The Perfect Storm: Climate-Induced Migration to the United States

– Executive Summary –

In the year 2020, climate change has proven itself a threat multiplier, amplifying risks to U.S. security today, and well into the future. Warming global temperatures affect not only the environment but also the foundation of human society by exacerbating pre-existing economic, environmental, and political instabilities.[1] In terms of human displacement, climate change is likely to have a distinct impact on future migration patterns. Currently, estimates predict that climate change might displace between 25 million to one billion people by the year 2050.[2] When contemplating the security of the United States, such mass population movements are likely to have a serious impact on the future security of the nation, especially in terms of the mission of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). An inherent part of the DHS mission is to “secure U.S. borders and approaches.”[3] Yet, history demonstrates that the United States has consistently been unprepared to handle mass migration events, as evidenced by the Mariel boatlift of the 1980s and the recent mass migration of familial units from the Northern Triangle to the U.S Southern Border throughout 2019. Without a proactive framework, it is highly plausible that the United States will once again find itself mired in another border crisis—this time spurred by the effects of climate change.

While increasingly recognized as an international issue, no agreed upon global framework exists to address climate-induced migration. Further complicating the matter, climate change–induced migrants do not meet the definition of either a refugee or an asylee. Within the United States specifically, no immigration law or policy addresses the environmentally displaced. Having few legal alternatives, people may still come to the United States to escape the destructive effects of climate change. This thesis offers recommendations for how the United States might prepare to handle such a scenario if, and when, mass cross-border climate–induced migration occurs.

The future holds innumerable uncertainties. Knowing precisely how U.S. homeland security will look in the coming decades is impossible. The same difficulty holds true for climate-induced migration and its potential effects on the U.S. immigration system. Therefore, this thesis explores how the United States might prepare to handle climate-induced migration by assessing a variety of alternative futures. Using the “what if” scenario planning methodology developed by the Royal Dutch Shell Company, this study assessed the many ways the future might unfold by focusing on intersecting global megatrends and a range of global warming and CO2 pathways in the year 2050.[4] The analysis of both scenarios, in turn, revealed three reoccurring themes. First, migration is a form of adaptation to a multitude of push-and-pull factors. Second, the changing nature of international power and negotiation will make future international resolutions difficult to achieve. Thus, regional and national agreements could prove far more time efficient and advantageous to both the receiving and departing nations. Finally, if leveraged correctly, critical uncertainties, especially those related to migration and climate change, could help the United States compete with future emerging economies. While U.S. policymakers might not be able to control how climate change–induced migration will occur, they can prepare for it by giving equal attention and consideration to multiple versions of the future, weighing options, and implementing cost-effective decisions.

When it comes to policies, practices, and procedures, this thesis makes the following seven recommendations:

  1. DHS should incorporate climate change into all six homeland security missions and update the DHS Strategic Plan The effects of climate change will impact DHS in its entirety, not only the U.S immigration system. Instead of reinventing the wheel, DHS should re‑assess the prior recommendations and actions laid out in the former DHS Climate Action Plan, and reinstitute best practices as appropriate
  2. In terms of immigration, DHS and its immigration sub-branches should re‑assess the impacts climate change will have on mass migrations from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.
  3. The Department of State should expand the scope of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative to include climate-induced migration and its related security implications.
  4. The United States should pursue a regional free-movement agreement with the Caribbean Islands focused on climate-induced migration. In addition, Congress should consider creating a Caribbean-specific temporary visa program focused on critical job shortages, using Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme as an example.
  5. Congress should assess expanding the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement to include other countries in the region (e.g., Central and South America). Additionally, the types of eligible workers for the TN visa category should be expanded to those within non-professional fields.
  6. Congress should amend current immigration law to increase the annual statutory limit on H-1B and H-2B worker visas as a preemptive method to promote legal and well-regulated migration versus climate-induced mass-migration events.
  7. Finally, the United Sates should pursue a North American regional agreement regulating the use of geoengineering for near-term implementation. At the same time, the United States should continue negotiations at an international level for worldwide regulations of geoengineering for long-term implementation.

Ultimately, this thesis offers a broad range of recommendations that could be pursued by U.S. policymakers when contemplating the future threats and opportunities of cross-border climate change–induced migration. Only the future will tell whether such recommendations might succeed. Nevertheless, it is apparent, more than ever, that the United States proactively prepare for such a future. For it is not a matter of if climate-induced mass-migration will happen, but rather when.

 Grant Gordon and Ravi Gurumurthy, “Climate Change: How Global Warming Exacerbates Conflict,” in Displaced, March 26, 2019, podcast, MP3 audio, 52:34,‌climate-change-how-global-warming-exacerbates-conflict.

[2] International Organization for Migration, IOM Outlook on Migration, Environment and Climate Change (Geneva: International Organization for Migration, 2014), 38, https://environmentalmigration.iom.‌int/‌iom-outlook-migration-environment-and-climate-change-1.

[3] Department of Homeland Security, The DHS Strategic Plan: Fiscal Years 2020–2024 (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2019), 17,‌publications/‌19_0702_plcy_dhs-strategic-plan-fy20-24.pdf.

[4] Shell, “Navigating an Uncertain Future,” December 10, 2017, YouTube, video, 4:31, https://www.‌

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