Tegucigalpa, Francisco Morazán/Honduras. November 4, 2020. Four women walking in Tegucigalpa as Hurricane Eta approaches. Photo: Shutterstock.
By Daniel Morales, investigative journalist
“I felt… like a little bird that has been in a cage. Well taken care of, well fed, with nothing happening to it, protected. But when the door is opened, in the feeling of freedom, it can’t do anything else but go out and fly. Yes. I felt free for the first time, free.”.
That’s how Brenda Murphy remembers what she felt the day she received her permanent residency card in the United States. It was the culmination of a journey that had begun almost a quarter of a century earlier in her native San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
Murphy is a journalist and left her country in January 1996. She was newly married to a Mexican citizen living in New Orleans as an undocumented immigrant. She was curious about what life was like in the U.S. She was convinced she would work for a couple of years and save enough money to return to Honduras and build a life.
“So I would say, ‘I’m going, I’ll save $50,000 in a year, and then I’ll come back to buy my little house… buy my car and get around to do my things. So, everyone goes out with high expectations,” recalls Murphy.
After those first two years and already thinking about planning her long-awaited return, Mitch made landfall in late October 1998 as a Category 4 hurricane in Central America. It is estimated that in Honduras alone, 6.2 million inhabitants, and each of the country’s 18 departments suffered the effects of the catastrophe.
In this context, returning to her homeland became impossible.
“It’s really difficult… to understand the magnitude of the damage and the time it takes for people to recover. Honduras is not the United States. Here the Red Cross, here the churches, here the government itself, here FEMA, here the organizations… Here, you recover a little faster. Over there, it’s not [like that],” explains Murphy.
Brenda Murphy, at her home in New Orleans, recalls the day she received her permanent residency card in the U.S. as her first experience of true freedom. Photo: Katie Sikora.
Helena Olea, associate director of programs for Alliance Americas, a network of 58 organizations of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants in the United States, delves into the precariousness that Central American countries face after a natural disaster:
“There is not even the capacity to offer that first emergency assistance; in other words, there is often no shelter where people can be… Then, the reconstruction is neither accompanied nor supervised nor funded by the state. Each person affected by a climatic disaster has to get up again through their own efforts. And what we see in Central America, in particular, is that many times they do it thanks to remittances from their relatives who are in the U.S. There is no government funding. No one comes to say, ‘Here, you can rebuild or you can’t rebuild.’ People are really at the mercy of their circumstances and possibilities,”.
In 1999, the U.S. government designated Temporary Protected Status (TPS for short) for Hondurans like Murphy due to the severe damage caused by Mitch. She vividly remembers the relief that this protection brought her.
“Everything was a bit complicated due to not having that immigration status. So when they declared TPS, I crossed myself because many said, ‘That’s a lie. The government will have your data. The government will know where you are. They will come to get you. Don’t do it.’ Since there were people saying, ‘It’s a great opportunity. We’ve already done it.’ Well… I said, ‘In the name of Jesus, I’m going to do it because I need it.’ A husband without papers, a woman without papers, and two children born here are very difficult. It’s very, very difficult,”.
The challenges of immigration status and hope placed in TPS: a decision of faith and necessity amidst fears and opportunities. Photo: Katie Sikora.
The TPS is one of the U.S. government’s humanitarian programs for foreigners already in the country who cannot return to their home countries due to specific and temporary reasons, such as armed conflict or a natural disaster.
It is the only program that, although not specifically designated for climate migrants, includes them and offers them the opportunity to obtain a work permit and protection against deportation.
“TPS is effectively a policy tool that can recognize the climatic impact that prevents people from returning to their country but does not allow them to enter the U.S. It is a temporary measure that does not allow for a transition to permanent residency,” explains Olea.
For Olea, this immigration issue has a direct relationship with climate change: “What we understand and know today is that there are specific climate impacts in regions that may not be a national devastating phenomenon, such as a hurricane, but it can have such an impact on the country that people are forced to leave. They don’t find other alternatives within their country and have to seek them outside their country, and many of those cases will not be subject to TPS designation,” Olea emphasizes.
The government decides every 18 months whether to renew the protection. According to the most recent official figures (2021), there are 429,630 TPS beneficiaries. But some estimate that the number could reach 670,000. The future of all these people depends on the federal government’s will, and they would be left in legal limbo if it were to be canceled.
Washington, DC – May 11, 2022: TPS activists gather at Union Station to urge the Biden administration to fulfill the promise of continuing the program and creating a path to citizenship. Photo: Shutterstock.
“When you get used to having occasional respite, because that’s what TPS does, TPS gives you peace of mind. It gives you a bit at least for the duration. It gives you security. So when we heard… I mean, three months before it ended, negotiations began, whether the president, whether they were good, whether they were bad. All that finger-snapping!… So it was really nerve-wracking that they would approve it,” Murphy says.
