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'We're defeated': Climate migrants fleeing storm-stricken Central America struggle to find refuge

Experts say migration from this region will likely grow as natural disasters intensify due to climate change — an increase immigration authorities may not be equipped to face.
Image: Damage caused by the passage of Hurricane Eta in the municipality of Villanueva, Honduras, on Nov. 7, 2020.
Damage caused by the passage of Hurricane Eta in the municipality of Villanueva, Honduras, on Nov. 7, 2020.Orlando Sierra / AFP via Getty Images

CIUDAD JUÁREZ — For Deivis Nahum Espina, a tragedy fell from the sky — severe floods inundated his village in Honduras, destroying crops, homes and causing landslides.

“It was like in the Bible,” Espina, 31, said as he pointed to the sky and described the devastation caused by the hurricanes Eta and Iota last year. That cataclysm prompted him to leave Honduras with his two children, sister and nephews. "We came walking and, at times, in buses. It was like two months of travel," he said. 

Espina is among the growing number of Central Americans who have recently fled the region after destructive storms and a growing climate crisis — only to find themselves in a migratory limbo.

On March 15, Espina crossed the border through the Mexican town of Reynosa and surrendered to authorities in the United States, seeking asylum. But he and his family were instead sent back to Mexico under a rule put in place during the Trump administration.

He was returned to Mexico without the possibility of requesting asylum at the U.S. border because of Title 42, a rule put in place by former President Donald Trump on March 21 of last year to prevent the entry of people crossing the border during the coronavirus pandemic. More than 62,000 people have been denied entry under the rule as of January.

Espina and his family were taken to the State Council for Population and Attention to Migrants, known by its Spanish acronym COESPO, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in Ciudad Juárez. He would repeatedly ask where he was, as if he believed that it had all been a mistake.

"We have many people who were returnees and are in a very inconvenient situation because they don't want to request an international protection measure to get refuge in Mexico, and they don't want to return to their countries, so they wait to see if they can cross," Enrique Valenzuela, a COESPO coordinator, said.

From his office, Valenzuela can see people crossing the Paso del Norte International Bridge. On many occasions, he leaves his meetings hastily as he watches the long lines of people moving slowly down the pedestrian crossing. After President Joe Biden took office, authorities from Chihuahua noticed an increase in the number of migrants being turned away from various border access points. Now, they see the arrival of about 80 to 100 people a day.

“They are in a kind of immigration limbo," Valenzuela said. "It's a bureaucratic labyrinth that generates a lot of anguish."

Fleeing the storms and hunger

Last year, amid the pandemic, Central Americans endured the formation of 30 cyclones that devastated entire regions and fueled the need to emigrate. 

In Honduras, Eta and Iota left more than 250,000 people last year with hardly any possibility of accessing services of any kind, including health.

About 8 million people now suffer from food insecurity due to the effects of climate change throughout the Dry Corridor — a 1,000-mile-long geographic zone that runs through the Mexican state of Chiapas and stretches across Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua — according to a report by the organizations Action Against Hunger, Oxfam, COOPI, Trócaire and We World-GVC.

"Some migrants from the region are beginning to identify the impacts of hurricanes as reasons for migration. There is a good chance that migration, first internal and perhaps international, will also increase," Pablo Escribano, a specialist at the International Organization for Migration, said.

An unprecedented climate crisis

In November, Francisco Ardeñal, director of the National Center for Atmospheric, Oceanographic and Seismic Studies, began to realize that Honduras was experiencing an unprecedented climate crisis.

"It was extraordinary because we had never had two cyclones so close together since the meteorological records began in 1951," he said. "There's a combination of the current environmental deterioration and the degree of vulnerability of people who have built near rivers and in risky areas."

As a result of Eta, Honduras saw two months’ worth of rainfall in just one week — effectively causing rivers to overflow and floods that later worsened with Iota.

