SachamamaTalks – Helena Olea

J: Welcome to Sachamama Talks, everyone, in our March edition. My name is Johani Ponce, and I will be moderating this space. I work in communications at the Sachamama organization, and for this edition, I have a special guest, Helena Olea.

Helena is a lawyer who currently serves as the Associate Director of Programs at Alianza Americas.


Johani: Welcome, Helena. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Thank you for accepting the invitation.


Helena: Hi Johani, thank you very much for the invitation. I’m glad to be here today.


J: Yes, it’s really nice to see you again after we coincided on the panel organized by Sachamama at the convention hosted by the Volo Foundation, where we discussed climate migration. Before we delve into climate migration, Helena, I would like you to tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you? What did you study? Where were you born? And what work do you do at Alianza Americas?

H: I am Colombian, born, raised, and educated in Bogotá, Colombia. I am a lawyer, some might say by “deformation,” and I have a master’s degree in International Human Rights Law. Throughout my professional life, I have been working for the rights of people forced to leave their homes. I started working with internally displaced persons in Colombia, and later, when I came to the United States for my graduate studies, I delved deeper into asylum and migration issues and learned more about migrant organizations in the US. I then lived in Chile, where I had the opportunity to establish a legal clinic to provide legal assistance to migrants and refugees. Eight years ago, I returned to the United States, where I began teaching and combining it with work in civil society organizations. I started working with Alianza Americas, and I have been associated with them for about seven years now.


J: And what exactly do you do at Alianza Americas, Helena?


H: Well, as the Associate Director of Programs, my responsibility is to ensure that the different problem areas of the organization are being developed coherently in line with our mission, vision, and the objectives we aim to achieve, while remaining true to our membership-focused work.

We are a network of 60 Latin American and Caribbean migrant organizations in the United States. We identify the interests and concerns of our membership and develop an advocacy agenda. We create communication materials, provide training and support to our members in their efforts to respond to the needs of the communities they work with in approximately 20 states in the United States. Additionally, I am responsible for global advocacy at Alianza Americas. This combination allows me to stay informed as an international law attorney, seeking spaces to advocate for the voices of migrants and individuals seeking international protection. These voices are crucial for ensuring that the response truly considers what they want, what they need, and prioritizes them in the actions of international organizations.


J: Helena, when we talk about migration, we often see people moving or being displaced due to political issues, social problems, violence, or religion, but there is little association between migratory movements and climate change, global warming, and extreme events, which are the true representation of the crisis we are experiencing. So, how can we explain to people that climate migrants also exist? What is the difference between a regular migrant and a climate migrant?

H: Well, I believe we have a first major challenge, and it is that some of these concepts are rooted in World War II and the concept of individual persecution. Like all individuals who are forced to leave their homes or places of residence because they are persecuted for their religion, geography, for example. What is increasingly common, and what Latin America recognized from the 80s – and it is worth highlighting this – with the famous Cartagena Declaration in 1984, is that the situations occurring in the place where a family resides, which compel them to flee, are not individual persecutions. However, the situation in that place becomes so unlivable that the family has to seek protection elsewhere. We used to talk about internal armed conflicts and mass human rights violations, and in this list of new situations, we must now include – and it is inevitable that we do so – climate change and environmental degradation, which are making the situation unlivable for many families in many parts of the world, forcing them to seek a home in another country.


J: Yes, speaking of wars, it seems that some people forget that what triggered the Syrian war – I’m not saying it was the cause because there are many causes and the issues are very complex, and we cannot focus on just one – was a severe drought that made many people migrate to cities after enduring a drought that lasted more than three years. Later, what is known as the Revolution occurred, and the major armed conflict erupted. So, it would be important for governments, at the local, state, and international levels, to recognize what a climate migrant is. Now, my question is, what is being done in terms of public policies and international politics to also grant these individuals the label of refugee? Could you explain a bit about what a migrant is and what a refugee is, in terms of their rights?

