Artwork on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border wall in Tijuana. Photo Credit: Tina Shull
Climate change not only contributes to conditions globally that drive migration to the United States, but it also exacerbates tensions along the US-Mexico border. In his book Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, author Todd Miller documents how the US government has used the desert to its advantage in its formation of policies to deter migration. "Operation Gatekeeper," launched in 1994 under the Clinton administration, ushered in a new era of border militarization and has pushed migration routes into hotter and more treacherous desert regions. Human rights groups have documented at least 7,000 deaths in the Sonoran desert, by conservative estimates, since the construction of a border wall along the US-Mexico border in the 1990s.
In this interview for Climate Refugee Stories conducted by Steve Pavey of Hope in Focus, Todd Miller discusses his encounters with climate migrants from Central America and Mexico, and how climate change has contributed to the borderlands becoming what he calls a "de facto war zone." Below, the Tucson-based organization No More Deaths reports on the US Border Patrol's abuses against migrants and advocates, and members of the indigenous Tohono O'odham nation call for solidarity across movements for climate and migrant justice, and indigenous land sovereignty.
An Interview with Todd Miller
author of Storming the Wall
Who are climate refugees in your understanding?
How would you describe their reality?
On Christian Parenti's concept of "catastrophic convergence":
"There are many crises going on right now, political, economic, and now ecological. Often those issues are treated as separate issues, but you have to look at those issues as kind of converging together and not as separate issues but compounding each other."
“One of them was an 18-year-old from Honduras. He looked up at me and said, "There was no rain." So there was no harvest, no crops, no food.”
“In Honduras alone there’s about 400,000 people impacted by this unprecedented drought that was happening in 2015. A million people are on the brink of starvation in this whole region due to this drought.”
What are some of the predictions for climate refugees going into the future?
Predictions range between 150M-750M "climate refugees" displaced by 2050.
Regarding Central America specifically, what is the current state of the crisis?
Central America is "ground zero" for climate change.
"While there have been some resilience programs and there are some mitigation programs, the answer by far is militarization. From the United States’ perspective, from a Pentagon point of view, from the Department of Homeland Security point of view... these building of military platforms for 50 years in the future are already happening."
Explain the concept of "global apartheid"?
What is the role of nation-states and corporations in this building crisis?
"Border walls are often deployed in countries of the global north... trying to police, blockade, criminalize the mobility and movement of people coming from countries of the global south."
“Borders are being closed, for people on the move, and increasingly for people in climate upheavals, but they’re opened more and more, not only for merchandise to cross, but entire corporate operations.”
"There’s no Immigration and Customs Enforcement searching out these people who are destroying environments in the middle of the night, rounding them up and putting them in detention centers. There’s none of that, right?”
Is this an issue of the global elite versus the poor?
Are resources being valued more than people?
"There doesn't seem to be an end in sight for these extractive industries... And that seems to be the logic of the globe."
Is there a movement being built to address these issues of environmental and migrant justice, together?
“I met people from the Philippines to the US-Mexico border to the Paris climate summit where people from all over the world brought their stories of what they’re doing.”
“Of all the stories, the most important ones seem to be the ones that use the word “climate justice” together, in my opinion at least--climate justice in the sense that climate change is one facet of a multi-faceted problem.”
“The first places that I tend to look myself are... Indigenous voices, and those seem to be the most powerful voices that resonate."
So where is the hope?
Does it come from above, from centers of power, or from below?
“The urgency that’s needed is not coming from these negotiations because you have countries like the United States with their own self interest and especially their corporate interests that dominate everything, so the idea that a real agreement that’s good for planet Earth and the people on it, as it stands now, without changes, is a fallacy.”
"If you look at the United States, on both sides of the aisle, one seems to be, the window dressing is maybe a little bit nicer, but... we’re driving on the same highway with the same car and the same gas, right? And that highway’s about to go over a cliff.”
“What’s gonna break that is, from below, whether it be imposing projects from below, that go against that, or creating an incredible amount of pressure that changes the culture of the top."
What can we do?
Do you provide any answers at the end of your book?
"My book itself is journalism, so it presents a problem, but it offers examples of how this is not necessarily inevitable."
