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How will the U.S. respond to climate refugees?

They said the hunger strike was because the eggs were moldy and the food had maggots.

On Oct. 18, some 200 detainees at the private prison known as the Northwest Detention Center, which management recently rebranded as the Northwest ICE Processing Center, went on hunger strike. Work stoppages for detainees on kitchen detail were also held. The seven-day strike was the first one of the year at the center, which has had many in recent memory.

There was more too. A new head of Geo Group, the company that owns the prison in Tacoma, allegedly forced detainees to stand before they entered rooms under threat of punishment, including solitary confinement. Maru Mora-Villalpando, local activist and co-founder of La Resistencia, which organizes against the detention center, relayed what people inside were telling her.

“We’re being given trash to eat and at the same time you have these old trays, and the machine doesn’t really wash them, the entire conditions created a moment where people went on hunger strike,” Mora-Villalpando said. “Finally because nothing was done, things kept being the same way, then they went on a hunger strike.”

In the months after an activist was shot and killed outside of the processing center, Geo Group has renamed the facility and started allowing reporters inside for what activists have called a sanitized tour. In September, a group of journalists were given a tour of the facility. One report from Q13 saw detention center employees showcasing televisions and computers to the reporter. Later during the tour, detainees were shouting that they were hungry and not being fed.

Around 60% of the people being held at the detention center have been shipped there from the southern border, Mora-Villalpando said. Children are not housed at the center, meaning many of the detainees are likely separated from their families.

“There’s a lot of people from everywhere,” Mora-Villalpando said. “Obviously for those that have relatives, we get a lot of calls from people outside the state trying to locate their loved ones here.”

Access to medical care is also an issue, as documented in 2018 by Seattle Weekly.

Nationwide, around 50,000 people are locked away in immigration camps and prisons, according to the federal government. It’s the tip of the spear of a brand of immigration policy that has been enacted by every U.S. president since Bill Clinton decided to get tough on immigration in the 1990s.

Public Radio International reports that climate change is putting pressure on Central and Latin America, and that a system of borders, camps and deportations could be the federal government’s response to migrants and refugees in the coming decades.


Climate change in and of itself is only one of the factors that plays into migration. Kayly Ober is a senior advocate for climate displacement at Refugees International. She said often times climate change is part of the mixture when people decide to move.

“Climate change can exacerbate some of the principal factors,” Ober said.

In Syria before its civil war, there were issues of poor governance related to water, but drought made it worse. It’s debatable how much the drought was caused by climate change, and for that matter how much of the complex social mixture of government repression, religious conflict, foreign intervention and drought came together to create on of the worst refugee crisis in modern times.

Climate change often acts as an accelerant, adding fuel to existing tensions throughout the world, and especially in the global south where the effects of a hotter Earth will be felt more acutely. The World Bank in 2018 conducted a study looking at the impacts of climate change on Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

The study found that in those three densely populated areas, some 140 million people could become refugees. Many of them would likely be internal refugees, moving from low-lying areas of their countries that are susceptible to sea level rise, for example, to other places. Rural areas will likely become more depopulated as people head toward major cities as climate change destroys crops and makes traditional agricultural livelihoods more difficult to sustain, according to the United States Agency for International Development.

But in many areas of the world, traditional centers of migration like Mumbai, India, may be unlivable.

Closer to the U.S., hurricanes are likely to begin stalling over Caribbean nations for longer periods of time, causing more damage, Ober said.

“This needs to be in the forefront of our minds as those kinds of disasters increase in the near future,” Ober said. “Hurricane Dorian in particular stalled over the Bahamas for more than 24 hours.”

Historically, the U.S. has offered many people displaced by natural disasters temporary protected status, or TPS. The Trump administration is trying to revoke TPS for hundreds of thousands of people in the country, and lawsuits challenging it are ongoing, according to media reports.

There is no special status for people fleeing the effects of climate change, and Ober said it is unlikely the U.S. will ever have a special designation or category for climate-displaced people. What she suggested instead would be a program similar to TPS, but with a pathway to citizenship.

Local level

King County is developing a new five-year climate action plan, which is designed for communities that will likely bear a disproportionate amount of the impact. The county Board of Health met on Nov. 21 to discuss the new plan, and heard from a panel comprised of people working within communities of color to address climate preparedness.

One panelist was Nourah Yonous, a Somali immigrant who started the organization African Women Business Alliance. She works with immigrant women to help grow and stabilize their businesses. She said there will likely be an influx of climate migrants coming and that local government could do more. In particular, communities could use more tools to cope with climate change.

“We are not really well-prepared,” she said of local governments.

When communities of color aren’t being given tangible and culturally responsive tools to address issues like displacement, economic injustice or food insecurity, government action doesn’t lead to communities being more climate resiliant. Instead, it’s a bandage, she said.

“For that reason, I think it’s very important for us to know that these issues are connected,” she said.

Improving public transit, building more affordable energy-efficient housing, increasing solar and wind power and reducing transit fares could all help immigrant communities once they arrive.

The county will be looking at its climate plan with environmental justice as an integral part instead of an add-on. It could help climate immigrants and refugees here deal with some of the same issues that perhaps led them to leave countries in the first place.