H: Well, the institution of asylum and the concept of a refugee emerged precisely in 1951, following World War II. It was in this acknowledgment of guilt from World War II that the need for a protection regime was recognized, and states committed to not returning a person who seeks protection upon arriving in their territory without having heard the reasons why that person is seeking protection. In 1951, the five reasons you mentioned were listed: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, and political persecution, along with the category of “other reasons” which is quite broad and has allowed for the recognition of other forms of persecution through jurisprudence.

The discussion arises because in the case of climate change, we don’t have individual persecution but rather a situation that affects people residing in a particular place. Therefore, there is much reluctance to recognize them as refugees, and there is also a great deal of fear regarding what it would mean to open up the negotiation of the definition of a refugee. That’s why the approach has been to describe them as migrants, climate migrants, individuals who migrate due to climate change. This raises the question of how they can be protected, how their admission into another country can be recognized, and how they can be offered a visa to stay in another country, as is typically the case for individuals who migrate for work, study, family reunification, or other reasons.


J: I know that many people in the United States, including myself, are familiar with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which has been granted to many Central Americans and has been renewed up to 17 times since the 1980s after Hurricane Mitch. Some might argue that TPS is a solution. What is your opinion on this?

H: Well, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is a pragmatic measure in which the state recognizes that we have individuals of a certain nationality in a country where, at the moment, we cannot return them to their home country because the conditions there do not allow for them to live safely and with dignity. In the case of Central America, this originated with Hurricane Mitch and also with an earthquake in El Salvador in 2000. These specific events led the United States to say that they would not send these people back and granted them temporary protected status for a certain period of time, which can be renewed. It also ensures that individuals will not be deported to their home country while they are under this protection. This provides great relief because although individuals do not have a permanent solution or permanent residency in the United States, they have been able to stay and the renewals have allowed them to build a life in the United States. They have formed families, become parents, work, start businesses, buy homes, and live with the hope of staying in this country. However, they are always subject to the renewal of their status, which is why we face the challenge of recognizing that after a certain period of temporary status, we need to find a solution for their permanent residence in the country. That’s why TPS is considered a solution for climate migrants. However, it depends on the recognition by the U.S. government, and most importantly, it does not guarantee that individuals can enter the United States. It is a pragmatic measure that acknowledges that individuals are already here, and we cannot ask them to return. Individuals may have entered the country as tourists, students, or workers and can seek protection within that context or they may have entered regularly and apply for TPS. However, it is not a solution in the sense that it does not allow individuals to enter. The migratory dynamics, especially at the U.S. border, have undergone profound changes in recent years, resulting in it being almost impossible for individuals in need of protection, whether they are refugees or climate migrants, to enter the country. The majority are immediately returned to their home countries because we must remember that Title 42 is still in effect.

J: And speaking of Title 42, Helena, normally I try to be a person who has a lot of hope and high expectations for what is happening, and I always say, and maybe I’m trying to convince myself, that climate change is not only a big problem and a crisis, but also a great opportunity for things to change. But when it comes to migration, if migrants living in armed conflicts, political conflicts, are not being given all the support they need, then it seems to me that thinking about climate migrants now is very complex. Because the way I see it, it’s like a whole, it’s not that it’s one thing or another, but it’s a combination of problems that lead people to leave their country. So, I don’t know how you currently see the issue of migration in the United States and what hopes, we know that everyone involved in these matters has to work towards granting refugee status to climate migrants, but how do you really see it?


H: Well, I believe that we are indeed facing a problem and a context of a strong narrative and discourse against migration, which perceives the arrival of people in the country as a threat to the living conditions of the rest of the population in the United States. I think it is important to demystify and end that narrative, and we have to look at credible information. The credible information is that this country needs more workers, that those who are constantly applying for jobs are seeing how those who are trying to start businesses, who are trying to create employment in this country, are not finding workers.

