Experts are hopeful that President Joe Biden will make good on his campaign promise and create a pathway to status for hundreds of thousands of environmentally displaced people, which he vowed to do “immediately” after his inauguration.
Biden previously committed to review and safeguard temporary protected status (TPS) for people displaced due to war or natural disasters, and referred to former president Donald Trump’s efforts to rescind it as “politically motivated.”
“TPS holders who have been in the country for an extended period of time and built lives in the U.S. will also be offered a path to citizenship through legislative immigration reform,” Biden’s platform said. TPS holders don’t have a pathway to citizenship right now and the Secretary of Homeland Security has to periodically renew their status.
Biden is yet to announce policies surrounding TPS and environmental migration, but a White House spokesperson told VICE World News more will be announced in the coming days.
Ama Francis, a climate law fellow with Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said she’s not expecting Biden’s first sweep of reforms to explicitly consider environmentally displaced people. “There’s a gap because environment and immigration are seen as separate issues, which leaves some holes...I would be surprised if Biden’s immigration legislation mentions climate or climate displaced persons,” she said.
Biden could go a step further by ushering in groundbreaking U.S. legislation, the Climate Displaced Persons Act, which is already supported by Vice President Kamala Harris. The bill, introduced in 2019 by U.S. Senator Ed Markey, explicitly defines climate displaced people and acknowledges the U.S.’ legal responsibility to let them in.
“Forced displacement and forced migration are increasing in the context of environmental changes and climate-induced disruptions, including weather-related disasters, drought, famine, and rising sea levels,” the bill says. If passed, it would make it mandatory for the U.S. to welcome no less than 50,000 environmentally displaced people every year.
The bill also acknowledges the U.S.’ significant role in worsening the climate crisis, and aims to develop a “climate change resiliency strategy” that would help improve environments in other countries before people are forced to leave.
The move would set an important example for rich countries, experts told VICE World News. Thomas Burelli, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said with the growing number of environmentally displaced people, wealthy countries have a legal responsibility to help.
“Considering the lack of efforts from the States to tackle climate change...we can only expect more environmentally displaced people in the near future,” Burelli said.
Several countries in the Americas and Caribbean already explicitly list environmental events in their immigration laws as a reason to admit people, with Bolivia even going so far as to define climate migrants, Francis said. By giving climate migrants pathways to status, Biden’s team is really just “stepping up,” she said.
“Really, the U.S. is behind in the Americas,” Francis said. “But also it would position the U.S. to be a leader in tackling this global crisis...it’d be really significant that a major economy is doing something like this.”
VICE previously reported how more than 1 billion people could be forced to flee their homes by 2050 because of ecological crises, and no one knows where they’ll go. But that’s starting to change. In what was likely a global first, a French court recently revoked a man’s deportation order after ruling that the pollution in Bangladesh could kill him.
During his time in office, Trump was known for his harsh anti-immigration stance and argued that many countries listed under the TPS program had recovered enough from disaster to allow people to go home—not taking into account other social and economic problems. After a back and forth in the courts that almost led to Trump being successful, the Department of Homeland Security extended TPS designation for El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan—a group with hundreds of thousands of environmentally displaced people—in December, saying the countries still meet the requirements for temporary protection.
“That's an example of how Trump’s rationale seems to make sense on the surface, but if you poke holes into it, it deflates really quickly,” said Francis.
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