It's time to get real about climate change and immigration in Central America

If Biden truly wants to address the root problems causing immigration, he must enact measures to fight climate change in the Northern Triangle

This piece was written by Claire Cantrell, Slow Boring’s editorial assistant.

When we talk about immigration at the southern border, it’s hard to shake the long-standing assumption that we are mostly talking about Mexican migrants.

Indeed, as recently as 2007, there were roughly eight times more Mexicans than citizens of the Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — crossing into the U.S. through ports of entry. This trend shifted in the mid-2010s, and by 2016, there were more individuals from the Northern Triangle crossing the southern border than there were Mexicans. In fiscal year 2019, there were four times as many individuals from countries other than Mexico apprehended at the border as there were Mexicans.

As migration trends shift and Mexican citizens no longer dominate southern border crossings, it’s a no-brainer that we must shift the objectives of immigration policy and reform. On his website, President Biden outlines his plan for strengthening ties with Central America. This is an excellent start! Unfortunately, one of the most essential things that we must address as a migration push factor — climate change — receives only a single bullet point of attention in the plan and contains few details. If we want to make any meaningful immigration reform, we must have greater consideration for the climate crisis in Central America. Most importantly, it’s time to get real about the extent of climate change’s impact on migration.

Climate change needs to be a major focus of Northern Triangle policy

Stabilizing Central America and mitigating the push factors bringing migrants to the United States is no easy task, nor is it a straightforward one. But it is abundantly clear that climate change — for a multitude of reasons — is worsening the conditions that are causing Central Americans to flee their home countries.

Biden has already hashed out some of his anti-poverty goals in his Central America plan, such as “bolstering microfinance and financial inclusive banking,” “modernizing the Northern Triangle’s power grids, ports, and roads,” and even “investing in programs that combat malnutrition in the Northern Triangle, particularly in Guatemala’s Western Highlands and in the dry corridor along the Pacific coast of Central America.” But we must go further in addressing the climatic roots of these problems. 

When discussing migration push factors in Central America, invariably someone will move8 to point fingers at gang violence in the region, most probably Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang. Gangs are awful and cause unfathomable death and destruction for families. And while I’m no expert on gangs, it is pretty widely accepted that gang activity is more likely to proliferate in areas with high poverty and few legitimate employment opportunities. Based on what we know about the climate’s impact on poverty and jobs, it is clear that the gang problem is further exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

It would also be irresponsible for the United States to ignore its culpability in creating a culture of violence and instability in Central America that led to such profuse gang activity — U.S. military interventions throughout the 20th century contributed to the destabilization of the Northern Triangle and have led to unchecked proliferation of illicit firearms in the region, which has clearly aggravated violence in the region. Using the problem of gang violence as a get-out-of-jail-free card to avoid taking responsibility is simply not an option.

Hurricane Mitch was just the beginning

Back in 1998, we — well, not really me, because I was an infant — witnessed first-hand how suddenly natural disasters can reorient migration patterns when Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, at least 8,700 Guatemalans and Nicaraguans lost their lives. Overall, estimates range from 11,000 all the way up to 18,000 for the total number of people killed by the storm in Central America. Over one million people were left homeless, and the supply of export crops central to the economies of these countries was decimated.

In the aftermath of the storm, the U.S. granted Temporary Protected Status to Hondurans and Nicaraguans affected by Hurricane Mitch, but only if they were already in the United States as of December 30, 1998, less than two months after the storm. In 2001, Salvadorans who had arrived in the U.S. within a month of two devastating earthquakes were granted TPS — the pair of earthquakes had killed over 1,000 people and affected 1.5 million.

As of October 2020, there were roughly 280,000 people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua still living in the United States under the TPS granted as a result of the disasters.

A different type of CDC

The Central American Dry Corridor (CDC) encompasses 58% of El Salvador, 38% of Guatemala, and 21% of Honduras. The CDC is an area heavily affected by increases in both average and extreme temperatures as well as erratic precipitation patterns. As a result, this region is particularly prone to excessive rainfall events, causing large-scale flooding and mudslides in combination with periods of extreme, months-long droughts.

Flooding and mudslides are common acute natural disasters in this region that often result in the sudden loss of life or displacement among those who lose their homes. In contrast, a long period of drought is a more inconspicuous danger, most commonly destroying crops. These droughts are major drivers of poverty and food insecurity in the region, as those who live in the area face food shortages, and those who are reliant on the agricultural industry lose income. These two factors often intersect. Those who work in non-agricultural industries face poverty due to high food prices and loss of productivity due to empty bellies, while agricultural workers no longer have the money to pay for whatever food scraps are available.

A study published by the World Food Program in 2017 reported that half of migrants from the Northern Triangle countries worked in agriculture prior to migrating. A whopping 47% of migrants reported being food insecure in their home countries  — an unprecedented level. Nearly three-quarters (72%) said that prior to leaving, they had already employed emergency coping mechanisms such as selling their land.

Policy that can help

So, what can Biden actually do to help Central Americans in the short- and long-term? As a start, the U.S. should be prepared to more freely grant TPS to Central Americans affected by climate disasters. Central America is one of the regions of the world most prone to natural disasters and climate variability; in the 2020 World Risk Index, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras rank #10, #17, and #35 in global disaster risk, respectively. 

The U.S. must also support the development of science-based programs that seek to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change in Central America. These should include more sustainable farming and land-use practices, cutting carbon emissions, increasing green cover in areas that have been deforested or over-developed, and fortifying and earthquake-proofing structures.

Importantly, local governments must adopt enhanced planning strategies to assess hazard risk in inhabited areas and ensure that habitations are not constructed in flood plains or along mountains and valleys susceptible to mudslides. This does not mean that land in hazard areas should be ignored completely — rather, it can be transformed into open community spaces, fitness trails, and natural wildlife areas.

Along with providing disaster risk management aid to local Central American governments, the United States should provide financial support via clean energy subsidies.

Central America is particularly well-situated to benefit from clean energy subsidies, according to an NBER study by Cruz Alvarez and Rossi-Hansberg. In the Northern Triangle specifically, welfare could be improved by 5.5 to 6% solely by subsidizing clean energy by 75%. The implementation of a carbon tax similarly benefits Central America, though even a 200% carbon tax would only provide a 1% increase in welfare.

These examples are just a snippet of what can be done to alleviate the suffering in the Northern Triangle causing mass migrations. It is imperative that we focus on the most essential needs of the population here — strong and sturdy shelters, diversified and drought-resistant agricultural practices, and clean water availability and security. These adaptive strategies, paired with initiatives to transition to more sustainable energy practices and lower carbon emissions, can truly make a difference from both a humanitarian and migratory perspective. But if we want these things to work, it is long past time to get serious about the extensive and intricate ways that climate change influences migration in the Northern Triangle.