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Climate: Parallels of climate change, immigration policy

Ever since the birth of national boundaries, we humans have faced a conundrum. Our better selves want to be welcoming, generous people, ready to share blessings, even sacrifice wealth so that others may benefit.

Katya GordonYet we also understand that at the core, some kind of boundary must exist in order to have something worth sharing. Shared families, histories and cultures inevitably lead to special obligations with fellow humans around us. Rules and laws come into being to create order and define values.

Today, boundaries are everywhere, and help define the background that develops in each of us. I belong to the Goodenough clan, the Gordon clan, the Two Harbors High School Parent Clan, the North Shore Clan, the Minnesota Clan, the Clan of United States citizens. This distinctive "background" is destroyed for the hundreds of thousands of people who are currently displaced due to climate change.

Since 2008, an average of 24 million people have been displaced by extreme weather events each year. According to a recent World Bank report, slower moving disasters, such as desertification and sea level rise, are expected to push 143 million people from their homes by 2050. These refugees are breathing bodies, yes, but they are bereft of their land, culture, community — sometimes even their families. They are not in our immediate sphere; what are our obligations to them?

Immigration is an issue that has, tragically, become polarized. If we take a deep breath and think calmly, we know neither extreme view is desirable. A country with open borders is a country with no borders at all. Our instinct to welcome outsiders must have some limits in order to contain the society that creates laws, grows culture and keeps communities stable.

On the other hand, the moral imperative to "treat people right," particularly poor, bereft or unfortunate people who wish us no harm and who are doing exactly what we would be doing in their situation, remains — as does our recognition that in caring for those close around us, we can inadvertently harm distant peoples.

Climate change is a classic example of this. No one set out to dry out Africa or flush Pacific Islanders out of their homes with rising seas. Yet, that is how our use of fossil fuels has affected them.

What, then, to do today with immigration policy? First, we must stop vilifying "the other" — and by "the other," I don't mean potential immigrants, but the ones in our own land with who we disagree, sometimes vehemently. No one wants the U.S. to become an impenetrable fortress — or lawless chaos.

Second, let's remember that we are all placed into a specific place and time, with special attachments and obligations to those in our immediate world. We can't feed and educate everyone, but we need to feed and educate our children.

At the same time, this position has limits, and when our focus on our own wellbeing comes into conflict with weighty needs of distant people, that limit should be felt. My daughters would love for me to drive them everywhere. I love them and I love their activities, but I know that driving without concern for the planet has dire consequences.

So I limit my chauffeuring and the girls learn to carpool, bike and walk, thus enhancing their universal love of humanity (I hope) as well as satisfying mine. But push them too far, and they feel only annoyance at their mom. Thus, the need for balance.

What does this mean for immigration policy in a world where people are impacted disproportionately by climate change? The balance we need to achieve in our own lives mirrors the balance we must reach in national policy. We must strive for policy that answers our national need to manage society in an orderly way, but also acknowledges a larger obligation to welcome outsiders (and not just those who are perceived to benefit us).

Perhaps most importantly, this balance will only be reached when a level of good will between elected officials with opposing views builds enough trust that they are able to work together.

As the living grassroots of our democracy, it is incumbent on us to demonstrate, in our own lives, concern for people beyond our immediate sphere, whether that is the neighbor we never bothered to meet or the climate refugee sitting at a camp in Lebanon. Then, we are on solid ground when we urge elected leaders to do the same.

Remember, government does not create political will, but it does respond to it.

Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.