Although the U.S. feels the effects of environmental migration and, as an industrialized country, shares responsibility for the climate crisis that forces Central Americans to leave their territory, the North American nation lacks a legal framework that offers permanent protection to climate migrants.
For Olea, offering legal protection would be a good first step in counteracting the harm the nation causes to the environment.
“The U.S. has a significant responsibility for both the exploitation of fossil fuels [and their consumption]. In the U.S., we have fairly unconscious ways of dealing with climate change. We use a lot of plastic, materials that only end up as waste with significant environmental consequences. The use of fossil fuels has a significant impact on greenhouse gases,” explains Olea.
For Olea, the United States and other industrialized nations have to assume their responsibilities and help the countries of the southern hemisphere in the fight against climate change and its effects.
“Consequently, in line with this impact that the U.S. generates, there must be other possibilities and discussions on how to finance and support those countries, for example, that have significant natural resources,” Olea explains.
“We need a way to compensate for what is being polluted on one side and, on the other hand, how to mitigate this environmental damage. Likewise, the U.S. can compensate for this environmental damage by recognizing that people are forced to migrate due to this climate crisis and provide a solution. It’s not ideal. It would be preferable to address the causes, but as much as addressing the causes, it is recognizing the consequences and generating responses to them,” Olea concludes.
Helena Olea emphasizes the urgency of responsibility and action by the U.S. in mitigating climate change, highlighting the direct influence of the consumption and exploitation of fossil fuels on the environmental crisis and its duty to support nations with abundant natural resources. Photo: Shutterstock.
Indeed, a significant part of the change in weather and climate patterns is linked to anthropogenic causes or human activities. Without stricter climate mitigation policies (including a halt to deforestation), greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride) will continue to rise, along with the displacement of numerous victims of climate change.
The White House National Security Council, to cite just one example, estimates that by 2050, nearly three percent of populations in Latin America, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa will be displaced from their countries due to climate change. This would translate to more than 143 million people.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “each year, around 22.5 million people are displaced within and outside the borders of their countries due to climate and weather-related disasters.” Among other recommendations, the entity promotes the recognition of a lasting legal status for all environmental displaced persons.
However, currently, the only country in the American continent offering migratory protection to Central Americans displaced by climate change is Argentina.
“And the reason why it did so with this regional vision is that in South America, there is this Mercosur agreement that allows for free transit and residence. So people from South America do not need a reason; they just need to present their documents, and they are allowed to live authorized in Argentina. So this possibility was created for some people coming from northern Central America,” explains Olea.
Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico – 2022: A group of migrants from South America crosses the Rio Bravo border between Mexico and the United States to seek asylum. Photo: Shutterstock.
Recently, in the U.S., there has been legislative initiative led by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts that would grant a number of visas for people impacted by the climate crisis. Although it was not approved in the past, experts indicate that it is very likely to reintroduce the bill in the near future, as Olea explains:
“That would be a very positive initiative, but it has to be approved by Congress. In the current context, unfortunately, we know it will likely remain just an initiative. But putting these ideas on the table, opening the debate and discussion on the need to recognize and create a pathway, is possible,” Olea clarifies.
Olea explains that many people have questioned whether it would be necessary to expand the definition of who is a refugee and whether there is political space for them.
“There is a lot of skepticism… But there is a concern about the need to find a solution in terms of public policy to recognize that people need to leave their country, they need to enter another one, they need to have a regular status, and in many situations, they won’t be able to return to their country,” says Olea.
Murphy’s migration solution came after just over two decades of her arrival in the U.S. and solely thanks to her daughter. Photo: Katie Sikora.
For Honduran journalist Brenda Murphy, the migration solution came after just over two decades of her arrival in the U.S. and solely thanks to her daughter. Murphy was fortunate to be eligible for residency because her daughter was born in the U.S., unlike many climate migrants who won’t have a permanent migration solution until the government decides.
“When she had six months left to turn 21, she said, ‘Mom, let’s get ready, prepare all your documents’… One has children, but I have never seen my children as my salvation. On the contrary, I am their lifeline, I am their boat, I am their harbor. Not them, my harbor… So, we submitted the documents. About three months later, we received the letter for the immigration appointment.”
Murphy, fortunate to obtain residency thanks to her daughter’s birth in the U.S., symbolizes an unattainable hope for many climate migrants waiting for government solutions. Photo: Katie Sikora.
“I believe that what we all can do is ask questions, get to know and better understand what is happening in other countries around the world. Not assume that the reality in the United States is the norm and the reality in the world. And ask ourselves what those particular conditions are,” clarifies Olea.
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