The devastation of the island after Hurricane Maria in 2017: A testimony of the tragedy and forced migration due to climate change. Photo: Shutterstock.
By Daniel Morales, investigative journalist
Following the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017 in Puerto Rico and the agricultural problems in Central America due to climate change, millions of people – including María Báez and the family of Miriam Mateo – have migrated. Brenda Murphy, a journalist benefited by the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the U.S., highlights the instability of this legal status. With 200 million environmental migrants projected by 2050, a greater crisis looms.
María Báez, during her 52 years of life, had resided in Puerto Rico, adapting, like her compatriots, to the periodic and vehement onslaughts of hurricanes and tropical storms. However, nothing prepared her for what she saw when she awoke in the early hours of September 20, 2017.
“When I opened the door, the water entered the apartment because it was very, very high… The cars were almost flooded”, recalls Báez. María, the hurricane she shared her name with, had left unprecedented destruction. In addition to the death of about 3,000 Puerto Rican residents, it devastated hundreds of thousands of buildings, the electrical infrastructure and the public health system, becoming the most destructive natural disaster to hit the island in 80 years.
For Báez and the Puerto Rican people, weeks of chaos and hardship followed, including long lines to receive essential items. Eventually, Báez found the assistance that the state of Florida offered and decided to leave her homeland. She had a compelling reason: her grandson Christian, who was five years old at the time and has special medical needs.
“It was very difficult for me because I left my daughter and my sons there… It was very difficult because I had my life there. I had just graduated as a practical nurse… And to leave everything, everything behind”, says Báez.
Thus, María and Christian became two of the 22.5 million climate migrants who in 2017 were displaced from their places of residence due to natural disasters.
María, with a look full of sadness, reflects the difficult moments she experienced with her grandson Christian during the crisis caused by Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. Photo: Henry Mendoza.
The magnitude of this migratory phenomenon is difficult to quantify especially because it is not typified in most of the world. In practice, many climate migrants first move within their own country, but failing to find shelter or prospects, they often set their sights abroad.
One of the biggest challenges is the lack of laws that consider them, and therefore, obtaining visas and work permits becomes unattainable when the displacement is solely due to a natural disaster.
These disasters have intensified in recent decades due to climate change. The scientific evidence is clear: global warming causes, for example, hurricanes to intensify more rapidly, enhancing rainfall accumulation and wind speeds. Similarly, the climate crisis makes droughts more frequent, longer, and severe. This is explained by Paris Rivera, Doctor in Climate Change:
“Climate change is possibly influencing the intensity of these phenomena. They may be the same number, have the same frequency, but with a greater intensity, which results in greater damages, and greater impacts on the population and systems”.
María Báez and her grandson were able to migrate to Florida with the help of the government and without the concern of an irregular migration status since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. This is a very different reality from that affecting hundreds of thousands of people displaced from Central America and the Caribbean who arrive in the U.S. seeking the same thing: a better future.
Mateo and her family’s struggle against climate change
It is a plight that Miriam Mateo understands all too well. She and her family have always been dedicated to agriculture in their native Guatemala, but in the last decade, they have witnessed environmental changes that have made it practically impossible to earn a living through their crops.
“One is the dryness. There’s no water. You plant the crop, it barely grows and then withers… And another is that the lands wash away over time from being plowed and plowed, they no longer have any nutrients”, describes Mateo.
Mateo, her parents, and her children share the fate of millions of farmers living in the Dry Corridor in Central America, a stretch of territory that spans parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. It is an area plagued by a cycle of severe droughts followed by increasingly frequent and intense heavy rains.
Miriam Mateo, a look of concern as she faces the devastating challenges of climate change in her native Guatemala. Photo: Carlos Zegarra.
Mateo cries when she recounts that her son had no choice but to migrate to U.S. to seek a livelihood that would be impossible to find in Barrial:
“He left for the United States at the age of 16. He left out of necessity, because of the scarcity… My son left. But as a mother, you are left with nothing”.
Mateo has seen how her neighbors have also abandoned the area: some to other cities within the country and others, like her son, to the United States. The search for a better future is a fundamental part of the attraction to the North American nation, but Central Americans have additional reasons to set their sights north.
