Sasabe, Mexico – Not long into our conversation, the young woman at the migrant resource center in Sasabe, Sonora, told me why she had left her home in Baja Verapaz, Guatemala: floods had ruined her family’s crops. Her name was Flor* and she was 19 years old. Two Category 4 hurricanes battered Central American coasts in late 2020, unleashing intense flooding throughout Guatemala, drowning harvests, and threatening starvation for the coming year. The migrant center, called Casa de la Esperanza, is just two blocks from the US port of entry.
Mexican flags fluttered throughout the town on September 15, the day before Independence Day. Flor told me it was exactly a month since she had left home. She was sitting next to her companion, Esmeralda, who was 20 and also from Guatemala. They told me they had already tried to cross into the United States the week before, but were arrested and deported by the US Border Patrol.
Earlier that week, the World Bank released a report titled Groundswell, which predicted that, if global carbon emissions are not mitigated, 216 million people will be on the move by 2050 from six different regions, including Latin America, as a direct result of the changing climate. This came a month after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s August report delivered a dire warning: unless there are “immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions to greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees celsius will be beyond reach.”
Outside the migrant center, you could see the 30-foot wall going up the hill; it had been constructed by the Trump administration in late 2020, around the same time Flor’s crops were being submerged by catastrophic flooding. The red, rusty wall left a wide scar of razed land visible from miles away.
This latest layer of border wall construction, along with decades of fortification before it, forms part of the US climate plan. And my conversation with Flor and Esmeralda in a distant shelter in Sasabe was a glimpse of what this means: a collision of climate-induced migration and an ever-fortified border.
“And then there’s the droughts,” said Esmeralda, eating a plate of scrambled eggs. Casa de la Esperanza opened its doors in September 2020 to provide deported people like Flor and Esmeralda with meals, clothes, showers, and medical attention. Since the global pandemic started, DHS has deported as many as 700 people a week to Sasabe, according to the center.
Esmeralda, who was going to Chicago to join her brothers, told me that she was from the department of San Marcos. Before the hurricanes hit in 2020, Guatemala declared a “state of calamity” that included both San Marcos and Flor’s Baja Verapaz. Small subsistence farmers lost 70 percent of their harvests, impacting more than 236,034 families nationwide. In 2018, the United Nations World Food Programme was already sounding the alarm about the droughts in Central America, especially in a wide swath of territory that extends through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras known as the “dry corridor.” The WFP reported that at least 2.4 million people did not have enough food. Then, after more droughts and the hurricanes of 2020, combined with economic fallout due to Covid, the number of malnourished had more than tripled to 8 million. In 2020 disasters displaced 339,000 people in Guatemala and nearly a million in Honduras. By early 2021, 15 percent of Central Americans said they had concrete plans to migrate, nearly double the number in 2018.
Many factors compel people to leave their homes, but it was clear that ecological chaos was the primary reason for Flor and Esmeralda. Often an ecological crisis might converge with an economic crisis, especially when, for example, cash-strapped farmers lose their crops. And quite often migration after disaster is internal, as when people in rural areas move to Guatemala City to get a factory job. But for Flor there was another huge draw. She was going to join her father in New Jersey. She told me she hadn’t seen her father since she was one and a half.
“That’s more than 17 years?” I asked.
Her face softened with emotion, and she nodded. “I want to see my dad,” she told me in Spanish.
Flor and Esmeralda had been in Sasabe for two weeks. A week earlier, they told me, they had made their first attempt to cross the border with a group of 15 people. They walked for three days through a rugged mountain range, “going up and going down, going up and going down,” Flor motioned with her hands, until on the third day they were arrested by the US Border Patrol. Along the way “there were a lot of cameras,” Esmeralda said. Like most deportations under Title 42, the pandemic-induced border policy, Flor and Esmeralda’s group was subjected to a “rapid expulsion” and left at the Sasabe port of entry.
The US federal government has been aware of how the climate catastrophe connects with borders for quite some time. According to a 2003 Pentagon-commissioned report, the United States might have to build a “defensive fortress” to stop “unwanted starving immigrants” from places like Guatemala. In 2010 the Obama administration categorized climate change as a national security threat, and in 2013, DHS published its Climate Action Plan, which included preparing borders “for more frequent, short-term, disaster-driven migration, such as mass migration.”