Hence, we have seen that alongside the expansion and increase of programs, for example, temporary worker programs. The U.S. economy needs the engine of labor, and these people are seeking to come to this country. They are the engine of labor. We know, and the evidence tells us, that migrant workers work in higher proportions than nationals of a country. Furthermore, we know that these individuals who are here leave family in their home countries and send remittances to support their economies. So, receiving them, allowing them to have a regular status so that they don’t have to work informally under the table, but rather with a regular status, is protection for these individuals. It is, so to speak, the fuel for the engine of the U.S. economy on the other hand, and it is morally right for a country like the United States, with its history and tradition, to do so. A country where waves of migrants from different parts of the world come, who have made this country rich, diverse, vibrant, leading the world, and it is part of what the United States needs and its moral commitment and international leadership.


J: From your perspective, Helena, do you believe that providing temporary work visas in cases of extreme events would solve something? Because of course, we always want, and it must be clear, that we always want a path to residency, to citizenship. That is the hope for people to stay in the United States, but it could be, from my point of view, a step forward to give them that temporary work visa. If I remember correctly, and you can correct me, Helena, I think that was an initiative of the Bush administration, I believe, I’m not sure, or maybe even earlier, but I think it was the Bush administration. So, this could, and I’m not sure what has happened with the issue of temporary work visas either.

H: Well, you see, the truth is that temporary worker programs are very old, dating back to the 1940s with the famous “bracero” program that brought Mexican workers to work in agriculture. At that time, there was much more circular migration, so workers would come to work in the United States, finish their job, which was generally seasonal, and many would go back to their families in their home country for the end of the year and then return. Nowadays, we have evidence to understand the positive and negative aspects of that policy. Perhaps one of the most complex problems is that these workers are required to contribute to the U.S. social security system, as the braceros were obligated to, but they never received retirement benefits, making the deductions from each of their paychecks a great injustice. We also recognize the family fracture that it represents, as it meant at that time that the father, or nowadays the mother or father, had to leave their children to work in another country. That separation of the family has other types of consequences, and that’s why temporary worker programs are seen as a solution. But it’s important to first acknowledge the family breakdown and understand that everyone has the right to live with their family. We all enjoy raising our children, taking care of them, and watching them grow. We’re asking certain people to make a huge sacrifice by telling them, “You have to leave your child in the care of their grandmother, aunt, other relatives, or your sibling because you have to go earn a living in another country.” That is very difficult, and many of those families, like temporary farmworkers, couldn’t bring their children who they had left in their home country. So, there is that pain of family separation, which is a problematic element of temporary programs, and that is something we should reflect upon. Yes, it would be more desirable to have programs that allow workers to stay, and the second serious problem is the violations of workers’ rights in the United States. The fact that a worker’s visa is tied to a specific employer prevents them from reporting unfair working conditions, rights violations, or dangerous working conditions because the consequence of such a report is that the worker is sent back to their home country. Protection is crucial, and we are only now seeing some small changes in the Department of Labor, which must redouble efforts to enforce labor standards and truly protect and guarantee workers’ rights. There is no one more vulnerable than a worker under one of these temporary programs, and that’s why if that is the solution we are going to provide, we need to see how the situation of workers can be genuinely strengthened and protected. Otherwise, they are truly vulnerable conditions.

J: And it’s not just, Helena, that families are fractured, but those who stay behind become targets. For example, in Central America, they may be targeted by gangs, which is one of the most serious problems they face. In Syria, as I mentioned with the drought, many of the young people who stayed behind were recruited by ISIS. It’s a very complex social problem, and as you rightly said, Helena, the United States is a country that has historically been known for opening its arms to immigrants, being built by immigrants who do jobs that many native-born people don’t want to do. But my question would be, what is the role of countries that know, I mean, we know that we are experiencing a climate crisis, we know that, for example, we have a hurricane season? I’m not going to talk about earthquakes because that’s much more complex. What can those countries do to make these communities more resilient and better prepared? We’ve already had the hurricanes in 2020, which, in addition to the pandemic that has hit us and changed all our lives, Central America was severely affected by hurricanes, among other things. But what can local governments do as well? Because, playing devil’s advocate a bit, Helena, it’s also like sitting down and saying, “Look, not only will they receive my migrants, but those migrants will also send remittances, and those remittances drive the country’s economy.” But also, what can those countries do to be prepared for this situation? We are, and it’s important for people to understand, living in a climate crisis, and we have the opportunity to take action and make things change or to continue as they are and see more people die. What role will countries play?


