‘Fleeing not Migrating’

(Dec. 6, 2019) The term “climate refugee” has real meaning for Jose, who says he was forced off his family farm in Tabasco, Mexico due to pollution from oil production, which damaged crops and contributed to climate change.

This twenty-four-year-old Mexican native, who now works on a dairy farm in Vermont, found that climate change made even getting financing for farming problematic.

“Those of us who cultivate the land, we couldn’t get money anymore for it because it was too much of a risk,” says Jose, who became a climate refugee in 2016. “People wouldn’t invest because, with climate change, they didn’t know if they’d make a profit.”

Jose’s father still grows melons and habaneros on the farm in Mexico but on a much smaller scale. What’s marketed, he says, is about a third of what was sold a decade ago.

“On top of the contamination, we are also seeing big changes in weather patterns,” Jose says. “There will be times when it rains four or five days straight. That will flood the fields and produce a lot of fungus on the plants. There will also be times of very, very hot weather when you can’t water the plants during the day.”

The fishing industry in the area is suffering as well, Jose says, because of polluted waters.

Tabasco, in southeastern Mexico, is a hub of activity for the government-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex). The company is now planning an $8 billion refinery on the coast that the company’s own review warned would have a “severe” impact on air quality.

Their plight is addressed in legislation recently introduced by Senator Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Representative Nydia Velázquez, Democrat of New York, that would include the concept of a “climate-displaced person” in the Immigration and Nationality Act. Safe haven in the United States would be provided each year for at least 50,000 people displaced by climate change. Jose, who doesn’t want his full name disclosed because of his immigration status, is among the growing number of climate refugees who, facing diminishing economic opportunities at home,  have come to the United States even without any pathway to legal status.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is trying to dismantle the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program that has provided relief to some refugees in the United States whose homelands have suffered environmental disasters. 

TPS currently prevents the deportation of almost 320,000 foreign nationals from ten nations, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti. Trump seeks to terminate TPS for refugees from those countries as well as Nicaragua, Sudan, and Nepal.

Calls for Congress to address the effect of climate change on immigration come from many quarters—including actress and activist Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays—weekly protests that highlight a climate issue with civil disobedience arrests.

“Time is running out on the climate. And the two issues—migration and climate—are connected,” says Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network and an organizer of the protest.

But changes in immigration law alone can’t adequately address the growing problem of climate displacement. Over a recent seven-year period, according to the World Meteorological Organization, climate-related events on average displaced 22.5 million people a year.  

“We are just at the beginning of what will be a major wave of climate migrants and climate refugees we have to address,” says Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, who as executive director of the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights has focused on climate change and immigration.

And Trump calling climate change a “hoax” won’t make the devastation caused by drought any less real for Nery Cantarero, who lives in Camasca, a small rural community in western Honduras.

In a recent long-distance telephone interview, Cantarero tells how he tried to make a go of it on his family’s farm two decades ago but left to join other family members in Maryland. He then worked as a cook until he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported in 2007.

Back in Honduras, Cantarero tried farming again. But as the droughts have become longer and the temperature hotter, he has had to supplement his shrinking income by opening a small restaurant. In addition to the drought, he notes, environmental contamination and deforestation fuel migration.

Hit hard by the droughts, neighboring farmers ran out of options. Cantarero says as many as 300 residents from his community alone have left for the United States, most in recent years. “Many are now leaving with their families,” Cantarero says. “You can’t make a living as a farmer.” 

He does not see Trump’s hard line on immigration as a deterrent to desperate people. Deportees, he adds, turn around and try again.

Between October 2018 and August 2019, more than 240,000 Hondurans were detained by U.S. Border and Customs Protection. Climate change is one factor among many driving immigrants here, especially since about two-thirds of Honduras’ almost ten million people live in poverty.

“Climate change looms huge over everything we do,” says Conor Walsh, Catholic Relief Services’ representative for Honduras. He, too, tells of a growing number of Hondurans leaving the so-called Dry Corridor, an ecological region that stretches from southern Mexico through El Salvador, western Guatemala, and western Honduras to Panama.

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James Goodman