Weather-related disasters—such as intense storms, floods, and droughts—have been the leading catalyst of new internal (within-country) displacements worldwide in recent years. In 2020, 30 million new people were internally displaced due to weather-related disasters. That same year, the number of people displaced by weather-related disasters was the highest in a decade, and three times greater than those internally displaced by conflict and violence. It’s abundantly clear from this statistic alone that climate displacement is one of the greatest challenges that humanity now faces; and yet we haven’t even begun to address it.
The causes for these displacements are as complicated as they are massive. Climate change is already affecting climate extremes by increasing average global temperatures, and will likely continue to result in more frequent and intense weather events. Slow-onset effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise, desertification, and biodiversity loss, will also continue to drive displacement. So while the phenomenon has many drivers, climate-induced displacement will only increase as the severity of weather events and slow-onset events continue to worsen.
It’s essential that we meet cross-border climate migrants with dignity and respect, because how we treat them determines who we are as a country.
Climate displacement is a reality that many are living with now, and that many more will soon have to face. As the number of climate-displaced people increases, the United States needs to proactively prepare to address the issue. We cannot continue to follow in the footsteps of a legacy of a racialized immigration system. It’s essential that we meet cross-border climate migrants with dignity and respect, because how we treat them determines who we are as a country. We can either turn people back to a dangerous and potentially fatal fate, or we can live up to the promise of what the United States can be—a land of opportunity, freedom, and justice.
This commentary will give insight into the reality of climate migration and why the United States has a responsibility to address the topic. It will then provide a brief history of our race-based immigration system, followed by a quick look at our limited refugee and asylum system. I will close the commentary with a discussion of the need for policies that acknowledge climate migration.
We Have a Responsibility to Climate Migrants
Predicting the future movement of climate migrants is difficult, as it depends on the course that future climate disasters take. It is further complicated by the fact that the actions global leaders take to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which is the leading cause for climate change, may impact our trajectory. While there is no conclusive figure of how many people will need to move because of climate-induced displacement, the World Bank estimates that there could be 216 million people that move within their own countries in six regions due to slow-onset climate change impacts by 2050—a number amounting to over 60 percent of the current U.S. population. The regions include Sub-Saharan Africa (86 million), East Asia and the Pacific (49 million), South Asia (40 million), North Africa (19 million), Latin America (17 million), and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (5 million). The people in these regions that will be most impacted by climate change have contributed the least to global warming.
The majority of people displaced by climate disasters will remain in their own country. Still, an increasing number will need to cross international borders as climate change affects entire regions and ecosystems, destabilizing food and water systems. And yet, despite the vast numbers of current and future climate-displaced people, there are no legal protections under U.S. or international law for people who cross borders due to climate disasters. Millions of people are and will be left in limbo after being forcibly displaced by climate change.
The United States has an especially great responsibility to address climate migration because we are responsible for the largest share of historical carbon dioxide emissions.
The United States has an especially great responsibility to address climate migration because we are responsible for the largest share of historical carbon dioxide emissions. Since the Industrial Revolution, the United States has had the most cumulative emissions. This is an important fact to keep in mind, because the cumulative CO2 emitted globally is closely tied to the warming of the planet that has already occurred. While countries like China and India have recently surpassed the United States in their emissions, they have a much smaller share of cumulative global emissions. Their populations are also much bigger than the U.S. population, so their emissions per person are vastly smaller than that of the United States.
A (Very) Brief History of Our Immigration System
The U.S. has historically had a race-based immigration system designed to exclude people from certain regions, and in particular from Asia and Latin America, the same regions that are going to be the most impacted by climate-induced displacement. As our system continues to exclude people from those same regions, it is important to reckon with the harrowing history of the U.S. immigration system and the limitations of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. They continue to play a part in who is welcomed in the U.S. and who is not. While there has been some progress in improving the system, it has come at a great cost and after immense struggle.