H: I believe that in the current moment, it is crucial for all states and countries to recognize the climate emergency, to understand it as the threat it poses to national security. And that means that countries must implement mitigation and adaptation programs in the face of climate change. And that is the first question we must ask ourselves: Are these programs being implemented in this country? Are they being implemented in the countries of origin? Why are they not being implemented? What we observe in many countries is a lack of knowledge and political will to recognize the threat, which is a fundamental threat to the survival of the population. And thirdly, resources are needed to implement these adaptation and mitigation policies.

And there are a series of international efforts that are precisely asking and making this call: Do we need these policies? The question is: Where are the resources? How, for example, does a country like the United States have climate change as a cross-cutting strategy for its relationships with other countries? How is it inquiring about the strategies it has and how is it including international aid collaboration in its portfolio to address these issues?


So, I believe that indeed there is a lack of political will, resources, and the decision to allocate part of the budget to this cause, and also in some cases support from international cooperation, from the international community, for countries that are in a more vulnerable situation. It is very paradoxical that, for example, Central American countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change. They are not the culprits, they are not the emitting countries, they are not the countries with hydrocarbon resources to whom we can say, “Well, you have enriched yourselves with oil, this is the result.” No, none of that. They are simply the ones being hit the hardest by this situation and who have not been able to prepare themselves.


So, I believe that the challenge lies both in diplomacy and in internal political movements recognizing this challenge. Because, indeed, when a country loses its nationals, when its people migrate, it is a great loss for the country. The country invested in the education and health of those individuals, and for them to choose to go to another country is truly a major loss. We can see this clearly, for example, with the Venezuelan population. Venezuela itself is the one that has suffered the most from the Venezuelan exodus, and that is why it is crucial to put pressure, to put this issue on the agenda, and to discuss in terms of what it means for a country to undergo an energy transition. What does it mean and how are we going to allocate resources for these mitigations? What policies do we have? And how this issue should be a priority on national agendas and provisions.

J: Yes, Helena, earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, they are more noticeable. There are also other issues such as sea-level rise, desertification, which also affect people. Now, speaking of Venezuela, there is a wonderful documentary by a director named Anabel Rodríguez, called “Once Upon a Time in Congo Mirador,” which is about a community located in Lake Maracaibo that is disappearing due to desertification. It is important for those of you who are watching and listening to understand that climate change is happening NOW, we are already experiencing the climate crisis. The fact that a community is disappearing due to desertification means that we need to take action now, it’s not something that will happen in 30 or 60 years. Moreover, Helena, we see migratory movements happening right here within the United States, where people living on the East Coast, for example, in Florida, are relocating to other places due to hurricanes. Those living on the West Coast are moving due to wildfires and facing other challenges. So, it’s something we must take action on, not only governments and leaders, but also as individuals. We must do something. Additionally, we must remember that migrants always contribute and work harder, and I believe we add more value than the negative perception some may have. Unfortunately, they believe we subtract, but we always try to do things in the best possible way, at least the majority of us. And I think you see that in your daily work, Helena. Well, time has flown by when we talk about things that we are passionate about and consider important. But again, Helena, I am grateful for your participation, grateful that you have been in this space and that you always explain things to us and we learn from you. And well, you are always a guest in our home, a friend of the house. So, thank you very much, Helena.


H: Thank you, Johani, thank you to Sachamama. Thank you for this space, thank you for keeping these conversations, which I believe are fundamental. Each and every one of us can do something, and we should always keep that in mind. Each of our actions and consumption decisions, our way of life, is a contribution. We must always keep that in mind.


J: And thank you very much for listening, and we’ll see you next month, you know, on the last Tuesday of the month, on our Facebook Live, at 6 p.m. Thank you very much and we look forward to the next opportunity.

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