Lessons Learned from Last Century’s Climate Change Migration

By Elizabeth Keyes*

Then and Now

Left: Migrant Workers in California, 1935/ Dorothea Lange/ U.S. Library of Congress/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)// Right: Central American migrants find quarter in southern Mexico/ Peter Haden/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)

Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States are not the first victims of government policies that discourage migration, send law enforcement to turn them away at a border, ban them from receiving public benefits, and pass laws seeking their immediate repatriation: the Dust Bowl migrants, almost 100 years ago, faced the same fate. Their story is more complex than that of John Steinbeck’s Joad family turning to labor in California’s “factories in the field.”

  • Drought came to Oklahoma and other Dust Bowl states after decades of agricultural practices that prioritized heavy production at the expense of land management and conservation. Corporate farmers favored practices maximizing short-term yield over long-term sustainability. The New Deal bought up farmland, displacing tenant farmers. Relief at the peak of the Dust Bowl in 1934 was mismanaged, and it did not help people stay.
  • Affected residents headed to California, which during a previous economic boom had sought out “migrant” labor from elsewhere in the United States. Many had a relative or friend already in California who could provide a migration pathway, just as happens with migration in 2020. Those with friends or family in the cities fared relatively well, but those who ended up in the labor camps of California’s valleys fared extremely poorly.

As the state’s boom ended in the Great Depression, California made efforts to discourage the migrants, erecting billboards along Route 66 warning would-be migrants that California was no longer an ideal destination. The state criminalized the act of helping indigents migrate, and the Los Angeles Police Department set up “bum blockades” to refuse them entry.

  • California’s responses looked a lot like current efforts to stop migrants seeking to enter along the U.S. border with Mexico: criminalization and walls. Internally displaced persons in the 1930s faced the same kinds of xenophobia that the migrants from outside the United States do today, defining “Okies” as a problematic “other” as if from a foreign country. Although they were, indeed, “fellow Americans” and driven from the land by environmental disaster, it took almost a decade for the U.S. Supreme Court – in Edwards v. California – to clarify that states could not bar migration from other states, and to affirm an ethic of sharing hardships across state lines.
  • The Dust Bowl migrants entered a labor market with strong racial and class inequities. As the United States deported roughly a million Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers between 1929 and 1936 (with an estimated 60 percent of those being U.S. citizens wrongfully deported), the new migrants took over those jobs.

State and international borders differ legally, of course, in critical ways, but the experience of Dust Bowl migrants nonetheless sheds light on the possibilities for Central American and Mexican migrants today. Climate change is again increasing the drivers of environmental displacement, both internal and international, both slow-onset and acute. Just as a focus on environmental justice and sustainable agriculture would have reduced the need for migration out of the Plains in the 1930s, work done now to mitigate and adapt to climate change would help Central American and Mexican farmers stay in place. And in the communities receiving migrants, we see that California adapted and accommodated them once the Supreme Court refused to endorse California’s deterrent strategies. The Court recognized in the strongest terms that California was enduring great upheaval but determined that it could not use its state border to limit that upheaval.

The same Court also routinely upheld the federal government’s right to use the national border to inoculate the country “from difficulties common to all.” International immigration is legally, if not dynamically, morally or philosophically, different from internal migration.

  • Nonetheless, the Edwards decision provides a wonderful exercise in “what if” thinking. Because of the decision, those suffering in Oklahoma and Kansas had a place to go and could build new lives in California, changing the state but not ending it. Indeed, the state has the largest economy of all 50 states and by one measure is the “14th happiest” in the nation. California is an example of state resilience to migration, even dramatic levels of migration.
  • Perhaps the pain of the Dust Bowl – the forces that sent people migrating and the realities they faced in their new homes – offer us important lessons for international migrations caused by climate. There is no international-style Edwards approach, and refugee law offers no good answers. But the full, complicated Dust Bowl history encourages us to move beyond fear and xenophobia to face the challenges forthrightly, knowing that we do have a remarkable capacity for adaptation.

April 15, 2020

* Elizabeth Keyes teaches law and directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

 

 

 

 

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