Gender Disparities in Climate Migration
By Paola Santos and Bridget J. Crawford | October 12, 2022
On July 1, 2022, the United States Citizen and Immigration Services quietly announced a significant change to its immigration policy. All immigrants who received Temporary Protected Status (“TPS”) as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 because they were fleeing civil wars, environmental disasters, and other temporary conditions now have a pathway to lawful permanent residence in the United States. For many of the approximately 354,625 people with TPS, this change represents a welcome change from an otherwise liminal legal state. Under the new TPS Travel Authorization, a TPS beneficiary reentering the country after prior authorized travel abroad will be deemed to be “inspected and admitted,” and thus become eligible to apply for a green card.
While this is an agency decision, not a change formally codified by law, it’s a welcome change for all who are interested in immigration and gender justice. The new ability of all TPS holders to become lawful permanent residents of the United States means that these vulnerable individuals can now invest in their futures with greater confidence.
The policy has two notable deficiencies, however. First, it fails to address existing gender- and class-based disparities in TPS recipients and the path to permanent residence.
Women, girls, and others who are excluded from roles traditionally reserved for cis men face unique vulnerabilities in migration and displacement.
Second, the existing legal framework is inadequate to address the needs of displaced persons, when catastrophic storms caused by climate change become the norm, not the exception.
Temporary Protected Status and Natural Disasters
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch battered much of Central America, killing thousands of people and causing billions of dollars in property damage. The United States government responded by allowing Nicaraguan and Honduran nationals present in the United States to legally reside and work in the U.S. for the next 18 months. Following this, the United States Citizen and Immigration Services also put in place a temporary stay of the deportation actions against nationals from El Salvador. Today, the vast majority of TPS holders are from Central America.
In order for a country’s nationals to be eligible for TPS, the United States government must first designate the country as eligible because either there is an ongoing armed conflict within the state, or there has been an environmental disaster “resulting in a substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions in the area affected.”
Once their home country has been designated as eligible for TPS, foreign nationals must meet certain criteria to receive TPS. Most importantly, they must be present within the United States shortly after the disaster, when the United States designates the national’s home country as eligible for TPS. TPS criteria disproportionately benefit those who have access to sufficient resources to leave their country of origin and get to the United States. In the case of Hurricane Mitch, just two months elapsed between the storm and the United States government’s required arrival date in the United States.
The poorest victims of that natural disaster certainly would not have had the financial resources to leave home and relocate to the United States with the hope of being temporarily able to live here.
For those who are fortunate enough to make a successful application, a TPS holder has a temporary right to live and work in the United States. When TPS designation ends, unless the TPS holder acquires a new immigration status (such as through marriage to a U.S. citizen), they revert to the status they had upon entering the country. Previously, that typically meant that the former TPS holder became undocumented and was subject to removal from the United States.
Gender and Climate Migration
Displacement and internal or cross-border migration due to climate-related disasters do not happen in isolation. They occur against the backdrop of the community’s existing challenges, including rampant poverty, food insecurity, political instability, the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, and gender dynamics themselves. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that in 2019, women and girls were roughly 47.9% of all international migrants. Yet of TPS holders from ten countries tracked by the United States Customs and Immigration Services, only 43.71% were female and 56.23% were male. Female migrants are underrepresented among TPS holders in the United States.
To better understand the gendered dimensions of climate change and migration, consider three unique arenas in which climate-related events may impact women. First, at their home of origin; second, in transit to another part of their country or another country entirely; and once arrived in a new location. Climate change can impact those who do not leave their homes. Caregiving and domestic household responsibilities, literacy rates, and access to technology all affect whether women are warned about impending disasters or able to evacuate. For those in impacted areas, daily tasks such as gathering firewood and collecting water often become more time-consuming and difficult during drought and flooding.
Secure shelter during the migration process is one of the top priorities for women, girls, and trans individuals. Members of these groups are at risk of violence, including rape and human trafficking. While in transit, access to running water and soap are key issues. Without water, those who menstruate may have difficulty in managing basic hygiene. Women and trans people experience unique sexual and reproductive health risks in the migration process, including pregnancy-related needs and risks of gender-based violence.
Once at their temporary destination, these concerns—personal safety, shelter, access to basic sanitation and health care—remain priorities. Migrant women, girls, trans and gender diverse individuals may suffer disproportionately from psychological stressors, compared to their cis male counterparts. For women, this may be due to additional family caregiving responsibilities, resulting in anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. Trans and gender diverse refugees may experience what public health professionals call “minority stress,” in both their home and host country. In other words, these refugees may be trading one version of identity-based discrimination for another.
Gender matters enormously when talking about the intersection of climate change, disaster, and migration. This is true regardless of whether an individual remains at home, is in transit, or arrives at an intended destination.
Re-envisioning TPS for the Era of Climate Change
Climate-caused displacement is no longer a hypothetical. As the present and future threat of the climate crisis looms large, it is imperative that the international community considers creating dependable and enduring protections for climate migrants.
Through TPS, U.S. immigration policy is partially equipped to respond to human migration caused by sudden-onset disasters like storms. However, the existing legal framework of U.S. immigration policy will be inadequate to address the needs of displaced persons in an era of mass migration fueled by climate change.
U.S. immigration policy must anticipate that climate-related emergencies will continue to occur and that millions of people, some within the U.S. and many from other countries, will continue to be displaced. As policymakers consider adaptation planning, it is important to acknowledge the gendered impacts of responses ranging from early warning systems to resettlement plans. Scholarship at the intersection of gender, climate change, and migration remain relatively spare, so public awareness is a first step. It is time to acknowledge climate refugees as a group worthy of protection and to construct migration policies that aim for gender parity and equity.