“One thing that links these phenomena to global warming is that, in less than 36 hours, they rapidly evolved from a tropical depression to Category 4 hurricanes. This has not been seen before and is linked to the rise in the surface temperature of the sea ​​and higher amounts of latent heat that is related to climate change and the emergence of more cyclones in the region," Ardeñal said.

Marco Antonio Suazo, a consultant for Project HOPE, an international global health organization, said that "the impact has been tremendous."

"There are still homes destroyed, areas full of mud from the floods," he said. "Many people have also lost their jobs due to the pandemic."

"Now we see almost entire families where fathers, mothers and children mobilize to pursue a dream but don't know the risks, their health conditions or the language."

Estefany Suazo, who lives in the Honduran town of El Calán, told Noticias Telemundo last month she's considering "leaving with my two girls, because the truth here is I cannot do nothing."

A rise in 'climate migrants'

About 34 people emigrate every hour from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to a report published in February by the Franciscan Network for Migrants.

The countries are plagued by violence, poverty and political instability, but "the new faces" of this exodus are "climate migrants" from Honduras who leave after being left "homeless, jobless and without crops," said Rubén Figueroa, a member of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, a nongovernmental organization that monitors the displacement of people in southern Mexico.

Figueroa predicts that the exodus will only increase and reach pre-pandemic levels. "This worries us because migrants are very vulnerable to human trafficking networks and are exposed to many dangers." 

This is the case of Dagoberto Pineda. He lost his job working at a banana plantation after Eta destroyed his village in Honduras. Without a job or the possibility of rebuilding his destroyed home, he watched others leave with smugglers — sometimes called "coyotes" — for the U.S. and decided that it was also his time to leave.

A group of migrants outside the State Population Council in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, on March 18, 2021.
A group of migrants outside the State Population Council in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, on March 18, 2021. Albinson Linares

"I have nothing left, so I decided to take a risk. But I didn't accomplish anything," he said March 17. Pineda spent five days in a U.S. immigration facility before being sent to Ciudad Juárez. "They told us they were going to help us but they didn't give us anything," he said about the U.S. facility, speaking from the COESPO headquarters. "They took away our things, clothes and everything because they said it was garbage."

A few feet away, Alba Juárez Méndez burst into tears. She said she liked her life in the village of Sóchel, in the Guatemalan province of San Marcos. She didn't have luxury but she felt a sense of security, had a roof over her head and was able to feed her children with the potatoes, corn and beans she grew.

Then the heavy rains came and she said her house started leaking. Between tears and laughter, she said, sometimes it felt like it was raining more inside her house than outside. After the hurricane, they lost running water.

"We were left without work and then the harvest was over. We couldn't stay," she said.

She hoped to be reunited with her uncle, who lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, because the 300 quetzals ($39) she earned cleaning houses and washing clothes monthly weren't enough to take care of Yareli, her 2-year-old daughter, amidst the devastation left by the storms. So, she left Guatemala a few months ago, walking and hitchhiking until she reached Ciudad Juárez.

"I did not know anything. I arrived at the bridge and the Mexican immigration didn't let me pass. They said that the border is closed due to the pandemic and they did not even give me a shelter," she said.

Juárez Méndez says she left the Mexican facility on the night of March 17, when she was told there was no room for her to stay in any of the 18 shelters in Ciudad Juarez. She walked for an hour, without money, through the dusty streets of the border town until a woman was moved and offered to give her accommodation in exchange for work.

"And so, we are in Mexico, we cannot return, we are defeated there," she said. "I hope the president lets us pass, we don't want to steal anything but have a future, build a house, have electricity, water and studies for my daughter."

Her voice breaks when she remembers what happened Jan. 22 when 19 people, including 13 Guatemalan migrants who were mostly fleeing violence and economic hardships the pandemic worsened in Central America, were shot and burned in Tamaulipas in what's considered one of the bloodiest massacres perpetrated against migrants in recent years.

"I'm afraid that that could happen to me but, when one has a need, you leave, no matter what, because there's no other option," she said.

Raúl Torres, a Noticias Telemundo correspondent, contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.

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