To Protect Climate-Displaced People, the US Must Restore Asylum Access Commentary
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To Protect Climate-Displaced People, the US Must Restore Asylum Access
Edited by: JURIST Staff

As climate change and climate-related disasters continue to drive displacement, the United States must do more to protect impacted individuals. It can start by upholding our existing asylum and refugee protection laws. The adverse effects of climate change can interact with and exacerbate targeted violence, conflict, and other forms of persecution that drive people to leave their homes and cross borders to seek humanitarian protection.  In many cases, people displaced in the context of climate change experience intersecting threats that qualify them for humanitarian protection under US law.

US asylum and refugee law protects individuals who have experienced persecution in their home countries due to their race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Though harm arising from climate change and climate-related disasters does not in and of itself qualify an applicant for asylum, climate impacts can worsen persecution tied to protected grounds. In early 2023, our team of researchers from the Human Security Initiative, International Refugee Assistance Project, and US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants interviewed 38 Mexican and Central American individuals who intend to seek US asylum at the US-Mexico border. Many reported that climate change and climate-related disasters contributed to their decisions to flee. As we reported in March 2023, we found that the effects of climate change drove families into poverty, increased the influence of violent organized criminal groups, and contributed to illegal land dispossession.

Many of the individuals we interviewed reported that increasingly frequent climate-related disasters– including extreme heat, droughts, hurricanes, and floods — interfered with their ability to make a living. These disasters destroyed crops and forced businesses to close, crippling local economies and driving families into poverty.  Many said they received insufficient or no government assistance after climate-related disasters. As the White House recognized in its October 2021 Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration, “if a government withholds or denies relief from the impacts of climate change to specific individuals who share a protected characteristic in a manner and to a degree amounting to persecution, such individuals may be eligible for refugee status.”

As the economic destruction brought about by climate change increases the vulnerability of affected communities, it empowers violent criminal organizations that already control many regions in Mexico and Central America. Farmers whose crops were destroyed by hurricanes, droughts or floods, as well as others who were unable to work during climate-related disasters, reported that cartels continued to demand extortion payments without regard for the challenges they faced. Some said they had to flee their homes because they were unable to pay these extortion fees and experienced violence or threats of violence as a result. For instance, a Mexican family was driven into poverty after droughts and floods ruined their tomato crops in recent years, contributing to their inability to make extortion payments demanded by the gang controlling the region. The mother said, “Sometimes you can’t earn anything. Where can one get money when there’s nothing to sell? The gangs keep asking for their bribes, and they don’t care about these things. If you don’t pay, they kill you.” The family fled after gang members killed the woman’s brother and uncle and kidnapped her husband.

In additional, several individuals reported that organized criminal groups controlling their regions of origin increased in size and influence as community members who were no longer able to support themselves due to climate-related destruction were left with no other option but to turn to the groups for survival. In some climate-impacted regions, organized criminal groups have taken advantage of vulnerable communities by controlling access to necessary supplies. For example, a couple from southern Mexico fled due to threats from gang members who gouged prices of essential supplies after a series of droughts decimated the local maize crops that formed the basis for the community’s economy. Gangs took advantage of devastating droughts by driving up the price of seeds, fertilizer, and produce, while closely monitoring and demanding “tax” payments for any supply purchases outside their territory.

In many cases, violence or threats of violence carried out by organized criminal groups may be linked to protected characteristics, such as, for instance, in cases where targeted individuals belong to a historically marginalized ethnic minority or take a public stand against organized criminal groups.  In cases where state governments are unable or unwilling to protect an individual from harm by private actors, the individual may be eligible for asylum protection.

Climate change is also contributing to illegal land dispossession. Droughts, hurricanes, rising sea levels, and other impacts of climate change degrade environments, reducing the availability of land and natural resources in climate-vulnerable regions. Facing more scarce resources, powerful entities including government officials, private developers, and organized criminal groups target the land and natural resources of Indigenous and other marginalized groups, and environmental activists often face persecution for their efforts to defend land from illegal encroachments. Our research team spoke with several individuals who were targeted for their attempts to protect their land from illegal dispossession, including a Mexican woman whose family led efforts to protect local forests from deforestation by cartel members controlling the region who was forced to flee with her three young children after members of the cartel murdered her parents, husband, and four of her siblings for their activism.

The Biden administration has acknowledged the need for the United States to “create a new legal pathway for individualized humanitarian protection in the United States for individuals facing serious threats to their life because of climate change.” There is certainly a need for climate-specific protection pathways for people displaced across borders. But the United States must also uphold the humanitarian protection laws already on the books.

Instead of expanding access to protection for people in need, the US government has enacted draconian enforcement measures at land borders that illegally impede the asylum process. For more than three years, the US government has weaponized a public health law, known as Title 42, to expel migrants and asylum seekers from the country without giving them access to the US asylum process as the law requires. The policy has left tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers trapped in Mexican border cities where many have been targeted for violent crime including extortion, assault, and kidnapping.

At the behest of the United States, the Mexican government has also stepped up immigration enforcement, which has led to unlawful detentions, illegal forced returns to danger, and other abuses. US policies blocking access to the border certainly contributed to the conditions for the tragic fire inside a crowded Ciudad Juárez detention center this month, which cost 40 lives.

The feds have taken limited steps to ensure access to the US border for the most vulnerable, including providing an exemption process through the CBP One smartphone app, but these efforts fall far short: the application is glitchy and hard to use, and the number of exemptions is very limited relative to the number of people in need. And efforts to impose further restrictions on the right to seek asylum far outweigh, in number and magnitude, any attempts to ensure the asylum process functions as it should. The Biden administration has proposed a rule that would bar any migrant who enters the country without a previously-scheduled appointment from seeking asylum. This so-called “asylum ban” rule would also require asylum seekers to seek protection in countries they travel through before reaching the United States. Many of these countries have poor human rights records and are ill-equipped or unwilling to maintain their own asylum processes. In the face of this reality, the administration’s proposed rule, which was modeled after Trump-era policies found to be unlawful, would further endanger displaced people, including those impacted by climate change.

In a country that professes to care about human rights and the impacts of a warming world, the US government should recognize the asylum system’s crucial role in protecting people displaced across borders by climate change and should work to strengthen it. Border pushback policies like Title 42 and other efforts to limit asylum access are unconscionable. The United States should respect its international law commitments and the human rights of those who seek protection at its borders. This means resuming asylum processing at ports of entry and, as necessary, expanding processing capacity. It means receiving people humanely by avoiding the use of detention and coordinating with community-based organizations to facilitate transfer to sponsors and provide legal services and other aid to asylum seekers as they navigate the asylum process. Our humanitarian obligations, and our legal obligations, demand nothing less.

Julia Neusner is the Director of the Human Security Initiative. She is a lawyer, researcher, and educator whose work has focused on refugee protection, labor rights, and climate-induced displacement.

Suggested citation: Julia Neusner, To Protect Climate-Displaced People, the United States Must Restore Asylum Access, JURIST – Professional Commentary, April 21, 2023,

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