How the Climate Crisis Is Pushing Central Americans Out of Their Homes Toward the US
July 11th 2019
As the U.S. continues to crack down on migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, we look at one of the underreported driving factors leading people to flee their home countries: the climate crisis. John Carlos Frey, author of “Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border,” spent time with Central American climate refugees traveling in a caravan toward the United States. He says, “If this drought continues, we’re looking at all-out famine from Central America. …That’s one of the major reasons why they’re coming. … The government doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that there is a climate crisis in Central America.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. John Carlos Frey is with us for the hour discussing his new book, Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border. We’re going to turn now to an underreported force driving people to the border: climate change. This is a clip from John Carlos Frey’s project that he did with the Weather Channel on the climate migration crisis, where he asks several Hondurans about what’s happening to them, why they joined a migrant caravan.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I find a lot of people who worked on farms and say that they fled because of the drought.
PEDRO CASTILLO: [translated] Listen, the drought was really bad. Really bad drought. The corn cobs were really small.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Among the farmworkers who joined the caravan in Honduras was Pedro Castillo.
PEDRO CASTILLO: [translated] We always plant so we can have food to eat—rice, beans and corn. Many people, that’s how we survive. A lot of us survive on less than $1 a day.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: [translated] With all due respect, I just want to say, that is a life of poverty. Am I right?
PEDRO CASTILLO: [translated] That is the reality of the Honduran people. We have been absorbed by poverty. And not because—and not because we’re lazy. With Mother Nature, there’s nothing you can do. With the drought, there’s nothing you can do.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Perhaps the one thing you can do is flee. That’s what Fabiola Diaz and Carlos Salinas are doing. They and their kids are traveling together, even though they didn’t know each other before. They’re not a couple, but they seem like a family. Fabiola and her 2-year-old son Yeltsin come from a Honduran town called Santa Bárbara.
[translated] What type of work do they do there?
FABIOLA DIAZ: [translated] There, I do farm labor. Beans, corn—it’s what’s mostly grown there. Right now, in the year we’re in, the harvest didn’t work out for anyone.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Carlos Frey interviewing people, part of the migrant caravan, in Mexico City, headed to the United States. He did this project for the Weather Channel on the climate migration crisis. Would you call these refugees “climate refugees”?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: A hundred percent. There is no other way to refer to them. These are people who have farmed their land for millennia. We’re talking about the region where the Mayans are. So, corn and beans have been grown there for hundreds of years. All of a sudden, the rains come, the crops start to grow, and then they dry up. The rains don’t continue. This has been going on for five years. In some places that I visited in Guatemala, they have 100% crop failure. They’ve been able to harvest absolutely nothing. And most of these communities are based on the agricultural economy. If the crops don’t come in, there is no other job. Everything in the town relies on the harvest.
So, I’ve spoken to people who were living on one tortilla a day. They’ve tried everything. They’ve tried to sell their farm equipment, their farm animals, their land, to stay in country. They look for jobs in the major cities close by, and they still haven’t been able to find work.
The United Nations has placed 2.1 million people from the region—they’ve labeled them as food-insecure. That is the first step right before famine. We are looking at—if this drought continues, we are looking at all-out famine from Central America. And from what I’ve found when I was interviewing these people in the caravan, that’s one of the major reasons why they’re coming. And we’re not reporting on that at all. The government doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that there is a climate crisis in Central America.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let’s go to another clip from the series that you produced with the Weather Channel on the climate migration crisis. This begins with an attorney who’s working with migrants in a caravan traveling through Mexico to the U.S. border.
ATENAS BURROLA: This is not an invasion. This is a drop in the bucket of what comes to the border every month, every week.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Atenas Burrola is an attorney from North Carolina who’s part of a group that’s come to Mexico to advise the migrants on U.S. asylum law.
I’m following the story of a young woman who is fleeing because of poverty and hunger. She’s living on a meal a day. Does she qualify for asylum, if that’s the only reason that she’s fleeing?
ATENAS BURROLA: If that is the only reason that she’s fleeing, unfortunately, in the United States, she is not going to qualify for asylum.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Is she not fleeing for her life? Is she not possibly in danger of her life if she doesn’t get food?
