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The Climate Crisis at Our Border

As climate change fuels migration, the treatment of Haitian migrants is a troubling sign of what’s to come without humane immigration policy.

October 27, 2021
Pedro Pardo/Getty

Many Americans felt betrayed as they saw recent images of U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing and grabbing Haitian refugees as they attempted to return to a makeshift settlement under a Texas bridge. Amid the shocking and inhumane lengths the Trump administration employed to deter migrants from crossing the border, many had hoped that President Biden’s administration would usher in a new era. However, this horrible scene was a stark reminder that both political parties need to seriously reckon with an issue that will only become more prominent as the climate crisis exacerbates the conditions which push people to migrate to the United States.

Haiti is grappling with multiple crises: a series of earthquakes and mishandled recovery efforts, political turmoil, and severe poverty. For many, making the treacherous journey to migrate to the United States does not feel like much of a choice. Haiti, caught at the intersection of natural disaster and colonialism, presents a case study in environmental injustice that portends what is to come as global inaction on climate pushes more and more people to leave their homes.

As our planet warms, millions will be pushed to migrate, both within and across borders. By 2070, as much as one-fifth of the Earth’s land could become an “extreme hot zone[,] . . . potentially placing one of every three people alive outside the climate niche where humans have thrived for thousands of years.” A New York Times Magazine collaboration with ProPublica found that “in the most extreme scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the course of the next 30 years.”

All this presents a massive issue of justice and equity. The Times-ProPublica report found that if countries like the United States rebuff immigration, the effect will be increased poverty, hunger, and violence. This is particularly true if wealthier countries like the United States show an unwillingness to invest in foreign aid programs geared specifically towards climate adaptation, which have been shown to be effective at reducing migration.

Those who attempt to cross the U.S. border are being met with escalating (and increasingly high-tech) militarism. Historian Greg Grandin explains what he claims to be an important shift in American consciousness: by repeatedly invoking the border wall, Trump has inverted the national mythology of the endless frontier of boundless growth and resources. In Trump’s vision of America, “‘freedom’ means freedom from restraint, but no longer pretends, in a world of limits, that everyone can be free — and enforces that reality through cruelty, domination, and racism.”

When elected officials like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott make shows of disproportionate force to “defend” the border against men and women just looking to feed themselves and take care of their families, or when Border Patrol agents commit acts of violence against noncitizens with effectively zero repercussions, this reasserts the idea that human rights are reserved for citizens alone.

Biden, during his campaign, promised to build a “fair and humane immigration system,” one that would stand in opposition to the cruelty of Trump’s — and assured the country that climate change and its impacts would be a top priority. However, the images we saw last month do not live up to that promise. It is especially important now to push for more just and humane immigration policies, as we can only expect to see an increase in climate change-induced migration over the coming decades.