have much access to information and would therefore just move from the countryside to the cities when life became impossible. The technology revolution changed that. Both rural and urban workers around the world had much more information about the US and about the level of global inequalities.
For example, the US Government now publishes the number of vacant jobs in the US on a monthly basis. At the end of October 2023, there were 9.6 million jobs available. This information is publicly available to anyone with an internet connection, which helps explain why more people have come in the past three years than ever before. People don’t come because they want charity but because they want to work. The US still sells the idea that it is the place to come to if you want to succeed in life, and people believe that—whether it’s right or wrong.
Brittany Williams: The US system is clearly under a lot of strain. I live in Chicago, and the Lakeshore tent city has expanded substantially in recent months—and there are now children’s tricycles outside the tents, with winter on the way. What’s Chicago going to do in the next couple of months to avoid a humanitarian crisis?
Oscar Chacon: An important and difficult question. What’s happening today has roots back more than 40 years, when the majority of society was not experiencing the level of economic anxiety that we experience today. At that crucial time, we made the decision not to invest in a society that really cared about the well-being of all its citizens. And we missed at least two other opportunities to reverse that decision—after the 2008 financial crisis and after the COVID-19 pandemic. We were not able to put together the level of bold leadership that was necessary to enact change. That’s why there are millions and millions of people in the US who are homeless, who lack healthcare access, or who have to work multiple jobs. That’s why millions of children go to school hungry every morning.
These issues are not about the presence of immigrants or an immigration crisis. We only talk about immigrants in a negative light, but the reality is that flows of immigrant labor since the 1970s have made many sectors of our economy far more profitable. Our immigration policy is not fit for purpose.
I was happy to recently see a couple of mayors talking to the Biden administration about positive ways in which the federal government can intervene. But these would be temporary solutions. In Chicago, as elsewhere, really fixing this problem would involve a much larger conversation about how we harmonize public-policy intervention by the federal, state, and city governments. We have to recommit ourselves to the notion of truly democratic governance but in a way that makes it really palpable that people can have an opportunity to be part of decision-making.
Brittany Williams: Frustration is a significant motivator for action. How do you harness that public discontent and frustration for good?
Oscar Chacon: Well, if I had the answer, the world would be better already.
Brittany Williams: Oh, man, I was really hoping.
Oscar Chacon: We’re trying. It’s very hard to get your arms around climate justice and environmental well-being from a macro perspective. These are humungous challenges. There are very micro practices that people can undertake: we can cook more responsibly, for example, and have a family covenant not to use plastic bags. But it will require a more fundamental shift in policies for us to be able to reverse the current macro pathway toward self-destruction.
The right answers aren’t always obvious. Initiatives that are seen as sustainable in one part of the world may be causing issues in others. People in Panama are currently protesting government decisions that basically cede copper extraction rights to Canadian mining companies, resulting in huge water-availability issues. But these Canadian companies are set up to provide inputs for the production of electric vehicles, which are seen as a climate solution in countries such as the US. The only way around issues like this is to explore alternatives to the concept that dominates much of global capitalism: that increasing well-being and success means producing and consuming more.
Brittany Williams: Does this mean that climate justice and capitalism are incompatible?
Oscar Chacon: For 300 years, there has been a widely held principle that suggests that the well-being of a person and a family depends on that person’s capacity to generate income. We need to find a way to correct that. We need to recast the very notion of what it means to live a dignified, successful, and sustainable life.
I always say capitalism is like a smart, young, spoiled brat. If you leave them alone—as we have in the US—they’ll burn the house down. But the capitalism that we currently have in the US is not the only possible version. If properly regulated—like Norway or Sweden—capitalism can behave like a smart and energetic but controlled child. And I’m open to conversations about how that can coexist with saving the planet.
I would argue that we need to go back to the kind of capitalism that we momentarily embraced between the mid-1930s and the mid-1970s, which was more gentle, more compassionate, and more equitable, even if it failed to be fully inclusive of everyone in society.
Brittany Williams: Looking to the future, are you optimistic?
Oscar Chacon: Let me say something about optimism and pessimism. I don’t believe that sustained optimism can be fed with fake news or false premises. I wake up every morning energized and optimistic, not because I believe that we are one inch away from doing what needs to be done but because I see people around the world—particularly young people—still fighting for what they believe in. I find it inspiring and admirable to see people get themselves and their communities organized, despite the obvious challenges.
Change is possible. I don’t say it just to make you feel better. I really believe in it.
“I wake up every morning energized and optimistic, not because I believe that we are one inch away from doing what needs to be done but because I see people around the world—particularly young people—still fighting for what they believe in.”
Behind the Scenes
This interview is part of Leff’s Into the Weeds interview series—a series that amplifies individuals whose work contributes to the achievement of the SDGs at every level. We’ll be bringing you insights from renowned experts and the leaders of global organizations and innovative local businesses. Brittany Williams (she/her) is the editorial director for Leff, and Clair Myatt (she/her) is the manager of Leff’s Sustainability Group, for which Katie Parry (she/her) is the director.
Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of Leff or have its endorsement.