By George Doehne '22; Image Credit: PBS
In early November of 2020, Hurricane Eta slammed into the coast of Nicaragua as a category 4 hurricane, one of the final capstones to a hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season. The storm caused hundreds of deaths in Central America and directly affected millions of people as it brought high winds, floodwaters, and mudslides. Fourteen days later, Hurricane Iota made landfall as another Category 4 hurricane in almost precisely the same spot on Nicaragua’s coast and caused similar devastation. Even apart from those left homeless by the storms themselves, destroyed crops have led to poverty among agricultural workers and their families, and mass food insecurity among the rest. Meanwhile, just a few hundred miles away on the Pacific Coast of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the Central American Dry Corridor is in the throes of a severe multi-year drought that has left more than a third of the area’s 10 million+ people in need of humanitarian assistance.
Stuck in drowning or drying communities with little government or private safety net, is it any wonder that people have begun to look elsewhere for safety and security, however tenuous the hope? And so these hurricanes, droughts, and other adverse conditions, either by stripping people of their homes and livelihoods, or (rightly) causing them to fear the prospect of a future of endless bad weather, are fueling the flow of migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle to the United States.
But the problem is that we haven’t baked this into our rhetoric or responses: both in how we handle people who are at heart climate refugees, and our plans to stop migration at its supposed roots in these countries below the border. These conditions—disasters both fast and slow—are fueling migration to the United States in a way that is both aggravatingly hard to capture in the kind of polling that generates policy responses, but also in a way that is likely to further surge as ominously anomalous weather makes the land people live on unable to support a happy or healthy society. We need to pay attention to climate change as a primary driver of migration, not just an incidental factor, and then carry that knowledge into practice by championing policies that actually address climate change instead of its symptoms.
Is it the climate?
Climate change is the most serious cause of migration because it underlies and betrays so many other factors. But this is hard to capture in the polling that so many policymakers rely on—in a survey by the Inter-American Development Bank, 74% of migrants said that they emigrated to the United States for economic reasons, including unemployment or wages too low to support their families. Also ranking high—at 43% of migrants—among reasons for leaving was the endemic violence in their home countries, which also provided a reason for them to not return after arriving in America.
Looking at these numbers, you wouldn’t necessarily think climate change was involved as a factor at all. But fundamentally, migrants are saying they wanted to leave the Northern Triangle because of poverty and violence—the lack of a societal safety net. And no matter how much aid we distribute to Central American governments, they will not be able to build a lasting infrastructure that ties potential migrants to their original homes if the very ground they stand on floods, burns, or bakes every year.
The other problem is that we can easily extrapolate and see that if migrants directly motivated by climatic causes aren’t currently the majority who come north, they inevitably will be. A holistic approach to migration that is not centered around climate is one that is doomed to fail as the global thermometer rises and the places that are merely uncomfortable now become unlivable later.
Why should we care? What should we do?
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America, causing over 11,000 deaths and leaving over a million people homeless. Honduras was, again, the most affected nation. The storm engendered global calls for aid and action: the United States in particular responded with $115 million dollars in aid, and also provided Temporary Protected Status (a deportation stay and work authorization) to Hondurans in the U.S. We did that because we rightly recognized it was a catastrophic event, but Honduras and its neighbors now face the reality of regular and recurring Hurricane Mitches. What in 1998 was an exceptional crisis has now become just the way the weather is, and unlike in 1998 this time we are fully aware that we bear—as a carbon-burning culprit—a huge amount of the blame.
But despite this, so far President Joe Biden’s White House has been trying to stem the flow of migrants by leaning on Mexico to enforce its own southern border more harshly. As a long-term solution, this ranks somewhere beneath the boy plugging the hole in the dike with his finger. The White House needs to address not how migrants move but why.
On February 4th of this year, President Biden issued an executive order, requiring the compilation within 180 days of “a report on climate change and its impact on migration, including forced migration, internal displacement, and planned relocation.” Additionally, in an April roundtable with Central American leaders, Vice President Kamala Harris for the first time named climate change as a major cause of migration and an issue to tackle during her mission in the region. These are encouraging words, certainly not ones imaginable under the Trump administration, but these statements should be backed up by action.
The U.S. should follow up in concrete ways by. First, we should commit to (A) indefinitely redesignating Temporary Protected Status designation for the countries in the region that have it, and (B) newly offering it to Guatemala, which is suffering environmentally in identical ways to its Northern triangle neighbors. Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador still retain it, but it is set to expire this coming October. Rather than leave those countries and the TPS recipients in the U.S. in doubt, the administration—and both political parties, as part of their policy planks—should commit to continuing redesignation (which protects migrants that have entered the country since the last extension) and extension for as long as the environmental dangers in Central America remain. After all, environmental disasters are one of the three qualifying reasons for TPS declarations, and what is climate change but the greatest environmental disaster in history?
Next, we should tackle climate change directly in these countries of origin by providing targeted funds—a kind of green development assistance crash program. It should fund the adoption of clean energy, resilient local electrical grids, more durable housing, extreme weather-resistant crops, and more.
We should view such policies and programs not just as humanitarian programs necessary and worthwhile for their inherent value, but also as a kind of reparations for the humanitarian shame of our approach to undocumented migration and the ecological shame of our contribution to climate change. Our role in sustaining and exacerbating these twin ‘slow disasters’ won’t soon be forgotten for its cruelty and disregard for the value of life. In order to pay our due, our response should also not soon be forgotten for its scale and compassion.
And if the administration truly wants to enact meaningful changes, they should begin quickly, well before the 180-day deadline of Biden’s executive report. Millions are facing down another summer of drought in the Dry Corridor, thousands more are still displaced following last fall’s storms, and the next Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1st. Time to get to work.