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'Fleeing Not Migrating'

Climate change, pollution, and violence drive people to the U.S. border, even with no promise of a path to citizenship.

A river at risk of drying up near the agricultural village of Guapinol, Honduras. The phrase “Cuidemos los bosques,” painted onto a rock by villagers, translates to “Protect the forests.” (Photo: Lawyers for Civil Rights)

A river at risk of drying up near the agricultural village of Guapinol, Honduras. The phrase “Cuidemos los bosques,” painted onto a rock by villagers, translates to “Protect the forests.” (Photo: Lawyers for Civil Rights)

The term “climate refugee” has real meaning for Jose, who says he was forced off his family farm in Tabasco, Mexico due to pollution from oil production, which damaged crops and contributed to climate change.

This twenty-four-year-old Mexican native, who now works on a dairy farm in Vermont, found that climate change made even getting financing for farming problematic.

“Those of us who cultivate the land, we couldn’t get money anymore for it because it was too much of a risk,” says Jose, who became a climate refugee in 2016. “People wouldn’t invest because, with climate change, they didn’t know if they’d make a profit.”

Jose’s father still grows melons and habaneros on the farm in Mexico but on a much smaller scale. What’s marketed, he says, is about a third of what was sold a decade ago.

“On top of the contamination, we are also seeing big changes in weather patterns,” Jose says. “There will be times when it rains four or five days straight. That will flood the fields and produce a lot of fungus on the plants. There will also be times of very, very hot weather when you can’t water the plants during the day.”

The fishing industry in the area is suffering as well, Jose says, because of polluted waters.

Tabasco, in southeastern Mexico, is a hub of activity for the government-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex). The company is now planning an $8 billion refinery on the coast that the company’s own review warned would have a “severe” impact on air quality.

Climate change has made even getting financing for farming problematic.

Jose, who doesn’t want his full name disclosed because of his immigration status, is among the growing number of climate refugees who, facing diminishing economic opportunities at home,  have come to the United States even without any pathway to legal status.

Their plight is addressed in legislation recently introduced by Senator Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Representative Nydia Velázquez, Democrat of New York, that would include the concept of a “climate-displaced person” in the Immigration and Nationality Act. Safe haven in the United States would be provided each year for at least 50,000 people displaced by climate change.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is trying to dismantle the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program that has provided relief to some refugees in the United States whose homelands have suffered environmental disasters.

TPS currently prevents the deportation of almost 320,000 foreign nationals from ten nations, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti. Trump seeks to terminate TPS for refugees from those countries as well as Nicaragua, Sudan, and Nepal.

Calls for Congress to address the effect of climate change on immigration come from many quarters—including actress and activist Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays—weekly protests that highlight a climate issue with civil disobedience arrests.

“Time is running out on the climate. And the two issues—migration and climate—are connected,” says Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network and an organizer of the protest.

But changes in immigration law alone can’t adequately address the growing problem of climate displacement. Over a recent seven-year period, according to the World Meteorological Organization, climate-related events on average displaced 22.5 million people a year.  

“We are just at the beginning of what will be a major wave of climate migrants and climate refugees we have to address,” says Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, who as executive director of the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights has focused on climate change and immigration.

And Trump calling climate change a “hoax” won’t make the devastation caused by drought any less real for Nery Cantarero, who lives in Camasca, a small rural community in western Honduras.

In a recent long-distance telephone interview, Cantarero tells how he tried to make a go of it on his family’s farm two decades ago but left to join other family members in Maryland. He then worked as a cook until he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported in 2007.

Back in Honduras, Cantarero tried farming again. But as the droughts have become longer and the temperature hotter, he has had to supplement his shrinking income by opening a small restaurant. In addition to the drought, he notes, environmental contamination and deforestation fuel migration.

Hit hard by the droughts, neighboring farmers ran out of options. Cantarero says as many as 300 residents from his community alone have left for the United States, most in recent years. “Many are now leaving with their families,” Cantarero says. “You can’t make a living as a farmer.”

He does not see Trump’s hard line on immigration as a deterrent to desperate people. Deportees, he adds, turn around and try again.

Between October 2018 and August 2019, more than 240,000 Hondurans were detained by U.S. Border and Customs Protection. Climate change is one factor among many driving immigrants here, especially since about two-thirds of Honduras’ almost ten million people live in poverty.

“Climate change looms huge over everything we do,” says Conor Walsh, Catholic Relief Services’ representative for Honduras. He, too, tells of a growing number of Hondurans leaving the so-called Dry Corridor, an ecological region that stretches from southern Mexico through El Salvador, western Guatemala, and western Honduras to Panama.

