It’s Not a Border Crisis. It’s a Climate Crisis

There was a time when rural Guatemalans never left home. But back-to-back hurricanes, failed crops and extreme poverty are driving them to make the dangerous trek north to the U.S. border.

ALDEA XUCUP, PANZÓS, Guatemala — Here, in the small Mayan indigenous village of Xucup, men and boys pack tightly and stand in the back of pickup trucks in the early morning, heading to the fields to check on their crops after a night of harsh rain.

It’s early June — and any strong storm has the potential to derail months of work tending to crops, mostly maize, which soon people will harvest to feed their families. And these days, everyone is on high alert after back-to-back hurricanes last year left their home province of Alta Verapaz among the most devastated in the region.

As the men head for the fields, women and young girls — many dressed in bright colored skirts and tops with hand-embroidered flowers and patterns — hold bowls of maize over their heads, gingerly walking between homes made of wooden sticks, straw, metal sheets and concrete blocks.

In one of the homes, right off the main road, sisters Miriam Noemi Cuc Cac and Irma Cuc Cac are beginning their day. They stand in front of the open fire in their kitchen, good-natured and talkative, making breakfast and chatting in their native Q’eqchi’ language about their plans to make the trek north. Again.

Both sisters tried to reach the U.S. southern border in December 2019, but were apprehended by Mexican law enforcement midway in Mexico and sent back home. Since then, they’ve lost their crops to last year’s hurricanes and are bracing for more widespread crop failure. And, now, more than a year and a half after their first attempt, they’re ready to try again.

“God must know why we didn’t make it,” Miriam, 29, says while Irma, 40, listens as she nods and flattens the dough for the tortillas. “But it’s our dream. We want to better ourselves. And there’s no way to make money here. It’s only getting harder.”

There was a time here in Xucup — and in other neighboring villages — where people rarely, if ever, talked about leaving. Most have lived here for generations. Few left home. But that’s changing.

Now, like the Cuc Cac sisters, thousands of rural Guatemalans — as well as Salvadorans and Hondurans in agrarian areas — increasingly are leaving their communities. These days, migration — including the record number of unaccompanied children — is on the rise in rural areas, as an increasing portion of the country’s land and population faces the fallout from climate change.

And it’s not just climate change acting alone. It’s food insecurity. Malnutrition. Poverty. It all ties together.

Guatemalan migrants have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border more than 153,000 times this year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures. Exact numbers are hard to know: The majority of those migrants were kicked out of the country, and, separately, thousands of migrants slip undetected over the border each year.

But as the Biden administration navigates the puzzle that is the U.S. immigration system, there’s another far-reaching challenge it faces: climate change. It’s impossible to know the motives of migrants — and it’s rarely just one reason — but U.S. and Guatemalan officials, regional experts and civil society leaders say climate-fueled displacement is a likely factor for thousands who’ve decided to strike out from home and head to the U.S.

In Alta Verapaz and Huehuetenango, a mountainous region close to the Guatemala-Mexico border, in 15 percent of households displaced by the hurricanes here, at least one family member migrated or attempted to migrate in the past five years, according to a survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration. One of their top five motives, the survey found: fleeing from natural disasters and climate change.

Meanwhile, after the hurricanes, at least one member in one out of every 10 displaced homes said they planned to migrate in the next 12 months, according to the survey. Natural disasters and climate change were one of the main motivating factors for them as well.

Climate change, in the coming years, will only continue to exacerbate an already dire situation for millions of Guatemalans, analysts say. In the long term, the number of people in the region displaced by climate change is only expected to grow dramatically — leading many to migrate to more urban areas in Guatemala or head north to Mexico or the U.S. in search of jobs, money and security.

“On any given day, [Guatemalans are] suffering various shocks — whether it’s droughts, floods, natural disasters, volcano eruptions, fluctuations in coffee prices,” said Anu Rajaraman, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s mission director in Guatemala.

“All of these incidents are exacerbating loss of income, loss of jobs, infrastructure damage. … And then you have things like the pandemic that just exacerbate the situation.”

In 2020, food insecurity doubled as a result of the pandemic, storms and droughts, Rajaraman said. And in some parts of the country, it tripled.

Migration as a result of climate-fueled displacement isn’t just happening in Guatemala — or the rest of Central America for that matter. As many as 143 million people could be displaced in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia by 2050 due to climate-related factors, according to World Bank estimates. In all three regions, people are confronting challenges, such as decreased crop productivity, rising sea levels and water shortages.

And as the Biden administration touts its commitment to tackling the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, any work it does to tackle climate as a driver of migration could serve as a framework for other countries facing the same challenges.

In a February speech before the United Nations Security Council, John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate, talked frankly about how climate change will drive migration patterns in the coming years. “Hundreds of millions of people could be uprooted,” he said. “Not only can mass migration drive humanitarian crisis, but we also know that if it’s not managed well, it undermines peace and stability.”

For now, though, the Biden administration’s talk about the climate crisis has not translated into new work tackling the ties between climate and migration. During her first foreign trip last month, touring Guatemala and Mexico, Vice President Kamala Harris barely spoke about climate as a root cause of migration. Instead, she focused on the U.S. fight against corruption — a more traditionally discussed “root cause.”

But, like corruption and other root causes of migration — including poverty, violence and malnutrition, there isn’t a quick “fix” to climate change.

