‘Immigration correspondent’ for POLITICO claims: ‘It’s Not a Border Crisis. It’s a Climate Crisis’ – Hurricanes & crop failures cited as evidence
ALDEA XUCUP, PANZÓS, Guatemala — Here, in the small Mayan indigenous village of Xucup, men and boys pack tightly and stand in the back of pick-up trucks in the early morning, heading to the fields to check on their crops after a night of harsh rain.
It’s early June — and any strong storm has the potential to derail months of work tending to crops, mostly maize, which soon people will harvest to feed their families. And these days, everyone is on high alert after back-to-back hurricanes last year left their home province of Alta Verapaz among the most devastated in the region.
As the men head for the fields, women and young girls — many dressed in bright colored skirts and tops with hand-embroidered flowers and patterns — hold bowls of maize over their heads, gingerly walking between homes made of wooden sticks, straw, metal sheets and concrete blocks.
In one of the homes, right off the main road, sisters Miriam Noemi Cuc Cac and Irma Cuc Cac are beginning their day. They stand in front of the open fire in their kitchen, good-natured and talkative, making breakfast and chatting in their native Q’eqchi’ language about their plans to make the trek north. Again.
Both sisters tried to reach the U.S. southern border in December 2019, but were apprehended by Mexican law enforcement mid-way in Mexico and sent back home. Since then, they’ve lost their crops to last year’s hurricanes and are bracing for more widespread crop failure. And, now, more than a year and a half after their first attempt, they’re ready to try again.
“God must know why we didn’t make it,” Miriam, 29, says while Irma, 40, listens as she nods and flattens the dough for the tortillas. “But it’s our dream. We want to better ourselves. And there’s no way to make money here. It’s only getting harder.”
There was a time here in Xucup — and in other neighboring villages — where people rarely, if ever, talked about leaving. Most have lived here for generations. Few left home. But that’s changing.
Now, like the Cuc Cac sisters, thousands of rural Guatemalans — as well as Salvadorans and Hondurans in agrarian areas — increasingly are leaving their communities. These days, migration — including the record number of unaccompanied children — is on the rise in rural areas, as an increasing portion of the country’s land and population faces the fallout from climate change.
And it’s not just climate change acting alone. It’s food insecurity. Malnutrition. Poverty. It all ties together.
Guatemalan migrants have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border more than 153,000 times this year, according to Customs and Border Protection figures. Exact numbers are hard to know: The majority of those migrants were kicked out of the country, and, separately, thousands of migrants slip undetected over the border each year.
But as the Biden administration navigates the puzzle that is the U.S. immigration system, there’s another far-reaching challenge it faces: climate change. It’s impossible to know the motives of migrants — and it’s rarely just one reason — but U.S. and Guatemalan officials, regional experts and civil society leaders say climate-fueled displacement is a likely factor for thousands who’ve decided to strike out from home and head to the U.S.
The Rio Polochic runs less than a mile away from the Cuc Cac sisters’ home. | Josue Decavele for POLITICO
In Alta Verapaz and Huehuetenango, a mountainous region close to the Guatemala-Mexico border, in 15 percent of households displaced by the hurricanes here, at least one family member migrated or attempted to migrate in the last five years, according to a survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration. One of their top five motives, the survey found: fleeing from natural disasters and climate change.
Meanwhile, after the hurricanes, at least one member in one out of every 10 displaced homes said they planned to migrate in the next 12 months, according to the survey. Natural disasters and climate change were one of the main motivating factors for them as well.
Climate change, in the coming years, will only continue to exacerbate an already dire situation for millions of Guatemalans, analysts say. In the long term, the number of people in the region displaced by climate change is only expected to grow dramatically — leading many to migrate to more urban areas in Guatemala or head north to Mexico or the U.S. in search of jobs, money and security.
“On any given day, [Guatemalans are] suffering various shocks — whether it’s droughts, floods, natural disasters, volcano eruptions, fluctuations in coffee prices,” said Anu Rajaraman, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s mission director in Guatemala.
“All of these incidents are exacerbating loss of income, loss of jobs, infrastructure damage … And then you have things like the pandemic that just exacerbate the situation.”
In 2020, food insecurity doubled as a result of the pandemic, storms and droughts, Rajaraman said. And in some parts of the country, it tripled.
Migration as a result of climate-fueled displacement isn’t just happening in Guatemala — or the rest of Central America for that matter. As many as 143 million people could be displaced in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia by 2050 due to climate-related factors, according to World Bank estimates. In all three regions, people are confronting challenges, such as decreased crop productivity, rising sea levels and water shortages.
And as the Biden administration touts its commitment to tackling the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, any work it does to tackle climate as a driver of migration could serve as a framework for other countries facing the same challenges.
