Imagine a Category 4 hurricane bringing high winds, torrential rains, and flash flooding to your area. Now picture a second similarly powerful hurricane hitting the area two weeks later, causing landslides that wipe out entire neighborhoods.
Back-to-back natural disasters would present difficult compounding challenges to any country. But in Central America, a vulnerable region riddled by longstanding poverty, two powerful hurricanes would be devastating. And they were: Hurricanes Eta and Iota struck Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala nine months ago and left more than 200 people dead, millions in need of assistance, and thousands more displaced.
Inevitably, many of those who were displaced ended up migrating north to America. But US refugee and asylum laws remain woefully inadequate to protect those displaced by climate-related events. Monday’s stark United Nations report from the world’s top climate scientists warns that wild weather events, such as heat waves and storms, are expected to worsen and become more regular. It’s why there’s been a growing chorus of experts and elected officials calling for US and international law to recognize those people who move across borders due to environmental or climate-related events as refugees.
“In the 20th century, people were on the move because of war and conflict,” said Ama Francis, climate displacement project strategist for the International Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP. “That’s still true, but even more people now are on the move because of climate-related and environmental disasters. We need our laws to catch up.” The international definition of a refugee was written about 70 years ago.
Indeed, it’s an overdue action to incorporate climate-related events in America’s immigration policy. To that end, IRAP released a report last week laying out a few immediate steps the Biden administration should take without involving Congress, including issuing an opinion from the US Department of Justice clarifying that climate change can serve as grounds for refugee status under US law; writing guidance for immigration officers and judges to properly evaluate climate-related events; and using temporary protected status to protect nationals of countries such as Guatemala who are reeling from the effects of climate change.
“Taking those steps would send a really important signal to other countries and position the US to be a leader on this issue,” Francis said.
People’s reasons for leaving their countries are complex and typically involve myriad factors. But US immigration laws tend to see people through limited lenses, said María Cristina García, a Cornell University professor who’s working on a book about climate-driven refugees. “They’re either seen as economically driven, politically driven, or they want to be reunified with family,” García told me.
TPS, Francis told me, is unique in that it’s an immigration law “that actually mentions environmental disasters, so it’s really important to use the tools we have available.” It’s no accident that TPS has historically been used to protect many people from Central America. “Unlike any other area, Central America is quite vulnerable to environmental destruction, and we’ve been seeing environmentally driven migration from there for quite some time now,” García said.
The good news is that the Biden administration is preparing an interagency report on climate change-driven migration, which is due this month. In Congress, US Senator Ed Markey recently reintroduced legislation that would codify into US law protections for those displaced by climate change events.
Climate refugees are coming — in fact, many are probably already in the United States. The World Bank estimated in 2018 that more than 140 million people would be forced to move by 2050 because of environmental factors. Without a formal mechanism to protect them, they represent a significant financial cost to the United States. Some may already be here undocumented, living in the shadows; others might be languishing in detention centers paid for, of course, by American taxpayers. To meet the moment, the Biden administration must enact better protections to deal with the reality of climate refugees.