No More Deaths
My name is Caitlin Deighan, and I’m the Abuse Documentation and Advocacy Coordinator for No More Deaths. For those who aren’t familiar, No More Deaths is a humanitarian aid organization based in Tucson, Arizona, whose mission is to end death and suffering in the US-Mexico borderlands.
On January 17th of this year (2018), No More Deaths’ Abuse Documentation team released video footage of Border Patrol agents, over a 7 year period, stabbing, kicking, and removing water gallons and other humanitarian aid supplies intended for people crossing the border. The video was released alongside our most recent report, which documents Border Patrol's pattern of obstructing humanitarian aid efforts, as well as the targeted arrest of migrants who attempt to access life-saving resources.
Just a few hours following the release of the report, Border Patrol agents arrested No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren, along with two migrants receiving humanitarian aid, in what appears to be a retaliatory act deliberately targeted at No More Deaths. Scott was charged with 2 counts of felony harboring, and 1 charge of conspiracy to transport, facing up to 20 years in prison if charged and served consecutively.
Border Patrol agents allege that Scott is guilty of giving “food, water, bed and clean clothes” to the two men. Court documents also reveal that our entire organization may be under investigation for similar such “illicit” activities as providing food, water, and clean clothing to people who have walked days, if not weeks, in the remote Arizona desert.
This arrest is one piece of an escalation in harassment from Border Patrol since the new administration took power. In June 2017, Border Patrol agents surrounded No More Deaths’ remote medical aid camp in southern Arizona and eventually arrested 4 migrants receiving care.
In reference to the raid, a report by Border Patrol reads: “Through execution of the search warrant it was revealed that NMD would provide illegal aliens with food and water along with showers and new clean clothes to wear.” The criminalization of sharing essential, life-saving resources with people in the border regions where hundreds of remains are recovered each year, and many more are never found, is an obvious attack on our most basic and essential human rights--the right to life.
No More Deaths was formed in 2004, when the effects of the policy of Prevention Through Deterrence began to be seen in Southern Arizona. Since the implementation of PTD upward of 8,000 human remains have been recovered along the border, according to the most conservative estimates. Many, many more are never found and remain disappeared.
This crisis is not an accident, and it is not inevitable. It is the effect of US Border Patrol policy, which was intentionally designed to funnel people into the most remote and hostile terrain. One of the most remote and most deadly areas in which people cross is in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Arizona. Our volunteers recovered at least 36 human remains there last year. Scott Warren and 8 other No more Deaths volunteers, including myself, also face federal misdemeanor charges related to our humanitarian aid efforts in that area, which include leaving food and water and conducting search and rescue or recovery missions.
It is unacceptable that death and disappearance are treated as accepted and normalized risks for the act of migration--even that it is considered such an integral feature of border enforcement that attempts to mitigate the risk are treated as criminal activities. Our border enforcement apparatus is designed to kill people, and criminalization of people attempting to rescue them is merely an escalation of the same.
As long as people are forced to risk their lives to enter this country, people will continue to provide aid, and as long as a culture of impunity exists for Border Patrol agents who engage in routine acts of cruelty, we will continue to document and expose the human rights abuses we witness daily in the borderlands.
"Footage of Border Patrol Vandalism of Humanitarian Aid, 2010-2017" by No More Deaths
Disappeared," Part 2, "Interference with Humanitarian Aid" by No More Deaths
Organizations such as Humane Borders, No More Deaths, and the Colibri Center for Human Rights have documented increasing migrant deaths in the Arizona desert, revealing the deadly intersections of increasing immigration enforcement measures, such as Operation Gatekeeper and the construction of the border wall, and climate change.
Image Credit: Humane Borders
"Torn Apart," featuring Robin Reineke of the Colibri Center for Human Rights, by Human Rights Watch
Click on the Image to read No More Deaths's report "Disappeared"
Tohono O'odham Nation:
Border Wall "Over My Dead Body"
“It’s going to affect our sacred lands. It’s going to affect our ceremonial sites. It’s going to affect the environment. We have wildlife, and they have their own patterns of migration,” he said. “There are just so many things that are wrong with this. The whole idea behind it is just racist.” Tohono O'odham member Bradley Moreno in The Guardian.