In a February speech before the United Nations Security Council, John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate, talked frankly about how climate change will drive migration patterns in the coming years. “Hundreds of millions of people could be uprooted,” he said. “Not only can mass migration drive humanitarian crisis, but we also know that if it’s not managed well, it undermines peace and stability.”
For now, though, the Biden administration’s talk about the climate crisis has not translated into new work tackling the ties between climate and migration. During her first foreign trip last month, touring Guatemala and Mexico, Vice President Kamala Harris barely spoke about climate as a root cause of migration. Instead, she focused on the U.S. fight against corruption — a more traditionally discussed “root cause.”
A child stands near the latest harvested maize. | Josue Decavele for POLITICO
But, like corruption and other root causes of migration — including poverty, violence and malnutrition, there isn’t a quick “fix” to climate change.
So far, Rajaraman said, funding for climate-related activities in Guatemala has been “fairly consistent” over the past three administrations. They are, however, waiting on additional funding for renewable energy projects. (Rajaraman did not disclose the amount of money earmarked for those projects.)
“What’s going on in Alta Verapaz and a lot of the Western Highlands are the product of the climate crisis, long-term drought, racism in the country, inequality built into the economic system,” said Eric Olson, director of policy at the Seattle International Foundation and an expert on Central America.
“We need to get away from the notion that it’s just a matter of making an announcement with some kind of aid plan that would remedy all these problems,” he added. “It requires sustained strategy and that’s one thing the U.S. has not done a good job of. They constantly face crises in the moment. They try to fix everything at the moment and it’s not part of a sustained strategy.”
Climate change isn’t a phrase many Guatemalans use to describe why they feel the need to leave their home countries. But every potential and returned migrant POLITICO spoke to talked about it in other ways: worsening and unpredictable weather conditions, more crop failures, more flooding, longer droughts, widespread malnutrition and poverty.
They talk about how they’ve struggled to put food on the table after hurricanes wiped out their crops. How excessive summer rain has them bracing for months of wasted work. How they’re losing land by the minute to erosion along the Rio Polochic, the river located half a mile from Irma and Miriam’s home. How they’ve never received help from the government — and they don’t have much faith they ever will.
For rural Central Americans weighing migration to the U.S., it’s irrelevant that Harris stood beside the Guatemalan president last month and said, “Do not come.” Many feel they have no alternative. If they stay, they say, they face more devastation from crop loss. They’ll witness their families go hungry. Their only choice, they say: Leave and seek opportunity elsewhere.
The Biden administration, for its part, is still crafting its strategy to tackle the destabilizing conditions — including corruption, poverty, malnutrition and violence — that force thousands of Central Americans to migrate north to the U.S. each year. (A senior administration official did not offer a timeline for completion of their plan.)
But as the decades-long political fight in Washington over how to handle immigration policy drags on, the reality is: There’s no quick fix, which Biden officials acknowledge, and conditions are only getting worse.
“This is a conjunction of multiple inequalities that have been pushing these people forever,” said Ana Maria Mendez, Central America cluster director for the global anti-poverty group Oxfam. “But now with the issue of climate change, it has made everything even worse if it wasn’t bad enough already in past years. It’s very obvious.”
“At least our house was safe”
More than 8.8 million people in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua were affected by the two Category 4 hurricanes that hit the region just days apart last year. In Guatemala, the two storms ravaged 16 out of the country’s 22 departments, or provinces. Both storms resulted in a total of more than 60 deaths, about 100 missing and more than 300,000 forced to evacuate their homes.
That’s why people are bracing for another hurricane season that could cost their jobs, access to food — and, above all, their lives.
“All it takes is one,” said Tim Callaghan, USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team Leader for the three Northern Triangle countries, noting that it’s an “above average forecast year.”
And some families are still trying to build back from last year’s hurricanes. Part of USAID’s Guatemala team is focused on helping the most vulnerable families “recover from what happened last year and also build as quickly as we can some resilience to withstand, even if it’s just heavy rains” this year, Callaghan said.
That’s the kind of help that Miriam and Irma say their community desperately needs.
Even before hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated their village last year, Miriam and Irma had mixed success with their crops, which usually consisted of maize and chile.
Over the years, they watched their father slowly lose his land to erosion along the river. But they thought the separate plot of land they rent would be safe from the hurricanes: It’s further away from the river, they thought. There won’t be that much water.
They were wrong.
A harvested, dried out maize field. | Josue Decavele for POLITICO
Exterior of Miriam Cuc Cac’s home. | Josue Decavele for POLITICO
Now, Miriam pays about $125 a month to the bank for the loan, which she claimed was for farming expenses — but she remains grateful that she didn’t turn over the deed to her house, another common method of payment to coyotes. At least, she said, they didn’t lose their home.
