Trump can’t win on immigration if he scraps climate change funds — here’s why
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Making good on campaign promises, President Trump signed an executive order last Tuesday that dismantles the Obama administration’s plan to combat climate change.

The order not only undoes the Clean Power Plan requiring states to reduce carbon emissions, but also slashes the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by nearly a third, ends actions to reduce methane emissions, lifts a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands, and initiates reviews of other climate-related regulations and policies. 

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The rationale?  As simply put by White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, “we consider that [climate change] to be a waste of your money.”

Yet these steps are at cross-purposes to one of the administration’s big ticket items — curbing immigration through policies and the construction of a massive border wall with Mexico. 

No wall will ever be strong enough to deter those without hope in their homeland. But if the Trump administration is serious about addressing immigration challenges, it should do more to support human health and well-being in all nations.

Combating climate change and protecting the environment, are the best ways to ensure that people have access to the basic resources and services needed to thrive. There are well-established links between environmental degradation and conflicts, mass migrations, and refugee crises around the world, as has been seen repeatedly in the conflicts in Darfur and Nigeria and challenges in the Middle East.

Climate change is certain to exacerbate problems associated with food and water scarcity, poverty, disease, and disasters. The National Security Strategy has already pointed to climate change as an urgent and growing threat to the U.S. Each year there are 25 million environmental refugees, with numbers certain to rise due to climate change.

According to the International Organization for Migration, these refugees are not only fleeing disasters, as with environmental emergency migrants. There also are environmentally-forced migrants, who flee deteriorating or untenable environmental conditions like desertification, and environmentally-motivated migrants who are leaving to avoid future anticipated problems.

For example, one study estimates that climate-related declines in crop yields will force 7 million Mexicans to immigrate to the U.S. within the next 70 years.   

We are at the tip of the proverbial iceberg — though perhaps a metaphor with limited time horizon given Trump’s intent to reverse efforts to address climate change.

As former Secretary of State John Kerry said at the 2015 conference for Global Leadership in the Arctic: “We as leaders of countries will begin to witness what we call climate refugees moving – you think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival.”

Trump’s immigration policy misses the forest for the trees by narrowly focusing on border enforcement.  And this is not even the first time we’ve tried to manage immigration by building a wall.

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act authorizing the construction of fencing and other hurdles along the border. “This bill will make our borders more secure,” he declared at the time. By 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had erected more than 600 miles of barriers on the border.  

Did it work? A quick glance at the data from a 2012 Pew Research Center report shows that the number of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. fell by half, to 1.4 million, from 2005-2010 compared to 1995-2000.

However, during that same period 1.4 million Mexicans living in the U.S. willingly returned to Mexico, bringing net migration to zero. That contrast suggests that the decline in immigration stemmed not simply from border enforcement, but from larger demographic and economic factors that made would-be immigrants optimistic about their opportunities in Mexico.

Indeed, studies by economists Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh and sociologist Andrés Villareal respectively show that long-run demographic trends, such as the declining fertility in Mexico that reduced family sizes and the number of young adults joining the labor force, as well as external shocks, like the Great Recession in the United States, have jointly contributed to reduced migration rates.

There are other examples that speak to the limits of border-focused policies.  In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act which included substantial investment in border enforcement.

Despite a tenfold increase in the amount spent on border control from 1986 to 2000, the number of undocumented migrants from Mexico still tripled in the same period.

This mismatch is easily understood by looking at Mexico’s economic crisis in the 1980s and early 1990s, where the Mexican GDP per capita fell by 9 percent, the number of moderately-poor Mexicans increased from 20 million to 26 million, and those in extreme poverty jumped from 10 million to nearly 14 million.

The truth is that border enforcement will not deter people who are desperate. And perhaps nothing illustrates desperation more than people willing to set their children out alone on a treacherous journey in search of better circumstances.

An analysis of the Mexican Migration Project data - the most extensive data set on Mexico-U.S. migration — shows that most migrants during the crisis were teenagers who were willing to try as many times as it took to cross the border. We see a similar pattern in the more recent migrant stream that emerged from Central America. This stream contained thousands of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, escaping the poverty or violence in their countries. 

Trump’s coupled strategy of dismantling environmental regulations and fast-tracking efforts to curb immigration misses the point that mass migrations and refugee crises are linked to environmental health.

The series of actions advanced by Trump will only worsen the challenges we face. Climate change will be a major source of human displacement in the future. By investing in the environment today, Trump would ensure a far better immigration policy in the long run than building a wall that achieves little more than convincing a frustrated electorate that he is doing something. 

Filiz Garip is professor of sociology at Cornell University, Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project, and the author of “On the Move: Changing Mechanisms of Mexico-U.S. Migration.” Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin professor and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and Public Voices fellow. 


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