This article is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
More than 170,000 migrants were apprehended at the US-Mexico border in March, the highest number in a decade. Many of those are unaccompanied minors, and the Biden administration has scrambled to find accommodations for them, sending hundreds of kids to temporary shelters in convention centers and other ad hoc facilities. Conservative politicians and pundits have blamed Biden for “luring children to the border” by relaxing Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policies, describing the situation as “Biden’s border crisis.”
The narrative of crisis at our southern border is hardly new. Nor is the inhuman treatment of asylum seekers, particularly children, which is a perpetual feature of an immigration system designed to be punitive. The real crisis isn’t the number of people attempting to cross the border: It’s the combination of violence, poverty, and environmental disasters in the countries in Central America that asylum seekers are fleeing. Most people are coming from Honduras and Guatemala where, last November, two major hurricanes leveled homes, contaminated water systems, and destroyed farms, displacing an estimated 9 million people. Even before the hurricanes persistent drought had created a hunger crisis and made life impossible for many subsistence farmers.
Border crossings tend to follow a cyclical pattern shaped by numerous factors, but particularly by conditions in migrants’ home countries. What is happening now is not so different from previous spikes in the number of children crossing the border in 2014, during Barack Obama’s presidency, and in 2019, under Donald Trump. Then as now, many are fleeing violence and poverty. But environmental stressors are increasingly a contributing factor. In Guatemala, the situation for children is increasingly dire because of last year’s hurricanes, the economic impact of Covid-19, and crop failures linked to drought, all of which have contributed to food insecurity. Guatemalan children suffer the sixth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, according to The Washington Post. “It’s quite clear that the frequency and severity of these [natural disaster] events has increased and that is indeed a factor preventing development, preventing the improvement of the lives of children and families, and a factor in pushing migration,” said Carlos Carerra, the Guatemala country representative for UNICEF.
Extreme weather is already the leading cause of forced displacement worldwide, and as climate change accelerates, environmental catastrophes will increasingly drive migration. According to an analysis by The New York Times and ProPublica, in the case of extreme warming more than 30 million Central American migrants will head for the United States over the next three decades. While natural disasters often cause rural-to-urban migration, violence in cities makes it more difficult for people to relocate internally and can prompt them to leave the country altogether. Research from Duke University and the University of Virginia recently found that climate change and violence together are driving increased migration from Honduras. In the period between 2012 and 2019, when rainfall decreased, the number of Honduran families apprehended at the US-Mexico border rose. That number increased even further during periods with higher murder rates.
US immigration policy is totally unprepared for the coming climate migrations. Even if governments around the world take aggressive measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions, warming will continue to some extent, making life impossible for millions. People fleeing environmental disaster are not considered refugees under international law and so do not have even the modest legal protections of people who leave their homes because of conflict or persecution. In February, President Biden issued an executive order mandating “a report on climate change and its impact on migration,” including “options for protection and resettlement.” Advocates hope this could be a first step towards creating a legal category for climate migrants. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey introduced such legislation in 2019 to create a humanitarian program for climate-displaced people, which would function similarly to the refugee resettlement program.
But so far the Biden administration’s posture on migration remains predominantly one of containment: treating it as a problem that should be stopped—if not with a physical wall, then by delegating border enforcement to other countries and increasing aid to Central America in the hope of improving conditions enough to reduce migration. In April, the administration announced new agreements with the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras to take measures “to make it more difficult to make the journey, and make crossing the border more difficult,” in the words of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. The administration has continued to expel migrants by invoking Title 42, a public health statute that the Trump administration used to sidestep asylum law and return asylum-seekers to Mexico without a hearing or formal deportation process. Biden also has not yet fulfilled a campaign promise to lift the low cap set by Trump on the number of refugees admitted to the country. “Far fewer families have so far been permitted to seek asylum today than under the Trump administration in 2019,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council wrote earlier this month. With the normal route for seeking asylum at ports of entry largely cut off, people are trying to cross in more dangerous conditions.
The Biden administration has a four-year, $4 billion aid plan for Central America, which could alleviate real suffering. But it doesn’t address the question of how to treat people who are already on the move, or those whom aid won’t reach. The root causes of migration that the Biden administration is trying to address through aid are intimately connected to the history of US military intervention and drug war policymaking in the region, as Felipe de la Hoz writes in The New Republic, but “very few people in the mainstream political conversation are even broaching the idea that perhaps it’s this country’s responsibility to receive those fleeing the situations it created.” Similarly, the United States bears a significant share of responsibility for climate change, as the country with the largest cumulative greenhouse gas emissions in the world—700 times the carbon dioxide that El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras together have emitted since 1900.
For decades, politicians have been debating how best to stop migrants from coming to the United States—a question that inevitably leads to abuses, like the detention of children in poor conditions, which both Democrats and Republicans have now decried. “No policy, wall, strengthening of a frontier, of border controls is really going to address the underlying issue,” said UNICEF’s Carerra, pinpointing that problem as the massive inequities that exist between countries like Guatemala and the United States. “Migration is inevitable; let’s be clear. It’s part of human history. It’s part of our reality.” Of course, every effort should be made to improve economic, social, and environmental conditions so that people aren’t forced to flee their homes. But systemic change takes time, and climate change will cause some degree of devastation and displacement regardless of how aggressively policy-makers respond now. It’s a crisis that raises a very different question about migration: What would it look like to have an immigration system that treats movement as normal, necessary, a viable path on a rapidly changing planet?