Climate Change Is Already a Major Factor in Migration to the U.S.

One thing we know with some certainty about the situation on our southern border is that pretty much everything Trump says is a lie. Given that, it is important for all of us to get the facts straight in order to be able to evaluate various policy proposals on what would constitute a rational approach to immigration reform.

Lawfare’s Stephanie Leutert and Sarah Spalding have provided us with some credible data as a starting point. First of all, over the last three years, the number of Central American migrants arriving here has hovered at around 250,000 per year. As is often mentioned, the big change has been in the number of families (rather than individual adults) who are migrating. They have gone from about 10 percent of the total to almost two thirds. Finally, close to half of the migrants come from Guatemala, with Hondurans representing 35 percent and Salvadorans 16 percent.

In terms of what is driving these migrants to leave their homes, a 2015 survey found that almost 40 percent cited “attacks or threats to themselves or family as the reason for leaving.” We often hear about high murder rates, gang violence, and political corruption in these Northern Triangle countries as the force behind attempts to seek asylum in the U.S.

Jonathan Blitzer actually travelled to the country that produces most of the migrants, Guatemala, and found another major contributor: climate change.

“There are always a lot of reasons why people migrate,” Yarsinio Palacios, an expert on forestry in Guatemala, told me. “Maybe a family member is sick. Maybe they are trying to make up for losses from the previous year. But in every situation, it has something to do with climate change.”

Blitzer found that the majority of migrants from Guatemala come from the country’s western highlands region, which extends from Antigua to the Mexican border.

The population in the highlands is mostly indigenous, and people’s livelihoods are almost exclusively agrarian. The malnutrition rate, which hovers around sixty-five per cent, is among the highest in the Western Hemisphere. In 2014, a group of agronomists and scientists, working on an initiative called Climate, Nature, and Communities of Guatemala, produced a report that cautioned lawmakers about the region’s susceptibility to a new threat. The highlands region, they wrote, “was the most vulnerable area in the country to climate change.”

Back in 2015, the Asociación de Cooperación para el Desarrollo Rural de Occidente (C.D.R.O.) began a pilot project with the village of Paraje León to combat the effects of climate change. Among other things, they showed the community how to diversify their crops, conserve water, and reforest some of the surrounding areas. Blitzer documented that, within three years, the people of Paraje León who participated were doing well enough to survive.

Then a climate science-denying idiot became president of the United States and, “in July, 2017, the Trump Administration ended funding for the Climate, Nature, and Communities program that covered the project in Paraje León.” While the residents of that village could carry on, it “was one of only a few that had the chance to join the regional initiative before the funding disappeared.”

Last November, John Kerry told an audience in Europe that we must all tackle climate change or face migration chaos. Contrary to what you are hearing these days, the latter is already beginning to happen. For any immigration policy to be credible, it must take into account the need for aid to assist countries like Guatemala in gearing up efforts to address climate change.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.