US Must Face its Economic and Social History as Climate Migrants Move North

The US Must Face its Economic and Social History as Climate Migrants Move North

Thousands of Haitian migrants have gathered at the US border following political turmoil and climate impacts in both Haiti and South America. Experts say that colonialism, a history of slavery, and systemic inequality have culminated and left Black people more vulnerable to climate change. And now, thousands of Haitians are facing that reality.

Why This Matters

Since 2010, disasters linked to climate change have forced 21.5 million people on average to leave their homes each year. By 2050, the World Bank projects that there will be 216 million climate migrants, most of them from poor countries already more vulnerable to climate change. To avoid a worldwide humanitarian crisis, wealthy nations like the US will need to take immediate action to not only solve climate change, but support people who have been forced from their homes. Still, wealthy nations across the world are reluctant to accept migrants, and too often, institutional racism plays a role in that reluctance. To address mass climate displacement, countries will not only have to halt global temperature rise, but also grapple with their colonial histories and systemic issues.

Amanpour and Company (PBS): The Great Climate Migration Has Begun, May 24, 2021.

The Journey North

"The National Security Assessment has been clear from the very beginning on this," said New Mexico Senator Ben Ray Luján. "The US and our allies have to take the climate crisis seriously in all aspects of this, or everything is going to get worse. The science is clear, we're seeing it play out in front of our very eyes."

President Biden has said that climate change is the number one threat to national security, and has ordered a national intelligence estimate to evaluate the security implications of climate change. Still, the US is woefully unprepared to accept or aid climate migrants, and the systemic racism that has created disproportionate climate vulnerability within the nation, is also impacting those approaching its borders. Last week, border patrol agents were caught on film chasing down Haitian migrants on horseback and lashing them with horse reins. For many, these images dredged up painful intergenerational trauma.

CNBC: Border patrol begins to remove Haitian immigrants in Texas, September 20, 2021.

Keston K. Perry, a political economist and Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College, explained to CNN:

Haiti is one particular important case, but it is connected to a wider story of the dispossession of Black people, especially in the Caribbean. Making the connection between existing inequalities that are linked to colonialism and enslavement of African peoples is important for us to understand how these communities have become particularly vulnerable and exposed to climate change.

Perry also emphasized that these migrants are fleeing climate impacts that the US is largely responsible for.

A White House spokesperson said that the Biden Administration understands that climate adaptation doesn't just mean updating levees and power grids, but also updating immigration systems, further stating:

The Biden Administration continues to implement a comprehensive strategy to address the factors that drive people to leave their countries, create legal channels to migrate, create protection for people in the region, reform our asylum system and deter irregular migration.

To Go Deeper

Read Dr. Mila Turner's op-ed titled "Mass Expulsion is Only a Temporary Solution," published this week in Front Lines.