We handled climate migration nearly 200 years ago, we can handle it again
The climate crisis is shaking societies around the world. Its effect on human migration deserves particular attention. Flooding, droughts and extreme temperatures have forced millions to move already, testing the migrants and the societies receiving them.
But we have not yet seen the flight of people from one place to another that likely will run into the hundreds of millions and surely affect the United States.
A mass transformative migration to the United States catalyzed by environmental crisis is not new to American history, though, and that history provides clues to our future.
The migration of millions of Irish to the United States that began in the 1840s originated in an environmental calamity. Their arrival fueled a powerful nativist backlash, yet quickly those same unwanted people began to shape the nation we have now. This history makes clear the choice we will face: bowing to fear of climate migrants or welcoming them as the latest, newest, valuable Americans.
In 1845, after a few overly wet years, a fungus, “phytophthora infestans,” began destroying potato crops in Ireland. Potatoes were thecenter of the diets of most Irish, largely because of British colonial policies. With the food source destroyed, the resulting famine and diseases killed 1 million people by 1849. Fertility rates dropped, family structures collapsed and patterns of landholding changed.
Facing environmental and ecological devastation that begat social disaster, nearly 1 million Irish, or one-quarter of the island’s population, departed. Hundreds of thousands came to the United States in the decade after 1845, almost half of all newcomers to the country. They transformed the United States, making cities like New York and Boston profoundly Irish.
For example, Mary McBride left County Sligo as the famine’s toll mounted, settling in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Employed in domestic service, McBride saved, hoping to bring her siblings over. In letters home, she remarked upon her “excellent situation.” Forced to flee because of the blight and the famine she and many others like her crafted a new life in the United States, encouraging family and friends to join them. Together they stoked the American economy and enriched its culture.
This did not take place without troubles. Despite the catastrophe they endured, many Americans hated these newcomers. Some Americans saw them as competitors in the job market. Others worried that the Irish, most of them Catholic, would make the once solidly Protestant nation subservient to Rome. Considering the Irish stupid, violent drunkards, and superstitious, a virulent anti-Irish mania flourished.
It poured itself into politics. The Know Nothings, a nativist political party of the mid-1850s, galvanized white Protestants around the threatening, supposedly un-American specter of a growing Catholic, mostly Irish, population. While short-lived, the Know Nothings, one of America’s most successful third parties, spawned ideas that survived the party’s demise.
Local and state governments in New York, Massachusetts and Maryland responded, enacting laws to keep out the Irish out. City officials wanted ship captains to send back those who seemed to be, or might become, paupers. They looked for men and women, their bodies wracked by famine, bedraggled after a harrowing ocean voyage, to turn away.
Because authorities lacked resources for surveillance, few Irish got caught and the vast majority entered America. They built the nation’s railroads, canals and infrastructure. Like McBride, they tended to America’s children, cleaned their homes, fed their families.
Today’s and tomorrow’s climate migrants — like the Irish climate migrants who arrived in the 1840s and 1850s — will want to come to the United States, seeking jobs, planning to reunite with family and hoping for brighter futures.
Like the Irish, 21st-century climate migrants will inspire, and indeed already have inspired, nativism. Their arrival might also spark a political party to crafts its agenda around opposition to climate migrants, contending, like the Know Nothings, that the newest newcomers endanger the nation. The border enforcement regime in that world will likely be much fiercer than what the Irish encountered, but it will be rooted in the same ethos of building walls to protect Americans from outsiders.
But we can take another path. Just as those 19th-century refugees from environmental disaster contributed mightily to our nation, so too will these current and future ones. Nations do have a responsibility to regulate the entry of newcomers, but optimism should guide policy.
Today’s and tomorrow’s climate immigrants will become productive Americans, doing the work that Americans likely will not. Welcoming them is a smarter investment of state resources than brutalizing them and sending them back to uninhabitable places.
Carl J. Bon Tempo is associate professor of history at the University at Albany, SUNY.
Hasia R. Diner is the Paul and Sylvia Steinberg professor of American Jewish history at New York University.
They are the co-authors of “Immigration: An American History,” recently published by Yale University Press.