Why Abolishing ICE Is Good Climate Policy

The war on terror has unleashed unspeakable cruelty. We must not rely on its institutions to fix the climate crisis.

Kate Aronoff

U.S. Border Patrol agents process immigrants from Central America while taking them into custody on August 17, 2016 near Roma, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

There’s been a rash of hor­rif­ic news recent­ly about the treat­ment of immi­grants enter­ing the Unit­ed States through its south­ern bor­der. Accord­ing to Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty (DHS) sta­tis­tics obtained and pub­lished by The Asso­ci­at­ed Press on Fri­day, near­ly 2,000 chil­dren were forcibly sep­a­rat­ed from their par­ents with­in just six weeks between April and May. That fol­lows Attor­ney Gen­er­al Jeff Sessions’announcement of a zero-tol­er­ance” pol­i­cy on immi­gra­tion, to crim­i­nal­ly pros­e­cute cas­es of ille­gal entry into the Unit­ed States and incar­cer­ate chil­dren and their par­ents in sep­a­rate facilities. 

It’s hard to imagine what a just and effective U.S. governmental response to the climate crisis might look like. It’s even harder to imagine DHS being a part of it, either in dealing acutely with catastrophic weather or over the long-term with increasing flows of climate migrants.

With­out real­iz­ing it, Jeff Ses­sions wrote a cli­mate pol­i­cy. As cli­mate-fueled migra­tion con­tin­ues to accel­er­ate, immi­gra­tion poli­cies will deter­mine how the U.S. gov­ern­ment nav­i­gates the cli­mate cri­sis. For now, pol­i­cy­mak­ers’ play­book is the war on ter­ror, and its tools are the hap­less, bar­bar­ic insti­tu­tions cre­at­ed to wage it.

With Sessions’new man­date, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice (DOJ) has cre­at­ed a prob­lem the U.S. gov­ern­ment is inca­pable of han­dling. To deal with the sud­den influx of young pris­on­ers — some ripped cry­ing from their parents’arms — the admin­is­tra­tion is now con­struct­ing ad-hoc pris­ons in con­vert­ed Wal-Marts and tent cities, like the one built to house 360 kids in Tornil­lo, Texas. The DOJ also ruled that peo­ple flee­ing domes­tic abuse or any kind of non-gov­ern­men­tal vio­lence will no longer be eli­gi­ble for asy­lum, effec­tive­ly recast­ing gen­der-based vio­lence as a pri­vate rather than a pub­lic matter.

This week’s onslaught of immi­gra­tion news offers a chill­ing pre­view of events that could become all the more like­ly as the plan­et warms. At the core of the immi­gra­tion debate is the ques­tion that will come to dom­i­nate the cli­mate-defined pol­i­tics of the 21st cen­tu­ry: Who gets to live here and live well?

New warm­ing, new walls 

Near­ly every pol­i­cy field will be shaped by ris­ing tem­per­a­tures in the com­ing decades, and immi­gra­tion will almost cer­tain­ly be among those most deeply impact­ed. By 2080, cli­mate-relat­ed caus­es could send as many as 6.7 mil­lion peo­ple to the Unit­ed States from Mex­i­co alone. Over­all pro­jec­tions for cli­mate-fueled migra­tion vary wide­ly, though they gen­er­al­ly pre­dict that some­where between 25 mil­lion and 1 bil­lion peo­ple will be dis­placed in the com­ing decades — by leaps and bounds, the largest mass migra­tion event in world history.

These changes are already start­ing to play out. Cen­tral Amer­i­can farm­ers have for years been forced north­ward thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of pro­longed drought and increas­ing­ly neolib­er­al agri­cul­tur­al poli­cies in the region, in some cas­es brought about by Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund (IMF)-imposed struc­tur­al adjust­ment pack­ages. The North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAF­TA) flood­ed Mex­i­co with U.S.-subsidized corn almost as soon as it passed, dev­as­tat­ing that country’s agri­cul­tur­al econ­o­my and forc­ing many to pur­sue work else­where, often in fac­to­ries along the bor­der­lands or in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low­ing NAFTA’s pas­sage and the ensu­ing surge in immi­gra­tion, then-pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton dou­bled the bud­get of the Immi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vice and swelled secu­ri­ty forces and tech­nol­o­gy along the border.

