Deportations of Haitians spark concerns over environmental refugees

Originally Published in The Hill

Rachel Frazin and Rebecca Beitsch – September 30, 2021

Deportations of Haitians spark concerns over environmental refugees
© Getty Images

The swell of Haitian migrants attempting to come to the U.S. shows the country needs a plan to help environmental refugees, advocates say, while warning that the swift deportation of those camped in Texas is indicative of how climate migrants could be treated in the years to come.

The Biden administration in recent days deported some 4,000 migrants back to Haiti without giving them a chance to seek asylum — their plight brought to the forefront with images of border officials on horseback dispersing migrants in Del Rio, Texas.

Advocates say the scenario reveals a hole in the Biden administration’s plans for addressing climate change and those displaced by natural disasters as Haitians flee both political turmoil from the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July and the effects of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August.

While Haiti’s earthquake wasn’t directly attributed to climate change, experts say it was a preview of how the administration may respond to climate-fueled disasters like hurricanes and wildfires that can factor into why people leave their countries.

“The policies we’re putting in place now aren’t necessarily keeping up with the pace of what’s going on with climate change and I think that’s what’s being reflected within our border response,” said Cherelle Blazer, senior director for Sierra Club’s international climate and policy campaign.

“We do need to focus on different kinds of solutions that are actually answering what the real time experience is of people with the climate crisis,” Blazer said. 

Haitians have routinely sought to enter the U.S. via the border with Mexico as they leave a country plagued by famine and gang violence. But their efforts to migrate to the U.S. have gotten greater attention after the earthquake struck a nation already reeling from a political assassination and succession fight that has further destabilized the country.

Advocates say the cool reception they’ve received could be reflective of how the Biden administration and future presidents will treat people fleeing the most harmful effects of climate change.

“We haven’t seen anything that tells us that we’re going to go in a different direction other than what we’ve always historically done and that has always been to have a far more securitized, militarized response,” said Amali Tower, executive director of the advocacy group Climate Refugees.

“What I think the administration has failed to recognize is that this is forced migration, this is forced displacement. There is no other choice,” Tower added.

Alex de Sherbinin, a scientist with Columbia University who’s focused on the human aspects of environmental change, called climate change a compounding factor with other migration pressures.

“In the classic security terminology, [climate is] a risk multiplier that is just going to make difficult situations worse. It’s like an additional straw on the camel’s proverbial back that is going to make — in some countries — bad situations become increasingly untenable,” de Sherbinin said.

With climate migration already taking place in some parts of the world — including Central America, where climate-fueled drought has led to crop failures — it’s only expected to ramp up as the planet continues to warm.

The recent experience faced by Haitian migrants shows the compounding contributors behind migration and the complicated layers to a U.S. immigration system that offers varying levels of relief to those impacted by natural disasters.

The U.S. can offer temporary protected status (TPS) to foreigners already in the U.S., allowing them to maintain their residency if their home country is struck by a natural disaster or political unrest.

The U.S. chose to offer TPS to Haitians in early August, allowing those already in the U.S. to stay for another 18 months because “Haiti is grappling with a deteriorating political crisis, violence, and a staggering increase in human rights abuses,” the Biden administration said.

But the Department of Homeland Security did not extend the TPS designation to those who were in the U.S. following the earthquake that struck just two weeks later.

“We have in fact determined, despite the tragic and devastating earthquake, that Haiti is in fact capable of receiving individuals, and we are working with Haiti and with humanitarian relief agencies to ensure that their return is as safe and humanely accomplished as possible,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at a recent press briefing, calling the episode “more geographically limited” than prior earthquakes seen in the country.

But the TPS designation has led to disparate treatment for Haitian migrants as a whole. Those already in the U.S. were permitted to stay, while many of the 14,000 recently camped out under a bridge in Del Rio were repatriated to Haiti. Some were permitted to remain in the country pending a hearing in immigration court, but others were sent to Haiti under Title 42, which allows for swift expulsions without the chance to seek asylum.

“Haitians are in a very unique position. Title 42 allows them to be removed. TPS, for those who are already here, says that because of conditions in Haiti, we shouldn’t send them back there,” Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) told Mayorkas at a congressional hearing last week.

“So if we shouldn’t send [TPS holders] back because of conditions, then we find that we have persons who should be removed under Title 42 … I’m asking, is there some way to reconcile this so that we don’t have the appearance of contradicting ourselves? So that we show that there is some rationale for Haitians remaining here?”

Others have argued for additional proposals aimed at helping climate migrants at large.

In July, a task force with the advocacy group Refugees International released a report recommending a range of policies to address climate migration, including establishing protections similar to asylum or refugee programs for those impacted by climate change and natural disasters.

Separately, a group that included advocates from Harvard and Yale called for creating climate displacement visas and considering the addition of climate displacement to the asylum system.

Allen Morris, legislative affairs associate with the immigrant activist group RAICES, told The Hill that the U.S. system isn’t set up to ask the right questions of those seeking entry.

“Oftentimes when Haitian migrants get to the border, the first thing they say is, ‘I need to work.’ But that’s because the system is not set up to ask them, ‘No, I understand you probably need to work now, but let me get a little more history,’ ” Morris said.

The U.S. and many other countries are trying to reduce emissions to limit climate change and help developing countries do the same. Last week, President Biden said the U.S. would double its climate financing for developing countries — a move that was cheered by many in the international community.

But de Sherbinin noted that as countries like the U.S. try to fight climate change, many are already seeing its effects.

“Now we’re kind of in the position where the horse has bolted and it’s a little bit late to shut the barn door, but we still are trying to get the barn door shut at the same time as we’re dealing with all the repercussions of climate impacts in countries,” he said.




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