Save the Climate, Dismantle the Border Apparatus

The threat is climate change, not immigration. Pro-migrant politics should be part of any effort to tackle the climate crisis.

Jugs of water for undocumented immigrants sit along migrant trails after being delivered by volunteers for the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths on May 10, 2019 near Ajo, Arizona. John Moore / Getty

Dotted throughout the Arizona-Sonora borderlands are more than forty new surveillance towers, the backbone of a “virtual wall” — the newest symbol of the border’s ever-expanding fortification. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has equipped the towers with sophisticated long-range, night vision, infrared cameras, and wide-ranging ground-sweeping radar. All of the feeds go into the command-and-control centers where agents (or National Guard soldiers) stare at monitors all day and all night, listening for alerts from one of the thousands of implanted motion sensors in the desert. On these screens it is highly likely that the towers’ solar-powered cameras will capture the growing numbers displaced by the droughts and hurricanes battering Central America — and the rest of the hemisphere and the world.

The climate plan of the Department of Homeland Security stands in sharp contrast to the Green New Deal (GND), championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that came to the forefront of US politics at the end of 2018. The Department of Homeland Security has made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25.3 percent by the year 2020. But more significantly, they plan to expand a fortified and foreboding border apparatus, one that entails the arrest, incarceration, and expulsion of people who cross the US border without authorization, at least partly in anticipation of a growing number of climate refugees. The overcrowded prison camps that have received considerable media scrutiny this year are yet another glimpse into a future of intensified eco-apartheid.

This Border Patrol plan is in keeping with the xenophobic vision described over a decade ago in a 2003 Pentagon-commissioned report about a worst-case climate scenario: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.”

When Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall wrote that assessment, US borders were already in the process of historic fortifications. Now nearly 20,000 armed agents patrol US southern, northern, and Caribbean borders, up from 4,000 in 1994. Seven hundred miles of walls and barriers bisect the United States and Mexico, reinforced by a massive concentration of surveillance — like the solar-powered towers. Budgets for border and immigration enforcement have risen from $1.5 billion in 1994 (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to more than $23 billion in 2018 (combined CBP and ICE). Since 2012, the US federal government’s border and immigration budgets have been higher than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, including the DEA, FBI, and US Marshalls. No need to invent a new dystopia in Hollywood — just go south to borderlands buzzing with drones, interior checkpoints, facial recognition cameras, forward-operating bases, and roving armed agents sanctioned by the government to racially profile.

As analyst for the Institute of Policy Studies Phyllis Bennis writes, “the Green New Deal must have anti-militarism at its core” or its aspirations will be rendered impossible. The same applies to the border and immigration apparatus. It is imperative that the GND instill an unwavering commitment to the freedom of movement of all people.

Take the case of sixteen-year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez, who left his small town of Tizamarte, Guatemala on April 4 because of a severe drought that had afflicted his region in the eastern borderlands with Honduras. As Juan’s mother Transito Gutiérrez told Al Jazeera, “Now that it doesn’t rain, we cannot produce anything.”

She continued, “Juan told me the coffee plants were dying. He said he was desperate. He said he could earn more in the United States than here. He could earn more than $3 a day working in the field.”

When Juan left, the family was only eating one meal a day. He promised Transito: “Mommy I am going to cross over the border and I will send you money. It may not be every day, but I will when I can.” Juan wasn’t alone: an estimated 12 of the Tizamarte’s 110 families had already left in the last two years, according to the community’s nurse Gloria Amador. She told Al Jazeera: “People are migrating due to necessity. There is little work, there are families with few resources, and there is a drought.”

On April 25, five days before Juan would die in US custody, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) reported that the combination of persistent, prolonged droughts and heavy rains have destroyed “more than half the maize and bean crops of the subsistence farmers along the Central American Dry Corridor,” an ever-expanding land mass that encompassed large parts of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Central American governments warned that 2.2 million suffered crop losses, “mainly due to drought.” Emergency food security assessments by the FAO and WFP estimated that 1.4 million people were in urgent need.

As climate scientist Chris Castro told me, Central America is “ground zero” for climate change in the Americas. The climate modeling that Castro and his colleagues have been working on predict that droughts and other extreme weather will only get worse in places like Tizamarte, if the heating of the globe continues at its torrent pace.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center there have already been significant upheavals due to “the impact and threat of climate-related hazards”: between 2008 and 2015, an average of 21.5 million people per year. And projections for climate displacement by 2050 become even more stark, ranging from 25 million to 1 billion. It’s worth noting that often displaced people first migrate from one place to another within their own country. However, while the exact numbers of future migrations due to climate change are widely debated, it’s highly likely that the number of people on the move, according to a UN report, will “surpass any historic antecedent.”

In other words, the climate crisis and US border militarization are on a collision course.

