Todd Miller

Author Todd Miller visits Missoula to discuss how climate change has driven refugees from Central America to the United States.

All the walls, predator drones and border agents the United States deploys on the southern border won’t change a key factor driving people from their homes, according to a reporter who’s spent years studying the problem.

“Climate change exacerbates what’s already precarious,” said Todd Miller during a Missoula appearance arranged by Soft Landing Missoula, a refugee assistance organization. “What was getting noticed 10 years ago is much worse now. It is affecting why people head north.”

Miller has been reporting on the southern U.S. border for more than a decade. He started writing a column on border issues for the national magazine “Nacla” in 2009, and has published two books on the subject. His first, “Border Patrol Nation,” looked at how Americans’ focus on terrorism after the 9-11 attacks affected how we managed immigrant policy and law enforcement. Then his editor asked how the picture would change if climate change was added in.

That became “Storming the Wall: Climate Change Migration and Homeland Security,” which Miller published in 2017. Looking beyond the United States’ borders, he explored why many parts of the world have huge populations on the move because of climate-related breakdowns.

“In the Philippines, everyone’s talking about being on the front lines of climate change,” Miller said. “Since 2009, every year has had a massive typhoon hit. They’ve had sea level rise and storm surges forcing people to abandon homes.”

He also started tracking a new phenomenon in Central America called the dry corridor, where repeated droughts ruined farms in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador before spreading as far as southern Mexico and Panama. Crops that weren’t stunted by lack of water often got washed away by too much as intense storms triggered mudslides and flooding in stressed areas.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump announced plans to cut millions of dollars in foreign aid to the first three of those countries.

“When you’ve got 66 percent of your population living in a state of poverty like Honduras does, they become really vulnerable to anything,” Miller said. “Guatamala, Honduras and El Salvador are the three countries where the majority of refugees at the U.S. border have been coming from. Last summer, climate change put 2 million people in those three countries in peril.”

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The U.S. Military was among many observers back in the 1990s studying the potential of climate change to trigger social unrest and upheaval, Miller said. The Pentagon commissioned a report in 2003 warning of climate refugees and the impact they might have on U.S. border infrastructure. In 2007, the George W. Bush administration directed a group of military and climate-change scientists to report to the National Intelligence Council on how different global warming scenarios might play out.

In the process, U.S. spending on immigration enforcement went from about $1.5 billion a year in 1994 to about $6.5 billion under the Clinton administration. After 9-11, funding steadily grew: the federal government spent $23 billion on Customs and Border Patrol and related services in 2018.

In his interviews and research, Miller said he found Central American climate migrants often spent years trying to hold on to their farms and communities before deciding to move out. Many hoped to follow other family or friends who had already crossed into the United States, where even poor jobs pay $7 an hour compared to $7 a day in Mexico. A significant number are deportees desperate to reunite with children left behind in the U.S.

That strains a legal system not designed for such populations, according to Soft Landing Missoula board member Clem Work. International treaties and agreements on refugee resettlement focus on people who’ve been persecuted by their home governments or been made homeless by war, and have reasonable fear of violence if they go back. Getting displaced because a subsistence farm can no longer provide for a family doesn’t fit into that usual box.

“A migrant who comes here because they are fleeing climate has no provision in the law anywhere to give them any status as climate refugees,” Work said. “If they try to cross a border, they don’t have papers, or anything like that.”

Soft Landing Missoula sponsored Miller’s visit to expand the conversation about how and why people get displaced from their homes. Famine, drought and scarcity of resources have contributed to pushing nearly 68.5 million people out of their homes worldwide in 2017, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“We don’t often think about displaced people when we think about climate impacts in Montana, but Missoula is certainly not immune to issues around human migration that result from our changing climate,” said Abby Huseth, Outreach Director at Climate Smart Missoula. “While we don’t know exactly what the future holds, this is a great opportunity to broaden our understanding of what it means to build a more resilient community.”

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