Helena Olea, associate director of programs for Alianza Américas, explains why: “It’s been centuries of selling the American dream through all media. Where are opportunities? Where is hope? Where is security? Where is a state that protects? In the United States”.
Olea emphasizes that: “And in the face of that dream, of course, all people, especially the most impacted, are saying: ‘I want that too. I need a state that protects me. I want to have the opportunity for a job.’ And if the situation is getting worse in [their] region, they are seeing how there are other regions where they recover faster…which have a better economic situation and have institutions that protect. So it’s absolutely understandable that people look for options to the north”.
El Barrial in Guatemala suffers a severe drought while migration options are debated in Latin America due to climate displacement. Photo: Carlos Zegarra.
The options to the south of Central America are quite limited, but in recent years there have been advances. Today, Argentina, is the only country that offers legal guarantees. The National Directorate of Migration put into effect in 2022 a provision that recognizes climate migration and approves a humanitarian visa for people living in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean who have been displaced by “socio-natural” disasters.
For its part, the Congress in Colombia is considering in the 2022-2023 session a bill that “would recognize the existence of forced displacement due to climatic causes”
A humanitarian crisis in Central America and the Caribbean
The discussion is just beginning, and it is uncertain whether the proposal will become law, but the original version does not grant migration benefits like the humanitarian visas offered by Argentina.
Even if the legal framework were more attractive to environmental displaced people, heading south carries other risks for Central Americans and Caribbeans.
“The journey to South America is less known, the economic situation is not the best but there is another central factor and it is insecurity. The impact of organized crime in many Latin American countries is also a factor that discourages people from migrating and is also expelling and forcing people to leave”, says Olea.
Thus, the U.S. becomes the major pole of attraction for climate migrants at times when the country is facing an unprecedented migration crisis at its border with Mexico. But although the White House has officially recognized the impact of the climate crisis on global displacement patterns, to date it does not offer a path for environmental migrants to regularize their migration status.
One of the only legal figures available in the U.S. is the Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which can be granted when conditions in a specific country prevent its citizens from returning safely. It includes a work permit and protection against deportation. Such is the case, for example, of Honduras, included since 1999 in the list of countries benefiting from TPS due to the destruction of Hurricane Mitch at the end of October 1998.
From Honduras to the U.S. and the impact of TPS on her life
By the end of the 90s, Honduran journalist Brenda Murphy had entered the U.S. irregularly but with the goal of working and returning to Honduras in one or two years. However, when she thought about returning to her native San Pedro de Sula, the devastation of Mitch prevented her from going back with her husband, also undocumented, and her young daughter born in the U.S. Although TPS gave her the possibility to stay legally in the country, it was far from giving her lasting peace of mind.
Brenda Murphy, now safe after experiencing deep uncertainty with TPS. Photo: Katie Sikora.
“TPS gives you peace of mind. It gives you a bit [of security] at least for the time it lasts… Three months before it ended… It was an anxiety whether it would be approved”, says Murphy.
TPS provides temporary legality because the government decides every 18 months whether to extend the benefit. For the hundreds of thousands who receive this protection, it means that their migration status could become null if the executive decides so. Murphy lived for more than two decades knowing that the administration of the time could leave her unprotected. She obtained permanent residency only when her daughter, who is a U.S. citizen, carried out the procedures to regularize the family situation when she reached the age of majority. Even now, almost 30 years after leaving her country, Murphy admits that, if Honduras had offered her stability and security, perhaps she would never have thought of migrating:
“[For] people who decide to leave their country it’s not easy. I don’t want anyone to think that people want to come… I mean, no one wants to leave their land… I like living in the U.S. and I love it… I am now part of this system thanks to my children. But I miss my country. I miss the people… [I do] not regret coming here. No, I do not regret it, but my country is beautiful”.
The stories of those who have directly suffered the impact of the climate crisis like Brenda Murphy, Maria Báez, and Miriam Mateo are unique and each illustrates difficult challenges to consider for those who have been more fortunate. However, they have a common denominator: the involuntary and traumatic displacement of a specific group of migrants that is rapidly multiplying.
Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria: A glimpse into the devastation caused by nature’s fury. Photo: Shutterstock.
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