Chicago has set the bar for city-led resilience on to two pressing issues of the day: climate change and immigration. Now, as it gears up to host 50 global mayors at the inaugural North American Climate Change Summit next week, Chicago should champion urgently-needed action at the intersection of these two issues: Supporting climate migrants.
Climate disasters uproot 21.5 million people worldwide each year. And as climate change continues to alter the atmosphere and provoke unprecedented natural disasters, that figure will only rise. Growing climate displacement will likely drive new migration, especially when it merges with existing patterns of inequality and exclusion. Cities, nations, and the international community should act now to build adaptation strategies and humane pathways for human mobility.
Yet the Trump administration appears intent on doing just the opposite, torpedoing global climate accords and cracking down on immigrants and refugees. By the end of the year, it is poised to dismantle Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 350,000 migrants from climate-vulnerable Nicaragua, Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras. TPS was created in the 1990s after the US government realized it had no way to support people who were in the United States when something catastrophic — like a natural disaster — happened in their home countries that prevented their safe return. The program was one of the only reprieves available to climate migrants in the US.
Chicago has led a growing list of US cities committed to countering Trump’s agenda. The city was among the first of 2,300 non-federal entities that committed to carbon reduction after Trump threatened to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. Chicago is one of 500 US cities with “welcoming” ordinances and policies, underscoring its ambitions to become the most “immigrant-friendly city in the world.”
Chicago has also demonstrated leadership on climate migration, welcoming 1,600 Puerto Ricans — displaced US citizens — to rebuild their lives after Maria razed the island in September. The city opened a Puerto Rican Evacuee Welcome Center and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he will welcome “tens of thousands” more Puerto Ricans if needed.
Chicago’s leadership fills a federal and global void in responding to climate migration. The issue is only just now emerging on the international community’s radar. There is no legal definition to describe people who have been displaced from their homes due to climate change or disasters. “Climate migrants” cannot claim the same internationally-recognized protections as refugees or asylees.
The issue requires swift and coordinated international action, and cities like Chicago have proven to be more nimble than their federal counterparts in imagining innovative solutions to these pressing issues. The cities represented in the North American Climate Change Summit are well positioned to lead on this issue by:
● Championing investments in infrastructure, housing, healthcare and education that recognize that growing numbers of people will be on the move due to climate change — and that local communities are on the front lines in ensuring their successful integration.
● Partnering with peer governments in climate-vulnerable Latin American and Caribbean nations to boost their long-term resilience. Maintaining forests, natural coastal protections, and small-scale agriculture could mitigate the effects of climate change.
● Building city-level welcoming ordinances and supports for newcomers that enable their integration into local workforces and communities. They can also pressure federal government to do the right thing on immigration policy, like the many cities that have passed local resolutions supporting TPS.
Natural disasters strike unexpectedly, but do not always have to result in crisis. Mitigating the disruption of climate change starts with recognizing its existence — and accepting our responsibility to support and integrate the people most vulnerable to its effects.
Oscar Chacón is executive director of the Chicago-based Alianza Americas, a network of more than 45 organizations serving immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean that represents more than 100,000 families across the United States.
This commentary was originally published on Medium.