Potential Human Migration Caused by Climate Change Pressures International Conference Attendees

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Climate change represents a slew of looming global crises: the destruction of ecosystems, extinction of species and rising sea levels, just to begin. And a warmer planet can also be expected to cause upheavals in human settlements that will lead to mass migrations from heavily impacted countries and thus, often, immigration into countries less adversely impacted.

Migration induced by weather phenomena is nothing new in the history of the planet. In 2008, for example, 20 million people were displaced by extreme weather events. By comparison, in the same year, 4.6 million people were forced to relocate due to conflict and violence. And when one analyzes a longer period of time, gradual environmental changes can have an even greater impact; in the last 30 years, to take one example, 1.6 billion people have been affected by droughts.

And the forecasts for future migrations blamed on the weather are bleak. Indeed, it has been estimated that there will be 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, with 200 million migrants being the most frequently cited figure. Whatever the eventual total turns out to be, these environmental migrants will be moving either within their own countries or across borders on a permanent or temporary basis. Strikingly, the 200 million figure is equivalent to the current estimate of international migrants in the world.

Immigration motivated by climate change was high on the agenda at the 20th Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was held in Lima, Peru on December 1-12, 2014. At the Lima conference, nearly 200 countries met and drafted an agreement on climate change. By its terms, every participating nation will be required to produce, in the next six months, a detailed domestic policy plan for reducing emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases from hydrocarbons such as coal, gas and oil.

While the Lima agreement is set to be signed in Paris in December 2015, the new country-specific plans under the accord will not be enacted until 2020. Most climate experts estimate that at best, the actions will cut emissions by about half of what would be needed to halt a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature.

To put that temperature in perspective, scientists say that, at a 3.6 degree increase, the planet will experience irreversibly dangerous effects, such as melting sea ice, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and food and water shortages — all of which will trigger mass migrations of people as well as environmental degradation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who attended the Lima conference, expressed guarded optimism over the accord that was reached: “Nobody here thinks an agreement will be a silver bullet that eliminates this threat. But we can’t get anywhere without an agreement.”

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High Percentage of Undocumented Immigrant Indians Will Be Allowed to Stay in U.S.

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When President Obama issued his executive order on immigration in November, estimates on the number of undocumented immigrants who would be spared deportation ranged between four and five million. The vast majority of undocumented immigrants who will benefit from the policy change are from Latin America, especially Mexico and Central America, though the number of undocumented immigrants from India is significant.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s most recent statistics are from 2012, and they counted 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in this country. Fifty-nine percent were from Mexico, with El Salvador (6 percent), Guatemala (5 percent), Honduras (3 percent) and Philippines (3 percent) rounding out the top five countries of origin.

India was the sixth leading source of undocumented immigrants in the United States as of 2012. Interestingly, when one focuses only on the numbers and percentages of unauthorized immigrants who will be able to avail themselves of the terms of the president’s executive order, India’s rank rises dramatically. 

Roughly 44 percent of the 5.9 million Mexicans who are in this country illegally will benefit from the executive action, and 37 percent of the generously estimated 450,000 undocumented Indians in this country will benefit from the policy change.

With 37 percent of all undocumented immigrants — 170,000 of the 450,000 total — able to stay in the United States under the executive action, India vaults into second place, behind only Mexico, on its percentage of unauthorized immigrants who will qualify for the new non-deportation policy.

A large portion of the unauthorized immigrants in the United States from Mexico and other Latin American countries enter the country undocumented. By contrast, most current unauthorized immigrants from India were originally documented when they entered the United States. Later, these Indian nationals lost their status when their visas expired but remained in the country.

Under United States Citizenship and Immigration Services rules, when immigrants who have been allowed to enter the United States on a work-related visa — such as the H-1B visa — loses their job, they must find alternate employment and transfer their visa within a specific time period. If they do not, they lose their status. 

Along with related L-1 visa holders, many Indians who legally entered the United States to work in the technology industry lost their jobs during the Great Recession and were not able to find new work, losing their status in the process.

In addition to the estimated 170,000 Indians who will be able to remain in the United States under the president’s executive order, another 13,500 are shielded from deportation under current law. Also, the policy change will permit many spouses and children of undocumented immigrants from India to apply for a waiver from illegal status — and eventually, apply for a green card.

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