So far, Rajaraman said, funding for climate-related activities in Guatemala has been “fairly consistent” over the past three administrations. They are, however, waiting on additional funding for renewable energy projects. (Rajaraman did not disclose the amount of money earmarked for those projects.)

“What’s going on in Alta Verapaz and a lot of the Western Highlands are the product of the climate crisis, long-term drought, racism in the country, inequality built into the economic system,” said Eric Olson, director of policy at the Seattle International Foundation and an expert on Central America.

“We need to get away from the notion that it’s just a matter of making an announcement with some kind of aid plan that would remedy all these problems,” he added. “It requires sustained strategy and that’s one thing the U.S. has not done a good job of. They constantly face crises in the moment. They try to fix everything at the moment and it’s not part of a sustained strategy.”

Climate change isn’t a phrase many Guatemalans use to describe why they feel the need to leave their home countries. But every potential and returned migrant POLITICO spoke to talked about it in other ways: worsening and unpredictable weather conditions, more crop failures, more flooding, longer droughts, widespread malnutrition and poverty.

They talk about how they’ve struggled to put food on the table after hurricanes wiped out their crops. How excessive summer rain has them bracing for months of wasted work. How they’re losing land by the minute to erosion along the Rio Polochic, the river located half a mile from Irma and Miriam’s home. How they’ve never received help from the government — and they don’t have much faith they ever will.

For rural Central Americans weighing migration to the U.S., it’s irrelevant that Harris stood beside the Guatemalan president last month and said, “Do not come.” Many feel they have no alternative. If they stay, they say, they face more devastation from crop loss. They’ll witness their families go hungry. Their only choice, they say: Leave and seek opportunity elsewhere.

The Biden administration, for its part, is still crafting its strategy to tackle the destabilizing conditions — including corruption, poverty, malnutrition and violence — that force thousands of Central Americans to migrate north to the U.S. each year. (A senior administration official did not offer a timeline for completion of their plan.)

But as the decadeslong political fight in Washington over how to handle immigration policy drags on, the reality is: There’s no quick fix, which Biden officials acknowledge, and conditions are getting only worse.

“This is a conjunction of multiple inequalities that have been pushing these people forever,” said Ana Maria Mendez, Central America cluster director for the global anti-poverty group Oxfam. “But now with the issue of climate change, it has made everything even worse if it wasn’t bad enough already in past years. It’s very obvious.”

“At least our house was safe”

More than 8.8 million people in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua were affected by the two Category 4 hurricanes that hit the region just days apart last year. In Guatemala, the two storms ravaged 16 out of the country’s 22 departments, or provinces. Both storms resulted in a total of more than 60 deaths, about 100 missing and more than 300,000 forced to evacuate their homes.

That’s why people are bracing for another hurricane season that could cost their jobs, access to food — and, above all, their lives.

“All it takes is one,” said Tim Callaghan, USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team Leader for the three Northern Triangle countries, noting that it’s an “above average forecast year.”

And some families are still trying to build back from last year’s hurricanes. Part of USAID’s Guatemala team is focused on helping the most vulnerable families “recover from what happened last year and also build as quickly as we can some resilience to withstand, even if it’s just heavy rains” this year, Callaghan said.

That’s the kind of help that Miriam and Irma say their community desperately needs.

Even before hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated their village last year, Miriam and Irma had mixed success with their crops, which usually consisted of maize and chile.

Over the years, they watched their father slowly lose his land to erosion along the river. But they thought the separate plot of land they rent would be safe from the hurricanes: It’s farther away from the river, they thought. There won’t be that much water.

They were wrong.

“It’s really sad. The storm was so quick. We thought nothing had happened to our land,” Miriam says, trying to muster a chuckle as she shows photos of the field after the hurricane. Full destruction. All the corn stalks on the ground. Lots of flooding. “My mother cried and cried, but at least our house was safe. We were safe.”

Last year, due to the hurricane, they lost 150 quintales — about 33,000 pounds worth of maize — and 8 cuerdas, or about four-fifths of an acre, of chile. The maize was worth more than $2,400, a huge sum for the sisters. And with the land unusable for months after the hurricane, in December Miriam decided to head to Guatemala City, about 150 miles and a five-hour car ride away, looking for work. Irma decided to stay behind to look after their extended family.

“I’m not the only one. There has been no way to make money here. And there’s a lot of families with several kids here and no way to maintain them. So, people left,” Miriam said. “There are some who tried migrate to the U.S. — some succeeded in making it. Others didn’t.”

For the past six months, Miriam worked cleaning office buildings to have money to feed her family and invest back into the land. Now, she’s back in Xucup to see whether her latest maize crops — which her family has been tending to — are ready.

Still, she plans to attempt another trip with her sister — and two of their children — soon.

That’s despite her vivid memories of the days they spent in the scalding heat walking for hours alongside the mountains trying to evade notice by officials.

Initially, Irma wanted to strike out on her own so she could join her son and husband in the U.S. But Miriam, the baby sister of the family and a veteran of the Guatemalan military wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted to be sure they did the trip as safely as possible — and she figured her military training would hold them in good stead.

They paid the smuggler — known as a coyote — almost $4,000 for each of them to make the trip, money they got in a loan from the bank. They each were allowed to bring one of their sons, who were both under 13 years old at the time.

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Sabrina Rodriguez