U.S. Border Crisis Driven by ‘New Level of Climate Desperation’
With Donald Trump casually describing incoming migrants at his country’s southern border as “invaders” and comparing them to “vermin”, news reporting in the last several days has given them a chilling new descriptor: climate refugees.
Many of the immigrants now being detained under Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy “are fleeing food scarcity brought on by climate change,” EcoWatch reports, citing coverage last week in The Daily Beast. “Many of those families come from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador where, beginning in 2015, an especially extreme El Niño/La Niña cycle has led to severe drought followed by heavy rainfall, reducing harvests by up to 90% and leaving 30% of the population food insecure,” according to a United Nations study.
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“We’re seeing a new level of desperation,” said University of Colorado Boulder sociologist Carrie Seay-Fleming. “When you might have seen an adult male leave before their family follows, you see, increasingly, entire families leaving in waves.”
“What we’re talking about here are changing precipitation patterns,” added Robert Albro, associate professor at the American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, with the shifts in El Niño and La Niña producing “radically changing seasonal patterns”.
While “climate causes have been lost in a media narrative about migration that focuses on families or unaccompanied minors fleeing gang- or drug-related violence,” EcoWatch notes, that narrative has been over-simplified. “Most current migrants crossing the Mexican border are from Guatemala, where economic insecurity is a greater driver of migration than violence, which is more often cited as a motivating factor by those from El Salvador and Honduras.”
Seay-Fleming and Albro said the two factors are connected. “Farmers would first migrate to cities when crops failed, and then be driven north by a lack of opportunity and urban violence,” writes reporter Olivia Rosane. “This means they don’t always mention environmental factors when asked their reasons for coming to the U.S.”
Rosane cites In These Times author Kate Aronoff, who pointed in turn to a 2010 estimate that climate change will drive 6.7 million people in Mexico to migrate. “This week’s onslaught of immigration news offers a chilling preview of events that could become all the more likely as the planet warms,” Aronoff wrote. “At the core of the immigration debate is the question that will come to dominate the climate-defined politics of the 21st century: Who gets to live here and live well?”
On Grist, meanwhile, meteorologist and veteran climate hawk Eric Holthaus says crossing the border is not enough for migrants seeking to outrun the effects of climate change: when torrential rains hit south Texas last Wednesday morning, they threatened the desperate, involuntary occupants of three shelters for infants and toddlers that had been located in the region.
“According to radar estimates, more than 10 inches of rain fell overnight as severe thunderstorms swept through the area. That was enough to cause widespread flooding, with water entering homes and flooding wide streets in Weslaco, a town between McAllen and Brownsville,” Holthaus writes. And yet, “as the rain fell, hundreds of migrants were seeking entry into the United States at the border, according to CNN.”
One of the three shelters is located in the town of Combes, where the U.S. National Weather Service places the odds of such a rainstorm over a 12-hour time span at less than 1% in any given year. “The bulk of the rainfall Wednesday morning came in just an hour or two,” Holthaus reports.
“Those who have crossed borders seeking a better life in the U.S. aren’t the only ones dealing with displacement and more extreme weather at the same time,” he adds. “In April, for instance, heavy rains and flash flooding destroyed 750 homes and displaced thousands of people at a refugee camp in northern Kenya. And earlier this month, heavy monsoon rains hit the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh, washing away makeshift shelters.”
It all adds up to “escalating climate consequences for people with little means to withstand them, perpetuating a cycle of injustice that now defines our warming era: Those who contributed the least to climate change stand to lose the most.”