2020 candidates should discuss immigration and climate change — as one issue

2020 candidates should discuss immigration and climate change — as one issue
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In recent weeks, there has been a series of proposals laid out to address the dire situation that is causing migrants, primarily from Central American countries, to risk their lives and journey to our southern border. Indeed, after 76,000 men, women and children arrived without authorization in February, it’s clear we need a strategy.

The proposals have ranged from serious — taking a multipronged approach to coordinating with Mexico, investing in the economies of Northern Triangle countries, and creating more orderly processes for refugees here in the U.S., to the absurd — closing down the border and declaring that America is “full.”


Yet, largely absent from this conversation, especially among 2020 presidential hopefuls, and the larger conversation about improving and strengthening America’s 21st-century immigration system overall, is a set of solutions that recognizes the role that climate change plays in the challenges we see at our border.

Because migrant families traveling thousands of miles by foot hoping to seek asylum is as much a climate issue as it is a global migration issue. By 2050, more than 140 million people could be climate refugees, according to the World Bank. In our hemisphere, that could lead 2.1 million people from Mexico and Central America to migrate to the U.S., as a result of a warming climate. Funding for walls that don’t prevent people or drugs from entering the U.S. won’t solve for this problem — funding dedicated to wind, solar, waste management systems and greening our transportation would. 

We don’t need to look to the future to imagine what might happen if we fail to act.

Just look back at the migrant crisis sparked by the Syrian Civil War. The drought that preceded the conflict was likely the worst in the past 900 years in Syria. It led to 75 percent of farms failing and 85 percent of livestock dying in the five years before the conflict. As a result, more than 5 million Syrians have become refugees.

When it comes to Central America: in a brilliant New Yorker piece about climate change causing migration to the north — especially in areas that have been hit by drought — Jonathan Blitzer wrote, “Even approaches that have accounted for the root causes of regional mass migration have underestimated the impact of climate change.” Blitzer is right. Apprehensions at the southern border will continue to rise long-term until we start combating climate change in a serious way.

Candidates for president in 2020 ought to make this connection and propose pairing immigration reform proposals with climate ones.

That means working with the governments of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala on:

  • public information campaigns that inform migrants whether they are eligible for asylum before they start the journey
  • re-starting in-country processing so asylum-seekers can apply from home
  • increasing foreign aid to bolster economic opportunity in migrants’ home countries

It also means working with these governments by providing funding for environmental-related projects in Central America and rejoining the Paris climate agreement to show we’re serious about the challenges before us. 


Candidates in 2020 can argue that instead of getting tough on families and children already here (which is reprehensible), we can get tough on vehicle emission standards and let California set its own ambitious goals. This will incentivize American automakers to invest in an electric future. Rather than capping refugee admissions, we could cap the use of carbon by enforcing penalties and incentives. Instead of changing our legal immigration laws, we could change the law that gives tax breaks to oil and gas companies — to the detriment of innovative clean-energy businesses that are trying to grow and hire.

There’s good news in all of this.

Despite the rhetoric in Washington, the vast majority of Americans believe immigration is a good thing for our country. And most Americans are worried about climate change. Which means there is an opportunity. 

Now it’s up to those running for president to make sure the public knows that these two issues are connected. Only then can our policymakers bring serious solutions to the table.  

Ibrahim AlHusseini is founder and CEO of FullCycle, an investment company focused on reversing the effects of climate change.