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Asylum seekers from Central and South America wait to be picked up by Border Patrol after crossing into the United States from Mexico on April 30, 2021 near San Luis, Arizona. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Asylum seekers from Central and South America wait to be picked up by Border Patrol after crossing into the United States from Mexico on April 30, 2021 near San Luis, Arizona. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Immigrants Are Essential: A Manifesto for the Covid-19 and Climate Change Era

The U.S. needs a reform as sweeping as the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which eliminated racist immigration quotas, allowing millions of talented people to find a home here and build new lives.

Saket Son

May 2020 brought America the first climate disaster of the COVID-19 era. Record rains came, not in Florida, not in North Carolina, but to an unlikely place: Michigan. Two months into the pandemic, the torrent burst two massive, antiquated dams. Downstream, more than ten thousand people were faced with the choice that tens of millions of immigrants understand only too well: to stay or to leave? As floodwaters filled their homes, they gathered what they could and left. "If only I had known," one resident told me, "I'd have prepared."

In the coming decades, most Americans will need to prepare for climate change. And that will include preparing for migration. Many Americans will become internal migrants, because one day the floods or fires will reach them. Many other communities will receive migrants.

The first step is simple and obvious: U.S. immigration policy must include a new legal status for climate refugees.

It's already happening here, in coastal areas vulnerable to ever-fiercer hurricanes, in forested states with constant wildfires, in Sun Belt communities where life-threatening temperatures have become the new normal. Even the climate science skeptics in these communities measure time by counting floods and fires. They need to prepare for the day the dam breaks and they become climate migrants—American-born, but migrants all the same.

But the United States' internal climate migrant flows are only a shadow of the far larger, far more disruptive global climate migration that will transform the world in the coming decades. The predictions are dire. The area of the globe designated "a barely livable hot zone" is projected to rise from 1 percent currently to 19 percent by 2070—displacing billions of residents. Compounding the extreme weather in these areas will be economic desperation and political instability—or even state collapse. In Central America alone, millions will face the same choice as the climate migrants in Michigan. And they will head north, seeking refuge.

That is why the U.S. needs an immigration policy that confronts the reality of climate change.

The first step is simple and obvious: U.S. immigration policy must include a new legal status for climate refugees. This may sound far-fetched given our country's current public debate, but it has plenty of precedents. Past administrations have resettled refugees fleeing wars and granted Temporary Protected Status to victims of natural disasters. But climate change is a blind spot in American immigration policy. An immigrant seeking asylum in the United States is required to prove a "well-founded fear" of returning home. There could not be a better-founded fear than that of climate change, but the asylum system is not set up to accept it.

The legal status I propose wouldn't involve America rescuing the climate refugees. It would involve climate refugees rescuing America's immigration policy. Rather than locating U.S. immigration priorities in a larger conversation about the reasons for global migrant flows, including economic incentives and the impact of U.S. foreign policy, the federal government has responded to whoever is at the border in the moment that they arrive. That has allowed our country's public debate to fall prey to racist opportunism, as nativist politicians have recast safety-seekers as criminals, not only unjustly harming desperate refugees but also sowing the seeds of division among Americans.

But this year, next year, and the year after that, climate refugees will continue to arrive. Our climate future is already here. A 2018 World Bank report projected that without concerted global action, 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could be forced from their homes by climate change by 2050. With measures of prevention and resilience, that number could be cut by 80 percent. America must be part of the global cooperation that achieves that.

U.S. laws—no less than our country's aging dams and archaic bridges—are concrete expressions of their time. Just as  homes, hospitals, and schools need to be retrofitted or even rebuilt completely to face the climate crisis,legal regimes need to be reconceived to meet the current moment—starting with the U.S. immigration system.

Just as properly addressing the needs of essential workers could make immigration status the least salient fact of their lives rather than the most, properly planning for climate refugees can make them an integral part of a just immigration system, rather than a series of crises to be managed.

The U.S. needs a reform as sweeping as the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which eliminated racist immigration quotas, allowing millions of talented people to find a home here and build new lives. A visionary climate justice movement must ensure that our country's immigration policy, like our dams and bridges, is radically reconceived to meet a world on the move.


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