The truth is, Miriam and Irma say, they don’t know much about President Joe Biden — or the vice president who’d just paid their country a visit. When they tried to make it to the border, Donald Trump was president. They knew he didn’t like immigrants. He is, they said, a “bad man.” But two years ago, during the Trump administration, Irma’s husband and her eldest son, now 18, managed to make it across the border unnoticed. They now live in Arkansas, where they live undocumented, while Irma remains here with two of her sons.
Her husband, however, hasn’t sent Irma any money in more than two months. Miriam says it’s because all he does is drink. She’s convinced that sooner or later his drinking will get him into trouble and he’ll get sent back. Miriam’s not fond of her brother-in-law, but she worries about his well-being: If he gets deported, what happens then to her nephew?
“You will be turned back”
During her trip here, Harris had a lot to prove, even if administration officials tried to manage expectations by setting modest goals for her visit. It was an early test of both her ability to handle thorny diplomatic issues and be a leader on the world stage — skills she’ll need if she runs for president again.
Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, speak to the media, Monday, June 7, 2021, at the National Palace in Guatemala City. | AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
The goal of her two-day trip to Guatemala and Mexico: setting the tone for the Biden administration’s work to tackle the root causes of migration, issues that for decades administrations Republican and Democratic have failed to address.
And standing beside Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei after a two-hour meeting at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, her approach was clear: Be blunt.
At a presser with U.S. and Guatemalan journalists and officials, Harris did not equivocate. She stood in a grand courtyard, called the Patio de la Paz in honor of the 1996 signing of peace agreements between the Guatemalan government and a leftist guerrilla group, and criticized the country’s long-standing system of corruption — which critics argue includes the president himself.
To that end, she announced the U.S. would launch task forces to fight corruption, human smuggling and trafficking. She said the U.S. would make various investments, including an initiative to create opportunities for young, primarily indigenous, women entrepreneurs.
But some immigrant advocates and experts on the region worry the Biden administration will fall back on the U.S. pattern of focusing on curbing migration from Central America through deportations and border control enforcement — without actually ending up helping people in the region.
That worry grew after Harris’s press conference.
“The goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home,” Harris said.
For rural Central Americans weighing migration to the U.S., it’s irrelevant that Harris stood beside the Guatemalan president last month and said, “Do not come.” | AP Photo/Oliver de Ros
“At the same time, I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come,” she added. “I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.”
Her message, during a visit that was “ostensibly to see the reasons people are being forced to flee,” was “a tremendous red flag,” said Noah Gottschalk, global policy lead for Oxfam America.
“After four years of the Trump administration viewing Central America primarily through an anti-migration lens, we don’t want to see the Biden administration come in and do a softer, slightly better version of that,” Gottschalk said.
So far, it remains to be seen how the Biden administration will tackle many of the structural challenges that plague Guatemala and the rest of the region. And in Washington, much of the chatter stays on script: Which is to say, they’re focused on politics, not policy. As Republicans see it, Biden owns the increased numbers of migrants flocking to the border. It’s now the “Biden border crisis,” they say.
Josefina Huc Tiul sits outside her hut with her children. | Josue Decavele for POLITICO
Meanwhile, Democrats argue Biden inherited an immigration system decimated by Trump, one which will take time to rebuild.
None of this matters to Francisco Coy, a day laborer who lives with his wife, Josefina Huc Tiul, and six children, ages 6 to 18, a 15-minute walk from Miriam and Irma.
They never heard about Harris’s trip. Nor do they know who she is.
They’ve never heard about U.S. promises to address root causes of migration. Nor have they given much thought to the root causes of migration.
They’re just trying to get by.
Their hut, made of straw and wooden sticks and tied together with cords, sits plopped on a small plot of dirt, in an area of the village so remote it can’t be reached by car. As Francisco and Josefina chat in Q’eqchi’, their children wander about barefoot in the mud, munching on tropical fruit and keeping the ducks company.
They’ve been left behind by the world, Francisco and Josefina say — and life is only getting harder.
After the hurricanes, no one would hire Coy. He used to go into the field to help other farmers, but with no crops to harvest, there was no work. And with no income to feed his family, he resorted to chopping wood in the forest nearby in the hopes of earning some cash.
“No one ever came to help. Not the president. Not the mayor. No one,” Huc Tiul says as they sit outside their hut.
While they’re just minutes walking distance from Miriam and Irma’s house, their reality is different — more difficult, by Miriam’s own description. They’ve never owned land — or had the money to rent a plot of land to grow their own crops. They’ll soon be forced to tear down the little house they’ve built, dismantling it piece by piece, then bundling the wood together and moving it somewhere else. Where? They’re not sure. The only thing they do know: The woman that owns the plot of land they’re squatting on doesn’t want them there anymore.