In a wider view, Mora-Villalpando said the U.S. should return to immigration laws prior to the Clinton crackdown. In 1996, Clinton signed a harsh immigration bill called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which restricted many ways for people to become citizens.

For example, before the bill was signed, immigrants who had been in the U.S. for seven years could get legal status if they showed it would cause “extreme hardship” to get deported, Vox reported. This practice was ended by Clinton.

This came on the heels of dirty wars and counter-insurgency (COIN) operations promoted and conducted U.S. intelligence agencies in the 1980s, operations that destroyed both the governments and the social fabrics of countries throughout Latin America. This is the argument that investigative journalist and professor Christian Parenti makes.

Dirty ‘80s

Largely left out of political discourse surrounding immigration is one of the key drivers of it: U.S.-backed violence during the Cold War. This ranged from supporting security forces in Guatemala as they committed genocide against indigenous Mayan peoples to the Reagan administration smoothing over U.S. involvement in massacres across Latin America.

The U.S. government in its quest against communism decided to back dictators in Chile, Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Uruguay and more. Many of these regimes committed human rights abuses. For example, the U.S. backed the right-wing military government in El Salvador, which left 75,000 dead. In 2009, the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton supported a coup in Honduras that destabilized the country.

The U.S. also conducted or promoted counter-insurgency (COIN) operations. These operations are distinct from traditional warfare, Parenti said. Whereas traditional warfare focuses on capturing and controlling territory, counter-insurgency relies on prying insurgents from their support base. This results often in the destruction of traditional societal ties, breaking apart countries.

Following decades of intervention, much of Latin America was left with weakened governments, a fragmented society and a power vacuum that allowed gangs and narcotics trafficking to set up shop.

“The U.S. proxy wars in Central America in the 1980s were really damaging to the social fabric because those were counter-insurgency conflicts,” Parenti said. “The counter-insurgency in Central America in the 1980s seeded the region with a kind of trauma that kind of shows up as astonishing levels of violence.”

This was something Mora-Villalpando also talked about. Countries currently experiencing upheaval in Latin America have generally experienced either U.S.-backed violence or have been stricken by International Monetary Fund austerity and have been pressured to cut social safety nets and services.

“It is important to realize that when people complain about migration, there’s a lot to blame to the United States government in creating the conditions in the first place and forcing us to migrate,” Mora-Villalpando said.

Mora-Villalpando, who herself is undocumented, said she left Mexico in the 1990s before NAFTA was signed. The free trade agreement flooded the country with cheap international goods, forcing local producers and farmers out of the market and often into poverty.

Parenti reports that all this sets the stage for even greater effects from climate change, as weakened governments are less likely to be able to respond to natural and economic disasters. Mora-Villalpando said migration is likely to continue along the southern border and even increase in coming decades as climate change affects them more severely than countries in the global north.

“The impact is not going to be on those nations, it’s going to be on the global south, they don’t have any other recourse,” Mora-Villalpando said. “Migration will explode in numbers.”

Divorced from its historical roots, more people seeking refuge in the U.S. provides ample political fodder for nationalist rhetoric in the U.S. Every U.S. president since Clinton has deported hundreds of thousands of people.

Climate Change and the Armed Lifeboat

In the 1970s, ecologist Garrett Hardin developed an anti-immigration strain of political reasoning. It goes something like this: Say there’s a lifeboat with room for five, but there’s 20 passengers in the water. What should be done? Hardin argued that if all the people come onto the lifeboat, everyone dies. Resources should be protected, even at the expense of others.

This is the type of thinking that Parenti argues governments seem to be adopting in the global north. From European countries building fences to keep out Syrian refugees, to U.S. presidents including Obama and Trump appeasing nationalist sentiments to more heavily enforce the southern border. Countries around the world are sending a message to current and future refugees and migrants.

Parenti doesn’t think it’s necessarily an organized response to climate change, but may set a precedent for how the U.S. could respond as climate change leads to increased immigration. The U.S. military has been preparing for climate-destabilization since at least 2004, according to The Guardian, even as politicans tried to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that climate change is happening.

Immigrant workers can benefit the economy, Parenti said, but currently undocumented workers face a number of hurdles and are more vulnerable to exploitation. Increasing rights for immigrants and workers could help combat the idea of the armed lifeboat.

“To have a section of the working class that is without legal rights and is terrified and will not join unions… that harms the entire working population,” Parenti said. “So people need to realize that it is in their immediate and direct economic self-interest to make sure that immigrant workers have the right to struggle for their rights as workers.”

Granting more protection to immigrants, climate-driven or otherwise, would help give people power, Parenti said. If employers couldn’t pay a segment of undocumented workers less than natural-born workers, more legal protection would raise wages for everyone, Parenti said.

He’s also in favor of a Green New Deal, and buying into green technology while removing subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. Jobs packages have been a topic in Green New Deal discussions, as has the idea of “Medicare for all,” which could help soften the blows from climate change for everyone.

Ultimately though, Americans could have a choice: continue with business as usual, or find new ways to handle migrants and refugees as climate change and the legacy of U.S. Cold War policy affect their neighbors to the south.

“For us, it’s very important to explain that what the current administration’s policy is doing is the same,” Mora-Villalpando said. “It’s just 10 times bigger.”

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