In 2018, CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan told the press that “food insecurity, not violence, seems to be a key push factor informing the decision to travel from Guatemala, where we have seen the largest growth in the migration flow this year.” At the time, data showed that most people whom the Border Patrol arrested were coming from drought-stricken areas.
And in April, the Annual Threat Assessment from the U.S. intelligence community predicted the arrival of Central American migrants like Flor and Esmeralda. The purpose of this assessment from the Directorate of National Intelligence is to provide, in its own words, “nuanced, independent, and unvarnished intelligence that policymakers, warfighters, and domestic law enforcement personnel need to protect American lives and America’s interests anywhere in the world.” In the report the word “migration” appears 18 times.
One such “threat” is “the potential for surges in migration by Central American populations, which are reeling from the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and extreme weather, including multiple hurricanes in 2020 and several years of recurring droughts and storms.”
In one of President Joe Biden’s inaugural executive orders, he stated that “it is the policy of my Administration that climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.” The order mandated, “The Secretary of Homeland Security shall consider the implications of climate change in the Arctic, along our Nation’s borders, and to National Critical Functions.”
It also called for a Leaders Summit, with heads of state from 40 countries. When DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas spoke at the summit, he echoed Biden’s national security concerns, announcing a new set of DHS commitments to address the climate crisis: “I am deeply aware of the impacts this has on both our national security and our collective global security.”
To use the DHS’s term, now a common part of security parlance, climate change is a “threat multiplier.” Of more concern than the devastating storm or drought was what people would do in the aftermath. In this view, migration is not a form of climate adaptation but a threat to global stability, especially from places like Guatemala and Haiti. Not only have earthquakes devastated Haiti, but it also shares the top rank with Myanmar among countries hit with devastating weather-related events.
Yet, at the same time, when announcing a new set of commitments from DHS, Mayorkas showed a more nuanced awareness of climate displacement that is unusual among US officials: “Further, we know that the negative effects of climate change on people around the world, including vulnerable populations, creates additional migrant and refugee populations.” For that reason, he said, it is vital to “reduce emissions” and to “promote resilience and adaptation.”
It is certainly true that reducing emissions should be a top priority for the world’s number one historic emitter, especially after the IPCC’s dire warnings. At the same time, however, Mayorkas didn’t say anything, nor is there anything in DHS’s commitments, about alleviating the suffering of crossing the border for people like Flor and Esmeralda. There was no talk about refugee status, nor in scaling back the massive border apparatus of walls, technologies, and thousands of armed agents (the 2022 budget for CBP and ICE is $24.7 billion), nor a reversal of the deterrence strategy (that now includes Title 42) that forced and will once again force Flor and Esmeralda into the deadly, rugged mountains.
As we finished our talk at the Casa de la Esperanza, Flor told me they would try to cross again. If she didn’t make it this time, she’d go back to Guatemala, she said. Before I returned to the United States, I went to a nearby convenience store called Super Coyote. On the back shelves they were selling camouflage shirts, pants, backpacks, and jackets for people like Flor and Esmeralda, who would risk their lives crossing the border.
Ironically, Mayorkas had stressed that DHS would become a leading federal department when it comes to environmental sustainability. I thought about this after crossing the border and driving north on Highway 286, where I began to count Border Patrol vehicles. In a symbolic sense, Mayorkas was talking about a “sustainable” border wall. He said DHS would lead the charge “in the adoption of electric vehicles with the goal of electrifying 50 percent of our fleet by 2030.” By the time I reached Three Points, about 40 miles north of Sasabe, I had counted 20 vehicles, many on the road, and others hidden behind bushes off to the side, monitoring traffic. I passed a large surveillance tower, powered by solar panels, as its cameras stared southward.
As I counted, I thought about Flor and Esmeralda, wearing the cheap camo from Super Coyote, trying to avoid the multibillion-dollar border surveillance, walls, and armed patrols that will send them back, as Flor hopes to see her father after 17 years. Climate refugees may be nearly invisible to the public, but they are walking through the US southern desert at this very moment. According to official predictions, more and more people will be on the move in the future. For this a “sustainable” border wall is no solution.
* Flor and Esmeralda are not their real names.
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