How to manage migration intensified by climate change
The situation at the U.S. Mexico border is rightfully generating headlines because of the scale of migration, the compelling stories of the migrants themselves, and the dramatic shift from the Trump administration’s failed attempt to deter migrants through brutal treatment to the Biden administration’s more humane approach.
There is plenty of room for debate about how the government can best manage the flow of migrants; but the Biden administration has correctly recognized that, if the United States expects to deter or otherwise change the flow of migration, the border is not an effective place to do it. President Joe Biden has announced his intention to invest in the Central American countries where the migrants originate, and has enlisted Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the effort to engage leaders in the region to build the partnerships that will be necessary to address the reasons that people migrate in the first place.
This builds on the work that Biden himself led as vice president in the Obama administration, which had begun to bear fruit by, for example, reducing gang violence in Honduras and providing avenues for children and adults in the region to seek safety closer to home without having to undertake the dangerous trek across Mexico.
President Trump promptly dismantled these programs, and though it will take time to reestablish relationships and begin making progress again, Biden is right to make the investment and wise to ask Harris to lead.
At least some of the current challenge at the border can be managed both more effectively and more humanely through reasonable changes in the efficiency of the asylum system and through the development of more appropriate shelter space for migrant families as they await answers to their asylum claims. The Biden administration appears to be planning important changes to manage the border with both efficiency and humanity, and may well succeed in implementing a more orderly and fair process.
But a larger problem — of enormous proportions — still looms: While some of the current migrants are fleeing violence and may qualify for protection under our asylum law, it is becoming clearer that at least part of what we are seeing at our Southern border is the result of climate change.
The current migrant stream includes people fleeing the devastation wrought by an epic drought in Guatemala which has ravaged the coffee crop, which is the nation’s largest rural employer. Honduras is still reeling from the effects of a pair of hurricanes in December, which affected as much as half of the population. El Salvador, too, is subject to unpredictable and intense droughts. All of this contributes to the desperation which causes people to lose hope, leaving their homes for their very survival and ultimately heading north to the U.S, because there is no other established route to safety. U.S. law doesn’t provide an avenue for economic migrants to stay — we are in an intensifying cycle of migration and return that will only contribute to the destabilization of all three countries.
This is a major reason that the president’s instinct to engage in the region is so important, and why his administration needs to demonstrate the kind of success that can convince Congress and the American public to support even more investment in making it possible for people to survive — and thrive — at home. The United States needs these investments, not only to prevent the tremendous challenge and human cost of the kind of migration we see today, but to model for the world that walls and brutality will not only fail to deter migration but will also tear away at the soul of a nation as they did for four years in the United States. Even worse, they will distract from the two strategies which become more urgent by the day:
- the necessity to curb carbon emissions to minimize the effects of climate change in the first place
- the urgency of helping the vulnerable nations that are already reeling from the effects to build their resilience and help their people survive without needing to flee
And at times of crisis like the one created by the devastating hurricanes in Honduras, the U.S. can demonstrate that prompt disaster relief and the creation of routes to safety elsewhere in the region are both the right approach to our neighbors in the hemisphere and the better deterrent to migration.
It’s not simply that this progress will be necessary if we are to reduce the pressure on our Southern border; it is necessary if the United States is going to lead in a world in which more and more people are on the move. Over the long term, the pressure on the United States will only increase, as it is already increasing across the planet. Four years of the Trump administration should have taught us that treating people with brutality at the border does not actually deter migration. Biden’s instinct is the right one: The best deterrent to migration is hope. We must provide the leadership that allows the people in our own hemisphere the chance to survive and prosper at home.
Cecilia Muñoz is a senior advisor at New America and the former director of the Domestic Policy Council under President Obama. She is a contributor to the forthcoming “Immigration Matters,” from New Press.