With­in the Unit­ed States, as jour­nal­ist Todd Miller has not­ed, inter­nal migra­tion result­ing from unbear­able heat and cat­a­stroph­ic storms and fires could soon be treat­ed as an excuse for immi­gra­tion offi­cials to erect new bar­ri­ers to basic resources and state pro­tec­tions. In his book Storm­ing the Wall, Mil­er imag­ines a sce­nario in which the major­i­ty-Lati­no pop­u­la­tion of Phoenix is forced to flee through inter­state check­points con­trolled by Bor­der Patrol agents. Bor­ders can be enact­ed quick­ly through road block­ades and inter­ro­gat­ing agents,” he con­tends, not­ing that dur­ing the Depres­sion farm­ers flee­ing the Dust Bowl were blocked from enter­ing California. 

Indeed, new bor­ders are already pro­lif­er­at­ing in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Since its cre­ation in 2003 as part of the war on ter­ror, the Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) has effec­tive­ly extend­ed the mil­i­ta­rized south­ern bor­der into towns and cities through­out the Unit­ed States, to often ter­ri­fy­ing ends for those targeted.

To be in the Unit­ed States with­out legal immi­gra­tion sta­tus is to be sub­ject to poten­tial depor­ta­tion. That’s been a truth of immi­gra­tion law for­ev­er. It’s just that for most of U.S. his­to­ry, it was most­ly a hypo­thet­i­cal truth,”writes Vox immi­gra­tion reporter Dara Lind. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment just didn’t have the resources for inte­ri­or immi­gra­tion enforce­ment to pick up and remove large num­bers of immi­grants who hadn’t com­mit­ted oth­er crimes.” ICE’s incep­tion made it far more like­ly that some­one could be picked up — say in a rou­tine traf­fic stop, at their work­place or school or from their own home — and deport­ed, forced at a Kafkaesque moment’s notice to leave behind fam­i­lies and communities.

As writer and researcher Sean McEl­wee points out in his call to abol­ish the agency, ICE since its found­ing has oper­at­ed more or less by the prin­ci­ples of coun­terin­sur­gency — stay­ing all too true to its post‑9/​11 roots. Tar­get­ed raids on its out­spo­ken crit­ics are intend­ed to chill oppo­si­tion to the agency, spread fear with­in immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties and encour­age obe­di­ence. As act­ing ICE direc­tor Thomas Honan warned, You should look over your shoul­der, and you need to be worried.”

Today’s immi­gra­tion poli­cies are deeply bound up in the war on ter­ror ethos: the com­mit­ment to mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion­ism abroad and embold­ened xeno­pho­bia at home that’s been a main­stay of the Bush, Oba­ma and Trump admin­is­tra­tions. And just as dra­con­ian immi­gra­tion poli­cies aren’t unique to the Trump White House, fed­er­al agen­cies under both Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can con­trol have been metic­u­lous­ly plan­ning for cli­mate change for years. The Pen­ta­gon has been writ­ing reports about how cli­mate change could impact U.S. defense inter­ests since 1992, dub­bing it a threat mul­ti­pli­er” that pos­es imme­di­ate risks” to nation­al secu­ri­ty, and even list­ing cli­mate change as a top nation­al secu­ri­ty threat in its 2014 Qua­dren­ni­al Defense Review. Defense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis told the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee that cli­mate change is already impact­ing sta­bil­i­ty in areas of the world where our troops are oper­at­ing today,” and has long argued that the mil­i­tary should wean itself off of fos­sil fuels. 

A 2007 report from the Cen­ter for Naval Analy­sis (CNA) Cor­po­ra­tion, authored by a pan­el of retired gen­er­als, takes a sim­i­lar approach. Its authors rec­om­mend that the nation­al secu­ri­ty con­se­quences of cli­mate change” be ful­ly inte­grat­ed into nation­al secu­ri­ty and nation­al defense strate­gies.” The panel’s great­est con­cern by far is the risk of cli­mate-fueled migra­tion. More pover­ty, more forced migra­tions, high­er unem­ploy­ment. Those con­di­tions are ripe for extrem­ists and ter­ror­ists,” writes retired Admi­ral T. Joseph Lopez, for­mer top NATO com­man­der in Bosnia. Cli­mate change will pro­vide the con­di­tions that will extend the war on ter­ror.” Sim­i­lar­ly, retired Air Force Gen­er­al Chuck Wald pre­dicts that the U.S. mil­i­tary will be drawn into the pol­i­tics of Africa, to a much greater extent than we have in the past”t han­ks to mass migra­tion and grow­ing con­flicts over resources on that continent.