From the beginning, the concept of U.S. citizenship was built to welcome free white settlers from Europe—which, given that whiteness is a shifting concept, at the time meant white Anglo-Saxon Protestants—and excluded Native Americans, enslaved people from Africa, and immigrants from outside of Northern and Western Europe. Through naturalization and other restrictive immigration laws, the United States has limited who had rights and protections based on nationality, religion, or race.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 was the first law to specify who was eligible for citizenship by naturalization and restricted the privilege to “free white persons,” embedding white supremacy into the concept of U.S. citizenship and who belonged in the national community. It took the Civil War, our bloodiest armed conflict, to abolish slavery and begin to expand the rights and privileges of citizenship beyond “free white persons.” It wasn’t until a few years later in 1868 that the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted specifically to grant newly freed Black people access to citizenship. The amendment also extended the right to citizenship to anyone born in the country or naturalized in it, although it did not apply to Indigenous people (an injustice that was not rectified until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924). The Fourteenth Amendment was meant to be a step towards a more just democracy, but opposition to its goals continued through violence and intimidation, denying Black Americans the right to fully participate as citizens.
Naturalization continued to remain off-limits to Chinese immigrants, with new laws put in place to further limit entry from certain groups. As migration throughout the rest of the nineteenth century continued into the United States, Chinese immigrants became the largest nonwhite group of newcomers and were viewed by many white citizens as a threat, who often referred to them as an “unarmed invasion.” The rise of anti-immigrant fears led to racial violence against Chinese immigrants, but rather than trying to restrain the violence, Congress moved to restrict Chinese immigration by passing the Page Act of 1875 and then the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first significant law restricting immigration for a specific nationality. These laws drastically reduced Chinese immigration and the exclusion act barred Chinese immigrants from naturalization. Chinese immigrants and their descendants remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943.
As white supremacist and nativist elements felt more threatened by the growing racial diversity of the country, there was an outpouring of new laws that limited the entry of non-white people into the United States. The Gentleman’s Agreement in 1907—an arrangement between the United States and Japan to deny passports to Japanese laborers intending to migrate to the United States—limited the entry of Japanese immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1917 banned entry to anyone from the Asiatic Barred Zone, which extended from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. The Immigration Act of 1924 implemented strict national quotas that further cut the total number of immigrants allowed each year to favor immigrants from Northern and Western Europe and severely limited immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, slowing immigration significantly.
Policy-backed anti-immigrant sentiment continued well into the twentieth century. It wasn’t until the immense struggle and perseverance of the Civil Rights Movement that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the national origins quota, expanded immigration to highly skilled immigrants, and emphasized family reunification. Although this led to more diverse immigration because immigration was opened to more countries, immigration policy also slowly shifted to punitive immigration laws and immigration-enforcement mechanisms. There was an increase in the militarization of the border, incarceration of immigrants, and deportations. The incarceration of immigrants in the United States has grown twenty-fold since 1979 and has created the largest immigration detention system in the world. We continue to have an immigration system that not only excludes but also criminalizes immigrants from regions like South Asia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America— the same regions that are being severely impacted by climate change.
Our Limited Refugee and Asylum System
Before World War II, there wasn’t an international or U.S. standardized system in place for refugees and asylum seekers. At the start of WWII, the ship St. Louis had more than 900 Jewish refugees from Germany seeking refuge, but the State Department and the White House used the exclusionary Immigration Act of 1924 to turn back the ship, telling them to “await their turn.” Over 200 of the passengers on the St. Louis returned to Europe and were fated to their deaths during the Holocaust. It was an atrocious human tragedy that could have been avoided.
It wasn’t until after WWII that the newly formed United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) led the creation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, defining the term “refugee” and outlining the rights of refugees and the legal obligations of nations and states to protect them. Initially, the Convention was primarily limited to protecting European refugees, but a protocol in 1967 expanded the scope to other migrants.
