Go searching through headlines about the recent expiration of Title 42—a pandemic-era restriction on U.S. entry enacted by Trump, then extended by Biden—and you’ll find some curiously familiar language. Besides customary warnings of “chaos at the border” are those about an “influx” of migrants, or an “unmanageable stream,” as Politico put it. “What we are expecting is indeed a surge,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in south Texas last week. As Victor Treviño, mayor of Laredo, Texas, said, “We’re boarding up like there were a hurricane coming.”
Words like “surge” and “influx” evoke faceless masses being inflicted upon the United States and its allegedly beleaguered border as if by some act of God—rather than the reality of individuals and families making treacherous journeys to the southern border. Title 42, in this telling—responsible for expelling some 2.6 million people—managed to keep the flood at bay.
This language used to describe migration is very much like the kind used to describe climate change. It’s wrongheaded at many levels. (And not just because the White House has already announced that it’s replacing Title 42 with another set of punitive restrictions on asylum-seekers.) Here’s what this kind of coverage obscures: Migration and climate change aren’t mysterious forces of unknowable origin. Rising temperatures are forcing increasing amounts of migration. And bad U.S. policies have exacerbated both.
The way climate change affects migration isn’t always straightforward. Climate-fueled disasters like storms and floods are the most obvious culprit. Two brutal hurricanes that hit Honduras and Guatemala in 2020, for instance, leveled entire neighborhoods and knocked out key infrastructure. Many were unable to rebuild their lives and meet basic needs, so fled. Persistent drought in Central America’s “dry corridor” has been a major contributor to food insecurity; the World Food Program reports that some eight million people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are moderately or severely hungry. Persistent drought there has devastated not just the agricultural sector but also basic food security, which contributes to political instability. But pull the thread on all of these stories a little further and you’ll find an ugly history, ranging from colonial expropriation to brutal counterinsurgencies, devastating trade deals, and painful structural adjustment packages.
Often, the effects of climate change compound existing troubles. In Guatemala, for instance, smallholder coffee farmers face onerous loan terms to run their operations, often saddled with 10 percent interest rates from local lenders. That makes them more vulnerable to shifts in the global prices of the commodity they sell, the country’s second-biggest export. Should prices plummet, they take in less cash and have more trouble paying back loans. Given high interest rates their debts can escalate rapidly, bankrupting farmers and leading them and their employees to seek opportunities elsewhere. Amplifying those troubles in recent years have been outbreaks of coffee leaf rust, a fungus that thrives in warmer temperatures. Compounded with other climate impacts—like droughts that limit the amount of water available for crops—this can mean crop yields and quality take a huge hit, making farming operations untenable. According to one 2014 study, as much as half of the land suitable for producing arabica and robusta coffee beans “could disappear by 2050” with modest rather than dramatic greenhouse gas reductions.
Drought creates troubles with food security because there’s less food being grown locally but perhaps even more so because it endangers key export crops that provide income for people to buy other food. “Drought is a stressor,” says Rupert Russell, author of Price Wars: How the Commodities Markets Made Our Chaotic World. “You get these shocks, and you get these shocks. The question is always: What are the shock absorbers? Do you have welfare states? Do you have economies that are resilient and can absorb this?”
Latin America’s resilience or lack thereof, when it comes to rising temperatures, has a lot to do with U.S. policy. As just one example, a CIA-led coup of Guatemala’s progressive, democratically elected leader in 1954 helped usher in a 36-year civil war that only ended in 1996. U.S. support for the Guatemalan elite—including with military training and hardware—helped to empower repressive leaders like General Efraín Ríos Montt, who led a genocide against the Maya people. “Mayan campesinos continue to be treated as second-class citizens and lack sufficient land to meet their basic needs,” historian Catherine Nolan-Ferrell wrote in 2021 of life under the repressive presidency of Alejandro Giammattei. “Urban working classes continue to struggle to earn a living wage. The alliance between the traditional oligarchy and military remains strong.”
U.S. influence is obvious, as well, in the recent uptick of people migrating from Venezuela. The country has faced a series of sanctions since 2017, largely targeting its state-run oil sector and resulting in a $17 to $31 billion loss of revenue. Venezuela has seen the largest-ever documented economic contraction for a country outside of wartime and is unable to restructure its $170 billion of external debts as it lacks access to international bond markets. Total imports fell by 91 percent, while food imports—which feed the majority of the population—declined by 78 percent, according to a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It’s not surprising that we’ve seen a migration exodus,” says report author Francisco R. Rodríguez, a Venezuelan economist who served as chief economic and financial adviser to the Venezuelan National Assembly from 2000 to 2004. He’s now a professor at University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. “This exodus is driven by economic considerations. It’s driven by hunger, essentially. Living conditions have collapsed. Wages have fallen to absurd levels of $5 per month. Obviously people are going to try to do everything possible to leave.”
Sanctions aren’t the only cause of Venezuela’s economic turmoil, Rodríguez cautions. But lifting them would be a major step toward addressing the reasons why people are fleeing to the States. That could happen via executive action, removing Venezuela’s state-owned oil producer, PDVSA, from the Treasury Department’s sanctions list, administered by its Office of Foreign Assets Control.
This week, House Democrats—led by El Paso–serving Representative Veronica Escobar, a Biden campaign co-chair—urged the White House to “act swiftly to lift the failed and indiscriminate economic sanctions that were imposed by the prior administration.”
But mostly, instead of addressing the root causes of migration involving food and economic insecurity, Democrats from Biden to Mayorkas have acceded to Republican talking points on the expiration of Title 42. They’ve unveiled their own harsh immigration measures and discussed increased migration as a crisis whose victim is the border, and whose solution is tougher enforcement—more troops and border patrol. It’s an unsettling preview for how future administrations will treat those displaced over the coming decades by climate change and the many problems it amplifies. Funding border security while refusing to take even small steps to redress decades of bad foreign policy grants credence to a xenophobic right that criminalizes immigrants as dangerous outsiders. And it means the U.S. is failing to make the sorts of changes that might actually relieve suffering and allow more people to stay at home.