In its rel­a­tive­ly sober look at the real­i­ties of cli­mate change, the defense com­mu­ni­ty seems to view warm­ing as cause for con­tin­ued mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion. The wide­ly-cit­ed Age of Con­se­quences report on the sub­ject rec­om­mends that the Pen­ta­gon moves to increase the resilience of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty against cli­mate-relat­ed threats by strength­en­ing the gov­er­nance, health­care, and dis­as­ter pre­ven­tion and relief capa­bil­i­ties of for­eign coun­tries,” lay­ing out a kind of cli­mate-con­scious White Man’s Bur­den. If you all you have is a ham­mer, evi­dent­ly, every­thing looks like a nail. 

Indeed, much of the aca­d­e­m­ic and pol­i­cy lit­er­a­ture around cli­mate change and secu­ri­ty posits migrat­ing pop­u­la­tions — those from the Glob­al South, espe­cial­ly — as a threat. In The Com­ing Anar­chy, renowned polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Robert Kaplan argues that envi­ron­men­tal changes will force respectable nations to defend them­selves on a run­down, crowd­ed plan­et of skin­head Cos­sacks and juju war­riors, influ­enced by the worst refuse of West­ern pop cul­ture and ancient trib­al hatreds and bat­tling over scraps of overused earth in guer­ril­la con­flicts that rip­ple across continents.”

The warm­ing we’re already locked-in to expe­ri­ence — and that many places are expe­ri­enc­ing already — is play­ing out in a world marked by stag­ger­ing inequal­i­ty and con­flict, large­ly root­ed in Cold War-era mil­i­tarism and geopo­lit­i­cal divides. In his book Trop­ic of Chaos, Jour­nal­ist and geo­g­ra­ph­er Chris­t­ian Par­en­ti calls this phe­nom­e­non a cat­a­stroph­ic con­ver­gence, where prob­lems com­pound and ampli­fy each oth­er, one express­ing itself through anoth­er.” The real hor­ror of cli­mate change isn’t that there’s some­thing inher­ent­ly mon­strous about hur­ri­canes, for­est fires or sea lev­el rise, but that the ways gov­ern­ments respond to them (or don’t) could be total­ly dis­as­trous for a super­ma­jor­i­ty of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. Par­en­ti calls this the pol­i­tics of the armed lifeboat: the prepa­ra­tions for open-end­ed coun­terin­sur­gency, mil­i­ta­rized bor­ders, aggres­sive anti-immi­grant polic­ing and a main­stream pro­lif­er­a­tion of right-wing xenophobia.”

Fortress envi­ron­men­tal­ism

Yet despite the clear ties, immi­gra­tion has tend­ed to be some­thing of a blind spot for many envi­ron­men­tal­ists — or worse. Even self-described rad­i­cals with­in the big green tent have flirt­ed with mis­an­throp­ic Malthu­sian­ism, pin­point­ing over­pop­u­la­tion as a main dri­ver of cli­mate change. Dave Fore­man, founder of the rad­i­cal direct action group Earth First!, reli­ably aligns him­self with white suprema­cists in call­ing for restric­tive immi­gra­tion poli­cies. And while hard­ly anti-immi­grant in its own right, one of the found­ing texts of mod­ern envi­ron­men­tal­ism—Lim­its to Growth—out­lines a basic con­tra­dic­tion between expand­ing pop­u­la­tions and mate­r­i­al pros­per­i­ty that xeno­pho­bic ele­ments with­in the green move­ment have seized upon to call for harsh­er bor­der secu­ri­ty measures.

