US border crisis is born of failed climate and migration policies

The US itself has created, and is now perpetuating, this humanitarian crisis by insisting on implementing short-sighted and ineffectual migration and environmental protection policies.

At the El Chaparral encampment in the Mexican town of Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego, California, some 2,000 migrants are trying to survive in abysmal conditions [Photo courtesy of Amali Tower]

There is a growing humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, in Reynosa – a small Mexican town directly across the border from McAllen, Texas.

Over the years, I’ve worked in some of the world’s largest, toughest and most desolate refugee camps, where hundreds of thousands of people are forced to live in dismal conditions without any humanitarian protections as they wait to claim asylum in neighbouring countries. Today, the situation in the migrant encampment in Reynosa, housing thousands of migrants hoping to claim asylum in the US, is no different.

Approximately 5,000 migrants are currently living in a squalid makeshift camp situated in Reynosa’s Plaza de la Republica – a park by the footbridge connecting the US and Mexico. The camp, lacking any health and sanitation infrastructure, has experienced several COVID-19 outbreaks, but its residents still do not have access to health services or adequate tools to protect themselves from the virus. Reynosa’s only migrant shelter that has some infrastructure, the 14-year-old Senda de Vida, recently won a temporary injunction to block a demolition order by the local government. This shelter, however, is already at capacity, housing some 600 asylum seekers. So new arrivals have no real option other than taking shelter at the squalid unofficial encampment in the plaza.

On the other side of the country, at the El Chaparral encampment in the town of Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego, California, a further 2,000 migrants are trying to survive in similarly abysmal conditions.

I recently visited both camps to speak with Central American, Haitian and other migrants residing there. They told me that they decided to seek safety in the US due to compounding crises of violence, poverty, persecution and, increasingly, climate change in their home countries. After listening to their stories, I couldn’t help but once again remember a talking point that I have grown weary of repeating over the years: global governance has not kept pace with displacement dynamics and climate change.

Indeed, the growing humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border was in no way inevitable. The US itself has created, and is now perpetuating, this crisis by insisting on implementing short-sighted and ineffectual migration and environmental protection policies.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the US has been using an arcane public health law known as Title 42 – which gives the government the right to deny asylum and remove from the US people who have recently been in a country where a communicable disease was present – to expel migrants and stop processing asylum applications. So far, some 948,000 migrants have been deported without any due process under this law, supposedly in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the US. This, despite government scientists repeatedly saying that the policy has little public health benefit. Indeed, COVID-19 is still prevalent in the US not because of migrants, but because of high levels of vaccine hesitancy among the population and the US government’s failure to implement effective pandemic mitigation policies.

Title 42, predictably, did little to ease the burden of COVID-19 in the US. Instead, it allowed US Customs and Border Protection agents to effectively ban all migrants from entering the US through its southern border. This led to the emergence of informal migrant encampments in Mexican border towns, like those in Tijuana and Reynosa. These camps suddenly sprang up along the border because this deportation policy did nothing to recognise and address the many reasons, including climate change, that force desperate people to leave their home countries to try and find a better life in the US.

Last year’s twin hurricanes, Eta and Iota, coupled with successive droughts and the COVID-19 pandemic, devastated Central America and deepened the existing poverty and food insecurity crises in the region. As a result, many found themselves with no option other than embarking on a dangerous journey towards the US border, despite knowing too well that the Title 42 policy would mean that they would likely not be able to enter the country.

Title 42 also confers false hope – as migrants are denied entry or deported without a final decision on their asylum applications under this law, they attempt repeated crossings in the hope that that they will eventually be granted permission to enter the US. As a result, they either choose to remain in border migrant encampments in squalid conditions for extended periods or try and enter the US through unregulated and dangerous pathways.

The US knows this, but still refuses to heed to the calls for an end to Title 42. Even in the face of extreme heat waves that pose a deadly threat to migrants, the only action the US Customs and Border agency took was to issue a dry warning: “Summer heat poses increased risk for migrant deaths.”

Title 42 deportations started under President Donald Trump, who had made reducing the number of migrants in the US at any cost a primary goal of his presidency. After taking office, President Joe Biden was expected to swiftly lift Title 42, and ensure that the country once again opens its doors to those in need – as it is obligated to do so under international law. However, due to Washington’s inability to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the country, coupled with an increasing number of migrants arriving at the US border, President Biden shelved his plans to end his predecessor’s inhumane, and possibly unlawful, policy. Immigration advocates who had long been negotiating with the Biden administration to end the Trump-era policy, are now gearing up to take the US government to court over the issue.

Not only immigration advocates, but the wider international community is pressuring the US to end this manufactured humanitarian crisis. Just last week, the US refugee agency, UNHCR, called on the US to end its COVID-19 border restrictions that keep Central American refugees from seeking asylum in the country, citing deepening crises of violence, poverty and climate change in the region.

Moreover, in light of extreme climate events being experienced around the globe, renewed attention is being paid to climate change and its impact on migration patterns. Last month, the UN issued a crucial climate report, warning that humanity will experience more extreme weather in the coming years and suffer the consequences of rising sea levels and melting Arctic ice. If nothing is done, all this will inevitably result in further displacement – and more migrants at US borders. As the world’s largest historic contributor to carbon emissions, the US bears significant responsibility for these outcomes.

In light of all this, many expected the Biden administration to take immediate action and implement not only migration policies that prioritise human life over border security, but also environmental policies that would not only help save humanity’s future but also prevent further forced displacement. Sadly, the administration failed to take action on both fronts.

While President Biden acknowledged the role climate change plays in driving migration from Central American countries to the US border, and issued a presidential executive order for an inter-agency report to better understand how climate change is driving migration and displacement, he is yet to implement any policies to address this reality.

In July, Vice President Kamala Harris released her long-awaited strategy for addressing the “root causes” of Central American migration. But the strategy proved disappointing on many fronts. Most importantly, it didn’t state clearly enough the need for the US to lower its emissions and meet global cooperative climate change finance pledges to prevent future humanitarian crises in the region. Moreover, it didn’t underline the necessity for the US to work with rural and Indigenous communities, women, and leaders in the Central America Dry Corridor in identifying problems and coming up with sustainable solutions.

According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2020, there were 82.4 million forcibly displaced people across the world. In this grave context, it is more important today than ever before to tackle the drivers of migration – especially climate change. All states, and especially rich economies like the US, should increase the funding they allocate to fighting climate change and implement policies that reduce their carbon footprint. While working to create the conditions for people to remain in their countries, they should also do everything they can to help those who already left and found themselves in overcrowded, unsanitary and outright dangerous encampments like the one in Reynosa.

The US knows that climate change is driving forced displacement. It knows that its policies are not only exacerbating the suffering of thousands of migrants who came to its border to find a better future, but also creating new refugees across the region. It is, therefore, high time that it recognises that the dynamics of displacement have changed. Today, what the world needs is global governance that acknowledges the devastating impact of climate change on migration patterns and in turn provides the necessary protections to climate refugees.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.