The United States didn’t sign on to the Convention until 1968, and the provisions weren’t incorporated into U.S. law until after the Vietnam War, when there was an influx of Southeast Asian refugees. The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 established a more regular system of resettlement. Based on the convention’s definition under the U.S. laws, the Refugee Act defines a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin. In the United States, the major difference between refugees and asylees is where they applied. Refugees usually apply from outside of the United States, whereas asylum seekers are physically present in the United States or at a port of entry. The Refugee Act continues to provide the basis for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), our current process for screening refugees. But the USRAP is a lengthy process that can be burdensome to refugees, since most are unable to work and are concerned for their safety in the refugee camps. The Trump administration further limited the program by dramatically cutting the number of refugee admissions annually: in fiscal year (FY) 2016, the cap was 85,000; by FY 2020, it had been limited to 18,000, with only 11,814 refugees actually admitted.
U.S. and international law allow persons fleeing persecution and arriving at a border and port of entry to seek asylum. However, the Trump administration also severely dismantled the asylum process. In 2018, a “zero-tolerance” policy was enacted which resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their families and prolonged detention. Initiated in the beginning of 2019, the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), or “remain in Mexico” policy, forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their case is pending. It has forced migrants to wait in dangerous and deplorable conditions and made it more difficult for asylum seekers to receive a fair review of their claims. While the program briefly ended in January 2021, a Texas district court ordered the reimplementation of the program.
If we continue on this path, it will have devastating consequences, not just on our immigration system, but most importantly on the lives of migrants. This is a matter of life or death.
In 2020, the Trump administration used a public health law first enacted in 1944, Title 42, to give border agents the discretion to immediately expel migrants without authorization because of the pandemic—without an opportunity to request asylum or other humanitarian protections. The current administration has continued these policies. Towards the end of 2021, Haitian migrants were seeking refuge at the U.S.–Mexico border, and instead of being welcomed in a humane way, 8,497 people were expelled back to Haiti between September 19, 2021 and the end of 2021, 44 percent of whom were women and children. In the last year and a half, Title 42 has resulted in over 1.3 million expulsions, largely of Central Americans and Mexicans, despite public health experts condemning the misuse of Title 42. The United States continues to turn its backs on migrants seeking safety and opportunity. The immigration system and refugee process has failed people who are seeking refuge from certain regions—the same regions that are going to continue to be impacted by climate displacement. If we continue on this path, it will have devastating consequences, not just on our immigration system, but most importantly on the lives of migrants. This is a matter of life or death.
The Need for Policies that Acknowledge Climate Migration
The U.S. needs to be prepared to handle the inevitability of increased climate migration. Furthermore, as top contributors to global warming, the United States has a responsibility to those displaced by climate change. The U.S. response to immigration also has its harrowing history, handling waves of migrants in an ineffective and inhumane way. History continues to repeat itself, with racial disparities rippling through the immigration system. We cannot continue to repeat history. We must treat climate migrants with the dignity and respect that all humans deserve. As a formerly Undocumented person, I know the real costs of policy failure—having to live in fear and uncertainty. I was stuck in perpetual limbo. Something as simple as driving could have a devastating consequence—my heart would beat out of my chest every time I had to take a car. Having worked in the immigration space for years, I further saw the anguish inaction caused families: helping asylum seekers navigate a confusing and long process after having just experienced being separated from their kids at the border; fathers and mothers asking why they were locked up and treated like criminals when all they wanted to do was provide for their families. No one deserves this fate, and this includes climate-displaced people.
There are already opportunities for the U.S. immigration system to provide protections to climate-displaced people—for example, creating a system of complementary protection in parallel with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and strengthening Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED)—but it is currently not prepared to do so. The United States needs to be proactive about creating pathways for protection for those displaced by climate that is grounded in empathy, dignity, and respect. While there have been changes that show progress is possible, we just cannot wait until devastation and loss have happened. As the United States prepares to address climate migrants, solutions need to be seen through a racial equity lens. We must remember that it is possible to reimagine and make the U.S. immigration system to be more inclusive and grounded in empathy and dignity instead of fear and hate.