Course Correction: Pending Report Offers Chance to Link Climate and Immigration

“Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border….if you come to our border, you will be turned back.”   

Those remarks from Vice President Harris in Guatemala City and the agenda of her first foreign trip as Vice President demonstrate the difficult path that the Biden administration is charting on immigration and border enforcement. Faced with record levels of border crossings, the Biden administration is struggling to implement rhetoric and policies that are softer than its predecessor, but hardly soft. The administration is pleasing few in Washington thus far, taking criticism from both the Left and the Right.  

The overarching goal of the Vice President’s trip to Guatemala and Mexico was to address some of the root drivers of migration from Central America: violence, corruption, and lack of economic opportunity. The Biden administration is surging resources to the region to curb corruption and spur investment. And on June 10th, The State Department announced $47 million to help manage migration with Central American governments. While these efforts are important, there was a critical absence from the trip’s agenda: addressing climate change’s impact on migration. The administration must do more to demonstrate that the climate crisis and the immigration crisis are interconnected.  

The evidence is clear when it comes to Central American migration. 2020 broke records for hurricane activity in the Atlantic. Hurricanes Eta and Iota displaced over half a million people in the region, during a global pandemic. In addition to that, Central American Farmers are contending with warmer temperatures, reduced precipitation, and blighted crops. Struggling farmers in Guatemala and El Salvador are giving up and fleeing to the US border.  

Whether internally displaced or pushed into neighboring countries, these climate migrants experience harsh living conditions and often overwhelm the capacity of host governments. As the effects of climate change accelerate in the coming decades, so too will climate induced migration. The World Bank estimates that over 140 million climate migrants will be displaced by 2050. That number dwarfs the number of migrants who are already overwhelming the asylum system at the Southern U.S. border today. 

The administration has an opportunity to course correct on both messaging and policy. President Biden issued a February 4th Executive Order which called for “a report on climate change and its impact on migration, including forced migration, internal displacement, and planned relocation.” Due in July, this report has the potential to influence America’s long term strategy on immigration and climate.  

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan should ensure that the report showcases the reality: climate change is a significant factor of migration from Central America and elsewhere in the world. The report should also recommend that the U.S. create a legal definition for climate refugees and work with Congress to launch a climate refugee program. Under current international and U.S. law, climate refugees are not recognized and have no rights or protections. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a leader on climate policy, introduced a bill (S. 2565) in 2019 which would rectify this gap in US refugee policy.  

And as with all other aspects of the climate crisis, the United States cannot succeed through unilateral action. International consensus and cooperation will be needed in order to manage climate migration and improve the lives of the people being displaced. If the forthcoming report makes bold recommendations about protections for climate refugees, then Climate Czar John Kerry and Secretary of State Antony Blinken can press the issue onto the agenda at November’s COP26 event in Glasgow.

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