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Michele Wucker: Immigration Reform and Climate Change: Two Hot-Button Issues Intersect

In the days following the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince and killed over 200,000 people, the United States granted temporary protected status (TPS) to those undocumented immigrants from Haiti who were living in the United States prior to the date of the quake. It was the right thing to do after such an “act of God.” Yet, it stood in stark contrast to the failure of the United States to use its migration policy to help Haitians in 2008, when the island was struck by a series of natural disasters that were arguably man-made—a series of storms made increasingly more frequent and violent by rising sea levels and temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Haiti has contributed the tiniest portion of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, but has experienced the brunt of climate-change induced storms. In the summer of 2008, a series of storms—Tropical Storm Fay and Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike—decimated Haitian agriculture and killed hundreds of people. It would have made sense for the United States to have followed the example set in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch a decade earlier, in 1998, when the U.S. granted TPS to Nicaraguans and Hondurans already living within its borders. But immigration policy has long discriminated against Haitians in many ways, so it was not to be.

The number of climate change refugees throughout the world—defined as those people displaced by environmental disasters caused by greenhouse gas emissions—is projected to rise dramatically in coming years. The number varies wildly, in part because of disagreements about the inclusion and classification of temporary versus permanent migrants. In some cases, people may only have to leave their homes temporarily; in others, entire families and communities must relocate permanently.

 It is increasingly urgent to create a way for countries to carry their fair share of the burden caused by climate-induced natural disasters that displace people from their homes and destroy livelihoods. The countries that have produced the most greenhouse gases, creating the problem, have a moral responsibility to help.

As Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Council put it at a recent conference on the ethics of migration at Sofia University in Japan, “The central moral problem surrounding climate change is that the countries least responsible for the problem will suffer the greatest.” Even in Japan, with its famously restrictive immigration policy, conference participants were sympathetic to the idea of increasing admissions of climate change migrants. Similarly, a recent German Marshall Fund study of U.S. and European attitudes toward immigration found significant public support for the idea

With climate change migrants projected to be in the tens of millions (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts 150 million environmental refugees by 2050, while the International Organization for Migration even more) no one country can solve the problem alone. The question of where, exactly, these people will go is not a small one. Some of the biggest pollution emitters like the United States are already home to a significant number of migrants who have come for other reasons. China is another large polluter, but is also vulnerable to climate change, which generates internal migration of its own. When possible, migrants are most likely to seek alternatives within their own countries, though in countries that experience ethnic strife, or are over crowded, that may not always be realistic. 

As one of the world’s main carbon emitters, the United States should show leadership in finding answers for climate change refugees through migration and development policies, as well as in working harder to reduce its own emissions.

First, Washington should create a new visa category for migrants from areas vulnerable to climate change. To avoid unmanageable flows, this category should apply to people who migrate before disasters happen, as has been done with TPS. As the disparity between Hurricane Mitch and the 2008 Haitian hurricanes made painfully clear, we also need to create standards for issuing these visas fairly and equitably throughout the world. 

Second, allocating some of the responsibilities by region makes sense. The United States should focus on potential climate change refugees from Latin America, which include not just those in the path of hurricanes but also those affected by droughts, rising sea levels, changing mountain ecosystems, and falling crop yields.

Third, major carbon emitters should create a global fund for investing in disaster preparedness, so that when climate-induced incidents happen, the damage is limited. Technical assistance in building codes, disaster response, and sustainable agricultural practices will all be essential.

High emitters should contribute to this fund, and offer a respective number of visas to climate change migrants in proportion to their own emissions levels. This is small consolation to those whose homes will be destroyed; but it is a much needed start.

Michele Wucker is a senior fellow and executive director of the World Policy Institute, a nonpartisan center for global policy analysis and publisher of World Policy Journal. She is the author of books including LOCKOUT: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right and comments frequently on immigration and international economics.

This article is cross-posted at publicagenda.org

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