Since 1900, the United States has polluted the atmosphere with nearly 700 times more carbon emissions than Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras combined. Instead of recognizing any responsibility, the United States (and other heavy greenhouse gas emitters such as the European Union) have chosen the route of border fortification. The climate crisis comes on top of many years of US political and economic domination in places like Central America. Poverty levels in rural Guatemala exceed 75 percent, the result of a long-standing system of marginalization that has favored an elite economic oligarchy and corporate monoliths like the Boston-based United Fruit Company, all kept in place with a repressive iron fist. Guatemala is a place where .001 percent of the population own more than half of the country’s wealth, while eight in ten indigenous children suffer chronic malnutrition. While there are many factors behind these abysmal inequalities, the US role has been significant: US involvement has ranged from instigating a military coup in 1954 to financing and training the Guatemalan military in brutal counterinsurgency tactics. The incoming ecological catastrophe exacerbates these historic injustices.

Washington’s answer? The 2013 DHS Climate Action Plan specifically mentions the “severe droughts” that would afflict places like Tizamarte, and the necessity to prepare “our borders” for the potential of “mass migrations.”

The GND offers an opportunity to radically transform this heavy-handed approach to immigration. As Thanu Yakuppitiyage of says, “we absolutely need to abolish ICE and reconsider the current system of borders. If we start at a place of radical imagination and re-envisioning, then we can think about [what] truly will work [to] uplift all communities.”

Juan was one of six children who died in US custody since September 2018, when he fell ill and never recovered. “I lost my son,” Transito told Al Jazeera. Nearly all the children who have died in US custody over the last year had made clandestine border crossings through desolate areas where it was impossible to carry enough water and food. This isn’t an accident. An enforcement strategy known as prevention through deterrence, in place since 1994, blockades traditional border crossings with barriers, surveillance, and armed agents to make such crossings a mortal threat (more than 7,000 known deaths over the last twenty years). The deterrence strategy also includes torture: after the arrest of a person like Juan, Border Patrol agents put them into freezing-cold holding cells — with limited access to food, water, medicine, and even blankets — exacerbating sicknesses that are often a result of the grueling journey itself.

The freedom of mobility could have very well preserved Juan’s life and the lives of countless others. Simply allowing people to cross unhindered would take death out of the equation. Nobody would die in the deserts, in the Rio Grande, nor in custody, since people would not be incarcerated for moving as they deem necessary. While the GND recognizes the potential for global mass displacements and that migrants form part of the “frontline and vulnerable communities” in the United States, there is no mention of the border and immigration apparatus. But climate justice means migrant justice. It is imperative that the GND commit to the freedom of movement of all peoples.

Based on historic greenhouse gas emissions, the United States owes an enormous debt to displaced people around the world. If the United States were to welcome in the world’s refugees based on the percentage of its emissions since 1850, it would be the world leader and take in 27 percent. The countries of the European Union would follow with 25 percent. Geographer Joseph Nevins argues that freedom of movement could be a form of reparations, accounting for all the other accumulated historic injustices either caused, influenced, or perpetuated by the United States.

By making freedom of movement a core principle, the GND would call for the removal of all policies and infrastructure designed to restrict, deter, and criminalize mobility. This would include the demilitarization of the border and all the infrastructure of the deterrence strategy — the reduction of armed agents and the removal of barriers, walls physical and virtual, internal checkpoints — that forces people into dangerous and desolate territories and incarcerates them if they are arrested.

The US borderlands do not need those solar-powered high-tech towers. A serious assessment of human security in the twenty-first century makes clear that the real threat isn’t immigration, but the climate crisis. Dismantling the violent border and immigration apparatus would free up resources for projects that are beneficial to the well-being of humanity and the living Earth.

In the Arizona-Sonora borderlands, as one example, there is already deep indigenous knowledge about how to farm, forage, and create water sources in the desert. Various ecological restoration and water-harvesting projects are currently using this knowledge and even staving off droughts. As Phyllis Bennis notes, $1 billion could fund 16,800 clean energy jobs. Just that would be a negligible reduction of border immigration apparatus whose budget exceeds $23 billion. But imagine if Border Patrol and ICE agents were forced to set down their guns and abandon the prison camps, if they were forced to stop tearing through the deserts in their F-150s and flying their planes and drones and helicopters, and discontinued arresting, incarcerating, expelling, and killing people like Juan and Transito. Imagine if the GND mandated the abolition of CBP, ICE, and DHS and all the countless billions and resources were then to go into something else, like a Department of the Climate Crisis. Akin to the just-transition model for fossil fuel workers, Border Patrol agents could be offered new jobs, and get to work repairing environmental damage in the borderlands and harvesting water. This could be the start of transforming the border from a site of violent eco-apartheid, to one of flourishing communities and ecosystems.