When my mom left her beloved El Salvador in 1987, the climate crisis was only starting to enter the international conversation. Central America hadn’t yet experienced the historic drought we’re now witnessing. Her country was, however, suffering through a Civil War. My mami has told me stories about life in El Salvador back then: streetside decapitated bodies, corpse-eating hogs. It’s the kind of horror you can only imagine. My mom lived through that.
She crossed la frontera at 17 with nothing but the clothes on her back—definitely no papers—and a whole lot of fear. Since her journey some 33 years ago, gangs have taken over El Salvador. They’ve created an especially dangerous place for kids to grow up, for businesses to thrive. Many of the individuals leaving this region today are fleeing that violence. I’ve known people who have tried—not always successfully—to cross under President Donald Trump. If a president who’s made it his mission to stop migrants can’t deter their determination, can a steel and concrete wall?
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re exploring the ramifications of a U.S.-Mexico border wall in a much warmer world. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor at Atmos. We’re already seeing climate change push people to our border despite a militant anti-immigration stance from the president. How will rising temperatures further influence human migration? How about if Trump wins next week and builds out more miles of wall?
The year is 2050. The world is hot. In Latin America alone, 17 million climate migrants are looking for new homes as a result. That’s the projection from the World Bank in a worst-case climate scenario. Most of these individuals will try to find new homes within their own borders, as the 2018 report from the World Bank makes clear. However, as migrant caravans continue to form to make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border, we must also prepare for the reality that many families will seek hope beyond the confines of their country.
“Climate change is one among many facets that’s already been driving migration from Central America,”Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, tells me.“It’s such a complex interplay of different factors where, as we move forward, we might see climate change and conditions people are living in as a result of climate change become the tipping point more often.”
You may believe the U.S. needs to keep these people out. Or that the U.S. needs to update its immigration policy to ensure people have safe legal avenues to enter the U.S. Here’s an idea: What if global leaders actually developed plans to prepare for a warmer world so that people aren’t forced to leave behind their homes? Unfortunately, we live in a world where few leaders—especially those in the developing world that contributed very little to global warming—are preparing for climate calamity and all that may follow.
Alas. Our warmer world won’t be kind to many people in the Global South and certainly not for those south of the U.S. border. A wall, however, is not the answer.
“Walls are political symbols and not effective at controlling movement,” Reece Jones, the chair of the University of Hawai’i-Manoa’s Department of Geography and Environment, told me in an email. “Border guards and new technologies are more successful if that is what you are trying to do. However, I think given the coming environmental tumult, we need to rethink sovereign states and borders more generally. We should be moving towards an ethics of care and free movement globally.”
You see, walls don’t stop migrants from making the journey to the U.S. What they do is divert people away from where the walls are. What walls do is kill.
“In a world where temperatures are higher because of climate change, then we certainly could see many more migrant deaths.”
To avoid walled sections of the border, migrants travel through more treacherous territory. Humane Borders, a humanitarian organization monitoring deaths on the Arizona border, has already documented 181 cases of migrants dying in their attempt to reach the U.S. in 2020. Many were only skeletal remains by the time authorities found them. Others remain unidentified, nameless; their families left without an update. A vast majority died from exposure to the elements, suffering death from hypothermia or dehydration. Imagine how climate change will exacerbate the conditions of the desert ecosystems where many bodies are found.
“If more people are being pushed to move and they are being funneled into more dangerous routes that are taking them through more severe desert conditions in a world where temperatures are higher because of climate change, then we certainly could see many more migrant deaths in that situation,” Bolter says when I pose a scenario where more of Trump’s wall is built, the world is warmer, and migrants are still fleeing to the U.S.
Todd Miller is a journalist who has researched the border wall extensively. He’s also the author of Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security. When I pose that same future dystopia to him, he keeps it real: “That’s already beginning to happen.”
With drought unraveling across Central America, people are already trying to escape north to a cooler climate with more opportunity. Meanwhile, the rulers of their intended destination—the United States—are doing all they can to keep them out. So what happens, then? People die. This won’t change unless leaders enact more thoughtful policy to allow them to enter legally or to help them find safety closer to home.
Though remnants of notorious walls such as the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China stand today as historical markers, they’ve become a popular and terrifying trend. In the 1990s, only 15 walls defined national boundaries. These days, that number is closer to 70. Instead of preparing for a world of climate cooperation, leaders are signaling a future full of division, nationalism, and ultimately death.