First came the hurricanes — two storms, two weeks apart in 2020 — that devastated Honduras and left the country’s most vulnerable in dire need. In distant villages inhabited by Indigenous people known as the Miskito, homes were leveled and growing fields were ravaged.
Then came the drug cartels, who stepped into the vacuum left by the Honduran government, ill-equipped to respond to the catastrophe. Violence soon followed.
“Everything changed after the hurricanes, and we need protection,” Cosmi, a 36-year-old father of two, said, adding that his uncle was killed after being ordered to abandon the family plot.
Cosmi, who asked to be identified only by his first name out of concern for his family’s safety and that of relatives left behind, was staying at a squalid encampment on a spit of dirt along the river that separates Mexico and Texas. Hundreds of other Miskito were alongside him in tiny tents, all hoping to claim asylum.
The story of the Miskito who have left their ancestral home to come 2,500 miles to the U.S.-Mexico border is in many ways familiar. Like others coming from Central and South America, they are fleeing failed states and street violence. But their lawyers also hope to test a novel idea: Extreme weather wrought by climate change can be grounds for asylum, a protection established more than seven decades ago in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust.
“Our asylum law was crafted when climate change wasn’t even being contemplated, and we are now very aware this is going to be one of the biggest issues of the century,” Ann Garcia, a lawyer at the National Immigration Project, said. It is working with the nonprofit Together and Free to assist the Miskito.
Hurricane Iota left streets covered in mud and debris in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in 2020.Credit…Yoseph Amaya/Getty Images
Asylum seekers must demonstrate that they are unable to live in their home country as a result of past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a targeted group (for instance, women who are subject to genital mutilation).
The Miskito face an uphill climb to win asylum on the basis of climate change, and their lawyers may seek to incorporate other factors to bolster the case.
They could argue for asylum based on the Miskitos’ membership in a social group, if they were neglected by the government or suffered discrimination on account of their ethnicity. The Miskito might also assert inherent vulnerabilities, such as a reliance on natural resources that could be undermined by a catastrophic climate event if it were to lead to criminal violence that cut off their food supply.
However the Miskitos’ asylum claims take shape, resolving their cases could take several years, given the yearslong backlog.
While they await the outcome of their cases, asylum seekers are allowed to remain in the United States, and they become eligible for employment authorization after six months.
This has created an incentive for people, particularly economic migrants, to submit asylum applications with weak claims — and has provoked a backlash against the longstanding practice of allowing anyone seeking asylum to enter the United States.
“The general public is becoming less accepting of asylum as a remedy because there are so many people being creative in applying for it,” Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School, said.
The number of asylum cases pending in U.S. immigration courts has surpassed one million, up from about 750,000 in 2022, and from barely 110,000 a decade ago. Another one million cases being assessed by asylum officers are also pending, more than double the number two years ago.
As the number of claims swell, so do questions about the very meaning of asylum in the 21st century, for the United States and for the millions of people around the world seeking safe haven, increasingly because of the effects of extreme weather and climate change.
If almost any migrant can claim asylum, what will asylum come to mean? And how will an already dysfunctional U.S. immigration system decide who deserves sanctuary?
Recent polls have found that most Americans still support asylum. But only one in six Republicans and just 48 percent of Democrats said they believed that those seeking protection had actually fled persecution in their home countries, according to one survey.
“When people think of asylum, they imagine a government official pointing a gun at someone’s head,” Mr. Yale-Loehr said. “They don’t think of crop failures or sea levels rising because of climate change.”
No one tallies how many migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border are fleeing the effects of extreme weather, but that number is likely to grow, according to experts.
Climate change will displace up to 143 million people in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by 2050, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
As humans continue to burn fossil fuels, pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and warming the planet, ocean temperatures are increasing. Over time, they have made Atlantic hurricanes stronger, wetter and slower-moving, making them greatly destructive once they touch land.
The plight of the Miskito underscores the climatic conditions driving migration around the globe, particularly to the United States.
For as long as he could remember, Cosmi had trudged up a mountain to help his Uncle Ilario farm beans, rice, maize, malanga and watermelon on the plot of land that had been passed down through generations.
Cosmi married and had two children, now 14 and 8. They subsisted on what the land produced, and they raised some livestock.
“There was the season for everything, and it was plentiful,” he recalled, until the 2020 hurricanes.
The earth was drenched. Then the soil dried, but drought followed, Cosmi recalled. Corn stalks withered. During the harvest, he filled half as many sacks of rice as usual.
“We had worked that land for generations,” Cosmi said, “and we just kept trying.”
He borrowed a canoe and began shrimping in the estuaries. He traded some malanga, a root vegetable, for some catch from fishermen who went out to sea.
Then came the cartels. Cosmi’s uncle was killed. Soon, Cosmi and his family began receiving threats. He pulled his son and daughter out of school. Finally, they fled.
Doing odd jobs along the way, Cosmi and his wife were able to cobble together money for food and buses to the doorstep of the United States. They arrived in Matamoros, Mexico, in May, four months after they left their homeland. Using the U.S. government app that has become one of the few ways to secure an asylum appointment, they scheduled an entry at the crossing in Brownsville, Texas.
On Aug. 3, U.S. border officers processed and released the family.
They traveled by bus to Waukegan, Ill., a Chicago suburb, where they stayed with a friend. A team led by Ms. Garcia, the lawyer, plans to represent the family and other arriving Miskito in their asylum cases.
In late 2021, the White House issued a report recognizing that global warming was causing large-scale displacement. But, two years later, the administration has yet to adopt its own recommendation to establish an interagency working group to coordinate the U.S. response to climate-change migration.
The lack of direction has left migrants to try to chart a course of their own and, in the case of the Miskito, to try to change how the United States decides who merits asylum.
Experts sympathetic to the plight of the Miskito say the law could be interpreted to grant them asylum, based perhaps on the Indigenous group’s inability to subsist after their land was ravaged by hurricanes and seized by drug traffickers.
“Climate has been overlooked so far because asylum officers and immigration judges are not yet educated to be thinking about the climate piece,” said Kate Jastram, an asylum expert at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco.
But some legal scholars who support changing asylum law are wary of stretching the current legal framework.
The law does have a bit of flexibility, Lenni Benson, a professor of immigration law at New York Law School, said. But trying to expand the law far beyond its original contours comes with risks, she added.
“Putting pressure on an already overburdened asylum system could harm political will for reform as well as mislead people into a dream of safety,” she said.
Amid record numbers of unlawful border crossings, successive administrations, including that of President Biden, have tried to restrict asylum access at the border or to fast-track cases of some applicants in a bid to curb the influx.
But Congress has failed for decades to overhaul the broken immigration system, including the asylum process. And with the border taking center stage in the presidential race, prospects for any fix are dim.
“Unfortunately, asylum reform requires Congress to act,” said Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law. “That is unlikely to happen when immigration is such a wedge issue on which compromise is viewed as weakness.”