Senator Brian Schatz’s (D-HI) filed an amendment for the immigration bill Wednesday that would allow stateless people in the U.S. to seek conditional lawful status if their nations have been made uninhabitable by climate change. The Senate’s immigration bill currently recognizes that people who come to the U.S. may have no country to return to for a variety of reasons and allows them to come forward to apply for legal status as a stateless person. But one cause for displacement that is overlooked in current law is how climate change has caused people to lose their homes and their nationality.
Noting that climate change is not some “abstract challenge,” but is already displacing people across the world, Schatz explained:
The amendment I am proposing is quite simple. If enacted, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, may designate individuals or a group of individuals displaced permanently by climate change as stateless persons.
Again, let me be clear about what this amendment does. It simply recognizes that climate change, like war, is one of the most significant contributors to homelessness in the world. And like with states torn apart and made uninhabitable by war, we have an obligation not to deport people back to a country made uninhabitable by sea level rise and other extreme environmental changes that render these states desolate. It does not grant any individual or group of individuals outside the United States with any new status or avenue for seeking asylum in the United States.
Last year alone, more than 32 million people fled their homes around the world because of climate-related disasters. Africa and Asia saw the worst impacts, and the highest number of people displaced last year.
The climate refugee problem is only expected to grow worse. Climate’s impacts reach further than sea level rise, which already threatens the very existence of certain islands like Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Agriculture could fail on entire continents as a result of climate-induced desertification, climate experts warn.
Schatz’s amendment also requires a federal study of the impact of climate change has on internal migration within the U.S., an issue that affects his home state of Hawaii (Alaskans, too, recently became America’s first climate refugees). The Pacific Islands Regional Climate Assessment has noted that in the short term Hawaii will see increased likelihood of coastal flooding and erosion, while “mounting threats” to food, water, infrastructure and safety will eventually cause people to migrate from low-lying islands to high.