Analysis | Refuge beyond reach for Latin American and Caribbean migrants

The United States must recognize the reality of climate migration

Kyilah Terry

Migrants cross a river
Migrants transiting through Panama on their way toward the U.S. border (Image: Idiam Osorio for IOM)

“Haitians have moved throughout the Caribbean region and now mainland Latin America to Mexico. It seems wherever they go, citizenship, nationality or the right to stay is denied.” — Dr. April Mayes, Associate Professor, Pomona College

Since the early 2000s, tens of thousands of Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) migrants have made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border, as violence, poverty, political disorder, and environmental degradation have borne down on them. These growing numbers pose a genuine challenge to the entire region, which the policies of past U.S. administrations and the mischaracterization of migration drivers have only aggravated. While there is no single, dominant factor driving migration patterns, climate change aggravates existing tensions. Meanwhile, punitive U.S. policies, such as family separation, prolonged detention in inhumane conditions, and efforts to restrict asylum, signal a need to readjust U.S. immigration policy towards LAC countries that prioritizes climate-affected countries.

Haiti is a perfect example of a country where the forces of climate change have exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities, including escalating gang violence and food insecurity. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Haitian president Jovenel Moïse’s assassination, tropical storm Grace, and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, have affected at least 800,000 people, leaving more than 38,000 internally displaced, and 650,000 in need of emergency humanitarian assistance. Despite political instability, natural disasters, and armed conflict, many Haitians arriving at the southern border have been received by U.S. border officials with brutality and austere immigration policies, which have only worsened since the onset of the pandemic.

Under one such policy, known as Title 42, Haitian expulsion, deportation, and detainment have skyrocketed. In the last four months of 2021 alone, the United States sent nearly 9,000 Haitian migrants and asylum seekers back to Haiti, largely without providing access to protection screenings. Since being invoked under the pretense of public health interests in March 2020, Title 42 has expelled over 1.1 million migrants, across two administrations, and granted only 272 the opportunity to remain and apply for asylum. The regular use of Title 42, despite a district court judge finding that the policy “does not authorize the government to deny them the opportunity to seek asylum,” has forcibly returned Haitians to a country that the U.S. State Department has categorized as a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” zone.

Human rights and immigrant advocacy organizations have expressed deep concern over both Title 42 and broader U.S. climate migration policies towards Latin America and the Caribbean. Both have been cited as another reiteration of discrimination that is endemic to the immigration system, as migrants from countries most heavily affected by climate change and those being expelled are overwhelmingly people of color. ​​“Title 42 is emblematic of the racism and cruelty that animate U.S. immigration policy,” said Patricia Stottlemyer, senior domestic policy advisor at Oxfam. “The xenophobia and utter disregard for the life-threatening conditions asylum seekers are fleeing have always disproportionately harmed Black and Brown migrants, and Title 42 is a shameful example. The Biden administration cannot advance its commitment to racial justice without ending Title 42 and respecting the humanity, dignity, and rights of asylum seekers.”

Groups such as Haitian Bridge Alliance and the UndocuBlack Network also continue to advocate for the termination of Title 42, arguing that it is continuing a history of racialized exclusion of Black migrants and refugees at U.S. ports of entry and their wrongful association with COVID-19.

Title 42 stands in stark contrast to U.S. immigration policy towards Haiti after a 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince in 2010 and left an estimated 220,000 dead, 300,000 injured, and over 1.5 million displaced. The Obama administration also designated Haiti for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and established the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program. Additionally, from 2011 to 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement refrained from deporting Haitians. Yet, the Trump administration’s policies from 2016 to 2020 ended the visa lottery, restricted family-based immigration, implemented a Muslim ban, increrased the number of detention centers, and practiced family separation. These shifts in policies, unfortunately, are characteristic of U.S. immigration policy towards Caribbean and Latin American countries for the last four decades.

Properly understanding the interplay between climate change, migration, and border policy is of critical importance, as the World Bank estimates that Latin America and the Caribbean will produce 17 million climate-displaced persons by 2050. While the Biden-Harris administration has repeatedly emphasized the importance of human security and ensuring that America’s foreign policy protects the world’s most vulnerable populations, to do so, the administration must strengthen engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean.

One step towards building a better partnership is supporting regional initiatives that address climate concerns. The Escazú initiative, which has the backing of more than a dozen governments in the Caribbean and South America, seeks to establish a regional set of principles for protecting the environment. President Biden should engage in this conversation at the next Summit of the Americas, slated to be hosted by the United States in 2022, and commit to greater development support. From 2000 to 2018, total U.S. security and economic assistance in the Americas was ranked one of the lowest U.S. investments in the world at $21.65 billion. Targeting investment towards physical and economic drivers of migration, and sustainable climate mitigation and economic growth, would reduce large scale migration.

In countries experiencing civil unrest in conjunction with climate change, the United States can work to support conditions for free and fair elections, address gang violence, and invest in the capacity of regional actors to process refugee flows in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The United States is one of the largest sources of humanitarian aid to the UNHCR, but must better tailor its assistance to consider the intersection of climate change, migration, and the region’s unique challenges and do so in a way that is not offshoring its responsibility to a global actor.

At home, a gap exists in the immigration system. Currently, the United States addresses climate-displaced persons on an ad-hoc basis through existing executive authority in the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). In general, people displaced by the impacts of climate change have traditionally not been considered eligible for protection as refugees. The Biden administration, with support from Congress, can modify the INA to include a definition for climate-displaced persons, and expand existing legal avenues such as TPS to those forced to leave their homes due to climate related issues.

In the short term, the Biden administration can reinstate the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program which is expected to increase the flow of remittances back to Haiti, assisting their economy in rebuilding efforts. Title 42 expulsions can be terminated and the right for asylum seekers to seek protection restored. Lastly, the annual refugee ceiling can be increased to at least 110,000 slots, with a specific increase in the number of slots available for refugees from the LAC countries and those experiencing climate displacement.

Climate change’s scale and wide-ranging impact demand bilateral cooperation to effectively confront its consequences. The Biden administration is well positioned to seize the moment and address the migrants who are falling through the cracks of an immigration system that does not recognize them and often prevents them from seeking asylum.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s March 2021 speech in Brussels included a vision for engagement with the Western Hemisphere “based on principles of mutual respect and equality and a commitment to economic prosperity, security, human rights, and dignity.” If the United States plans to promote U.S. objectives of fostering stability throughout the hemisphere and humanely manage migration flows, it will be important to accurately identify and address the drivers of their movement.

Kyilah Terry graduated in May 2021 with an M.A. in German and European Studies from Georgetown University, with a focus on forced displacement, European migration policy, and U.S. refugee law. She also received a Certificate in Diplomatic Studies from ISD and a Certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies. Currently, she serves as a Congressional research fellow, in the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, and a U.S. Institute of Peace research analyst in the Africa Center. She writes here in a personal capacity.

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