ATENAS BURROLA: She probably is, but the way that the U.S. asylum law is written is that it is for people who are fleeing persecution, not economic insecurity.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was your interview with attorney Atenas Burrola. Talk about that.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I was asking her—this woman can’t feed her child. She’s in fear for her life. She herself was emaciated. Her child was thin. She couldn’t put any food on the table. A woman, by herself, 25 years old, with a 2-year-old, is making this journey from Honduras to the United States. And I was asking the attorney, “What rights does she have when she gets to the U.S.-Mexico border?” She has none. She cannot claim asylum. Our asylum laws do not allow for someone who is a victim of poverty or hunger to come into the United States.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, what do you see as the way forward here? Because, clearly, there is still a significant portion of the American population that is rallying to President Trump’s continued insistence on closing the border, and yet more and more people are continuing to come. The president is talking now about mass raids again, threatening mass raids again. Where do you see the country moving?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I don’t see it getting any better. I don’t want to be a pessimist, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve been reporting on these issues for a long time. You have a president of the United States who is vilifying these people to the point where it’s OK that they die, to the point where it’s OK that we incarcerate children and we treat them inhumanely. That is OK by our federal government. I don’t see anyone in his party speaking out against these actions or advocating on behalf of migrant children. Children, we’re not advocating for. So this is a serious problem. As long as we have the leader of our country advocating for more of the same, I think we’re going to see more of the same. And it’s very hard for Congress to break through.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Will it take possible unrest in the immigrant and Latino community, at levels we haven’t seen since the immigration protests of 2006, before something will change?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: We’re starting to see it, and we’re starting to see Democratic candidates start to advocate on behalf of these individuals. So, that has become part of the platform. I’ve never seen a presidential candidate say publicly that he would—that he would advocate on behalf of healthcare—
AMY GOODMAN: Or she.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: —for the undocumented. That was a shock to me, that if we get a new healthcare system in this country, that undocumented immigrants would qualify.
AMY GOODMAN: And every single candidate raised their hand, Democratic presidential primary.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: So, I think he’s pushing the candidates in that corner.
AMY GOODMAN: When we last talked to you, you talked about how hundreds of migrants were feared dead in mass graves at the Barry Goldwater bombing range in Arizona. Are there any updates on this?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: There are no updates. The federal government has closed off this region from humanitarian assistance. There is a stretch of land in Arizona that migrants cross through to get to a road. It’s about 30 miles of a bombing range, that Border Patrol agents don’t touch, that human rights people, advocates, humanitarians don’t touch. And we have had 911 calls from this region. We know that people have died there, and we know that people need water there. And the government has forbidden. Year after year, there are petitions to at least put out some form of humanitarian assistance, and we haven’t. I am convinced there are mass graves. There are hundreds of bodies that have been left unrecovered. We’ve been trying for a long time to get in to document that, but we’re not allowed.
AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to the title of your book, Sand and Blood. Why?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: This is a region of the United States that I think that most people don’t know, a region of desert and mountain, the most inhospitable terrain in the United States. This is the path that we’ve allowed migrants to cross. We’ve seen these gruesome pictures of a father with his child drowned in the Rio Grande, stories of people dying in the deserts, the mass graves. We have a casualty list now. That is the result of a war. If we have thousands upon thousands of people who have died as a result of a policy that has not changed, that feels like war to me. I don’t think there’s a road in New York City, if there is a mass toll of death caused by the traffic light or the bad curve on the street, that it wouldn’t be repaired immediately for safety. We have not changed policy in almost 30 years. And we have a death toll that doesn’t seem to even permeate the members of Congress and the administration.
AMY GOODMAN: What should the presidential candidates be asked?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: They should be asked if they believe that a migrant life is equal to a U.S. citizen’s life. And if so, then you’re going to have to treat them as such.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for joining us, John Carlos Frey, five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter, PBS NewsHour special correspondent. His book is just out. It’s called Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border. To hear our discussion in Spanish, you can go also to our website at democracynow.org, to Democracy Now! en Español.
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