Honduran farmers have been losing 80 percent or more of their corn and bean crops, says Walsh, who also notes how rising temperatures have made growing coffee much more difficult.

“The responses that we provided in the past are no longer up to the scale of the problem,” he says. Yet his group still tries to mitigate the damage done by climate change by promoting such practices as limiting tilling and using cover crops to help soil retain water and nutrients.

Court challenges to Trump’s attempt to dismantle Temporary Protected Status have resulted in preliminary injunctions that put the administration’s plans on hold through January 2021. Even so, TPS has a limited reach, available only to foreign nationals in the United States when a TPS order is issued.

Cantarero, for instance, could not have been helped by the TPS designation for Hondurans. He arrived in the United States in 2000—a year after the TPS order for Hondurans was issued, in the aftermath of the devastation that Hurricane Mitch caused in Honduras.

According to a lawsuit brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights in federal court in Boston to prevent Trump from terminating TPS for Salvadorans, Haitians, and Hondurans, racial animosity was a major factor in the administration’s disdain for the program. Indeed, even before hate-mongering White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller became Trump’s anti-immigration architect, TPS was on his radar screen.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent disclosures of Miller emails, which show his affinity for white nationalism, include his messages in 2015 to a Breitbart editor expressing alarm about Hurricane Patricia, with winds reaching 215 mph off the coast of Mexico. Miller fretted that Mexican immigrants fleeing to the United States “will all get TPS.”

Patricia Montes, an immigrant from Honduras who is now executive director of Centro Presente, a Massachusetts-based Latin American immigrant organization, argues that climate change must be understood in a broader context. “Climate change is a clear result of all of these corporations and all the economic dynamics that are destroying our economies, that are destroying our environment,” she says.

In August, Montes led a delegation that included Espinoza-Madrigal on the visit to Honduras and El Salvador. Recalls Espinoza-Madrigal, “We heard directly from farmers who say, ‘I was bullied, intimidated and threatened off my property.’ ”

“I was bullied, intimidated and threatened off my property.”

A report based on this visit, titled “Fleeing, Not Migrating: Toward a Solution to the Human Rights Crisis Affecting Migrants and Asylum Seekers,” speaks of “a toxic mix” of “violence coupled with a broken and corrupt law enforcement and judicial system.” Increasingly, it says, “climate change is connected to poverty and displacement. Rivers have started drying up making agriculture and survival virtually impossible.”

In recent years, a succession of rightwing governments in Honduras have made mining, agribusiness, and energy projects a priority while doing virtually nothing to protect people struggling to defend the environment, an increasingly hazardous undertaking. Since 2009, more than 120 environment and land defenders have been murdered, according to a 2017 report, including the 2016 killing of environmental and indigenous rights supporter Berta Cáceres. Seven men have been convicted of her killing, ordered by executives of a dam company against which she had led protests. But Cáceres’s case is an exception. “In the majority of these cases, the attackers were not held to account, and the victims and their families were denied the protection and justice they deserve,” says the report.

And those refugees who make it to the United States border with Mexico are increasingly being denied entry. Among those stuck in Mexico is Guatemalan environmental activist Gaspar Cobo Corio, a vocal opponent of mining interests who fled his homeland after receiving threats. He and Guatemalan political activist Francisco Chavez Raymundo were allegedly robbed by police in Mexico in June but are nonetheless required to stay in Mexico until their hearings.

Climate refugees who make it to the United States are in a bind as well, since there is no provision in asylum law to address their situation. Some of those displaced by climate change initially migrated internally, from their hometowns to larger cities, looking for work. But there they encountered gang violence extreme enough to push them to flee to the United States, where they have sought asylum. Now they face a Trump Administration doing everything it can to cut off this avenue to safe haven.

Trump is also sharply restricting the ability of those seeking admission to the United States as refugees facing persecution by decreasing the allowable total to a record low of 18,000 this fiscal year.

In introducing his Senate bill to provide for at least 50,000 climate-displaced persons, Markey cited an article in The Guardian on the State Department’s recent warning to the International Organization for Migration that the programs it funds “must not be in conflict with current [U.S. government] political sensitivities.”

These “sensitivities,” the paper said, include climate change.

In an effort to make the climate-immigration connection more visible, Lawyers for Civil Rights has launched a Race and Climate Justice Project to help voice immigrant needs and concerns.

“We need to think more creatively about how our immigration laws really meaningfully address this emerging climate crisis,” says Espinoza-Madrigal. “This problem isn’t going away.”

James Goodman

James Goodman

James Goodman is a freelance writer based in Rochester, New York.

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