As climate change increasingly becomes a major issue in the Democratic presidential primary, more candidates are releasing detailed plans to deal with the crisis. But so far only two — Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke — have connected the issue to immigration.
Castro’s “People and Planet First” plan envisions creating a new refugee category for communities immigrating after climate disasters. And O’Rourke has hinted that he would treat migrants driven by “push factors” like drought as refugees.
This is a welcome acknowledgment of the role the climate crisis plays in displacing people. But accepting climate refugees alone isn’t enough. Any holistic climate plan should also dismantle the militarized status quo at the border.
The climate crisis is not only causing extreme weather disasters. Gradually but unmistakably, as droughts lengthen and rains become less predictable, it’s also directly contributing to the decline of economic and social sustainability of poor countries in the Southern Hemisphere.
For many communities, soil degradation, drought and ecological destruction are leading causes of displacement. As the top historic contributor to carbon emissions, the United States has a responsibility to ensure that the immigrants impacted — either directly or indirectly — are accepted.
A World Bank report estimates that 140 million people will have to migrate by 2050 due to climate change, while other studies put the figure as high as 1 billion. While predictions vary considerably, we’re already witnessing millions of people emigrating from Central America because of severe droughts.
Unfortunately, the United States has been treating these refugees from its own pollution as threats.
In 2012, during the presidency of Barack Obama, a report by the Department of Homeland Security referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier” — not because of climate devastation itself, but because refugees pose a challenge to “securing and managing our borders, enforcing and administering our immigration laws, and other homeland security missions.”
Of course, that trend is accelerating under Trump, who reallocated $155 million from the disaster relief agency FEMA and $116 million from the Coast Guard to ICE just days before Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas and Florida.
Instead of disaster relief, in other words, the department’s priority on climate change is controlling migration.
As a result, hundreds of people evacuating the Bahamas have been turned away from the United States and denied Temporary Protective Status. Trump justified the move with the same kind of hateful rhetoric he’s used against Mexicans, describing people in the Bahamas as “some very bad people and some very bad gang members, and some very, very bad drug dealers.”
Already, Trump’s policies have resulted in refugees from violence or persecution being corralled in internment camps, or forced to wait for months in dangerous conditions across the border in Mexico. What’s to stop climate refugees from being treated the same way?
We must reverse our decades-long trend of border militarization and prioritize front-line communities while addressing climate change. The Democrats who would be president must grapple with the U.S. responsibility to admit people impacted by our own pollution — and do away with any militarized agencies that stand in the way.
Josue De Luna Navarro is a New Mexico Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.