Natural disasters: how tragedy travels across borders

Recent hurricanes and earthquakes have reminded us how devastating climate events can be for entire communities, cities, and countries. But in the aftermath of these natural disasters, it is the most vulnerable—the poor, the elderly, the undocumented—who get hit hardest of all, and often lack the resources to fully recover what they have lost.

In the last two months, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and two earthquakes in Mexico—one in southern Mexico, one more centrally located—have left major destruction in their wakes, and besieged countless individuals, families, and communities with shattering aftereffects that will be difficult, or in some cases, impossible to overcome. Among the populations most overwhelmed are immigrant families in the U.S. and migrants making their way north through Mexico. With undocumented and mixed-status families in need of post-hurricane relief and U.S.-based families members seeking to help their relatives in Mexico, the impact of these natural disasters is suffered both in and well beyond the affected areas.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Undocumented migrants and mixed-status families in the U.S. live on the margins, working hard and contributing to their communities, but laying low to avoid encounters with immigration officers and the danger of deportation from family, community, and livelihood, possibly back to poverty or violence. They usually work in low-paying jobs, living from paycheck to paycheck, and often reside in poorly maintained housing where rent is cheaper. Along with other vulnerable populations, they are at greater risk during and after natural disasters.

Largely employed in service, construction, and manufacturing, 600,000 undocumented immigrants live in Houston and the surrounding areas, the third largest number in the U.S. after New York and Los Angeles (Pew Research Center). With Harvey claiming so many homes and businesses, they face lost wages and possible eviction from residences that are still habitable. In Florida where Irma wrought havoc, many among the significant undocumented population work in landscaping and agriculture, resulting in different prospects for each. Nursery workers and gardeners may still find work at establishments that are up and running and with households that need yardwork while farm laborers have seen their jobs all but disappear, and must hold out until bean and pumpkin season begins in late October. In both Texas and Florida, undocumented individuals and families must hold out until work opportunities flourish once more, but this hinges on having sources of support to do so.

As for assistance available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), undocumented people are not eligible for cash payouts, but their U.S.-citizen children may qualify for food stamps and other aid. Even so, for mixed-status families and households, the decision to seek assistance is complicated by the dilemma of potentially jeopardizing undocumented members. The dire nature of life after natural disasters strike escalates the stress and fears the undocumented experience all the time.

The situation is compounded by understandable distrust of U.S. government agencies that implement frightening detention and deportation policies and anti-immigrant sentiment which has intensified under the Trump administration. Moreover, mixed signals, both at a policy level and on the ground, only added to the fears and confusion—President Trump rescinding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals; Texas Senate Bill 4, which allows police offices to question individuals about their immigration status, temporarily halted via a preliminary injunction; and 200 Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers and a fleet of their boats pitching in to rescue people in the Houston and the surrounding areas at the same time that CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a joint statement that they would suspend routine enforcement temporarily but not checkpoint operations. To help reassure people, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a lawyer, offered to personally represent anyone, should they be arrested by ICE.

For all, pressing forward to look for work in clean-up and rebuilding efforts and figuring out how to survive are post-hurricane urgencies. As has happened in past disasters, the clean-up and recovery work of undocumented individuals will help restore and rebuild these hurricane-devastated communities though such jobs often expose workers to harmful conditions—chemicals, unstable structures, and other hazards—that could have long-term health consequences.

Earthquakes in Mexico

On September 7, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake ravaged Chiapas and the southern border, followed by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that hit Mexico City and surrounding areas on September 19. Together, the earthquakes resulted in 464 deaths and over 6,000 thousand injured, the news creating a communications nightmare for family members and friends in other countries seeking more information about their loved ones in the quake-struck areas. Some cell phone service and wire-transfers services were out or unreliable at best. For undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. with relatives in Mexico City or Chiapas, including DACA recipients, there was the added anxiety of trying to help from afar; if they left the U.S. to join their family members in Mexico, they would risk not being able to return. We frequently see this form of separation between migrants and their families—missing a wedding or graduation, unable to be at an ailing mother’s bedside or attend a grandfather’s funeral—but natural disasters result in entire communities facing this tragic situation.

Within Mexico, the collapse of buildings, including churches, residences, and at least one shelter on the Mexico-Guatemala border, left migrants en route to their final destinations in the north more vulnerable. Even so, the Central Americans staying at that shelter banded together in teams to clean-up the post-earthquake rubble, like their counterparts in the U.S., contributing to the recovery efforts.

Climate and Migration

Climate and related natural upheavals have always been contributing factors in migration. Even when they do not involve temporary evacuation or permanent displacement, they interrupt daily lives in profound and often prolonged ways. Clean-up, rebuilding, loss of the local businesses, impacts on schools and hospitals, access to food and livelihood all take a toll, often to a degree that pushes individuals and families to leave in order to survive. A significant proportion of the 65 million migrants and refugees today have fled climate events—earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, floods, famine, rising sea levels. As Pope Francis has pointed out, the unprecedented magnitude of displacement is a global humanitarian crisis. From the time of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when the number of Honduran immigrants entering the U.S. rose sharply, to the current extreme drought in El Salvador causing so many to flee, the number of climate refugees and migrants continues to grow. Just this past month, the United Nations General Assembly met to discuss humanitarian aid responses to climate disasters, a long-time concern and particularly poignant against the backdrop of Hurricane Maria recently making landfall in Puerto Rico.

On the other end of the spectrum, U.S. private security companies and related businesses are prepping to exploit increased climate-related migration for profit, enhancing their services and ever-ready to submit bids for border wall construction. Tucson writer Todd Miller outlines the convergence of more stringent immigration policies, border militarization, and environmentally induced displacement in his new book, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (City Lights Books, September 2017). This is a growing area of study, and Miller’s book cautions about the crisis to come and the need for greater solidarity with vulnerable populations and accommodating policy responses moving forward.

Such an approach dovetails with KBI’s mission to aid migrants in need and advocate for more humane immigration policies. Whatever the root cause or event prompting people to leave their homelands—poverty, violence, war, climate events or a combination—human dignity, family unity, and the right to live free of danger or threat are principles worth defending and central to the KBI’s work.