Some envi­ron­men­tal groups have even praised arms of the mil­i­tary for their clear-eyed stance on cli­mate, draw­ing a con­trasts between Pen­ta­gon posi­tions on cli­mate and those of the White House. Mattis,”the Nat­ur­al Resources Defense Coun­cil raved, not only believes in cli­mate change but believes it’s mak­ing his job hard­er … appar­ent­ly not even clear­ly word­ed warn­ings from his own defense sec­re­tary are enough to sway Don­ald Trump on this mat­ter.” In a Vet­er­ans Day blog post in 2017, Sier­ra Club Board pres­i­dent Loren Black­ford wrote that many mil­i­tary lead­ers see an urgency in tran­si­tion­ing to renew­able ener­gy,” and praised Mat­tis for urg­ing the mil­i­tary to move away from oil and toward green tech­nolo­gies in order to help reduce the threat of attacks on fuels sup­plies. Here at home, more mil­i­tary bases are con­vert­ing to renew­able ener­gy because it makes them more resilient, inde­pen­dent, and powerful.”

Such argu­ments may inad­ver­tent­ly end up empow­er­ing our bloat­ed, destruc­tive nation­al secu­ri­ty appa­ra­tus to decide how Amer­i­ca responds to cli­mate change. Rather than appeal­ing to Trump to lis­ten to James Mad Dog” Mat­tis about glob­al warm­ing, cli­mate hawks might do well to put more ambi­tious demands on the table: Abol­ish­ing ICE, and dis­man­tling the Depart­ment of Home­land Security.

It’s not a dif­fi­cult case to make. DHS is a Franken­stein mon­ster of a fed­er­al agency, an amal­ga­ma­tion of 22 fed­er­al agen­cies cob­bled togeth­er in the months after 911. The New Repub­lics Matt Ford points out that DHS is respon­si­ble for too many things to do any of them well, with a man­date that includes every­thing from cyber-secu­ri­ty to dis­as­ter response to bor­ders. The depart­ment,” Ford con­tends, will always be the hasti­ly assem­bled prod­uct of a dark, para­noid moment in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. It also helps give per­ma­nence to that moment, pre­vent­ing the coun­try from mov­ing beyond the post‑9/​11 era.”

Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to cli­mate activists should be the fact that FEMA, housed under DHS, is noto­ri­ous­ly incom­pe­tent at han­dling cat­a­stroph­ic events. Then-direc­tor Michael Brown famous­ly bungling the fed­er­al response to Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, to dead­ly effect. And an exten­sive Politi­co inves­ti­ga­tion found that the agency reli­ably pri­or­i­tized Texas’recovery from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey over Puer­to Rico’s from Hur­ri­cane Maria, despite the fact that the dam­age to the island dwarfed that done in the greater Hous­ton area. Nine days after the respec­tive hur­ri­canes, FEMA had approved $141.8 mil­lion in indi­vid­ual assis­tance to Har­vey vic­tims, ver­sus just $6.2 mil­lion for Maria vic­tims,” author Dan­ny Vinik wrote. With­in the same time peri­od after each storm, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment sent a third of the per­son­nel it had sent to the Hous­ton region to Puer­to Rico. FEMA was also respon­si­ble for hand­ing out a scan­dalous con­tract to an Atlanta-based entre­pre­neur to deliv­er 30 mil­lion meals — only 50,000 of which mate­ri­al­ized before the con­tract was cancelled. 

It’s hard to imag­ine what a just and effec­tive U.S. gov­ern­men­tal response to the cli­mate cri­sis might look like. It’s even hard­er to imag­ine DHS being a part of it, either in deal­ing acute­ly with cat­a­stroph­ic weath­er or over the long-term with increas­ing flows of cli­mate migrants. Yet as tem­per­a­tures con­tin­ue to rise, the mil­i­tary and the com­bined capac­i­ties of DHS stand as America’s front­line respon­ders to direct and indi­rect cli­mate impacts. If allowed to con­tin­ue, this real­i­ty stands to cre­ate a kind of cli­mate apartheid, endow­ing an overt­ly polit­i­cal gov­ern­ment agency with the pow­er to decide who gets to recov­er from dev­as­tat­ing storms and floods, and which fam­i­lies are allowed to stay together.

The strat­e­gy behind the war on ter­ror has dri­ven, not mit­i­gat­ed, vio­lence, and pro­vid­ed the basis for unspeak­ably cru­el immi­gra­tion poli­cies. Why should we expect it to be any bet­ter at deal­ing with cli­mate change? Let’s dis­man­tle DHS instead of giv­ing it license to deploy its trade­mark mix of incom­pe­tence and cru­el­ty on a warm­ing world.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH