Jay Inslee vowed Friday to resettle record numbers of refugees in the United States if elected president, casting a stark contrast between himself and President Donald Trump at a moment when extreme weather and unprecedented climatic changes are displacing millions around the world.
The Washington governor, who is running for the White House on a promise to enact sweeping economic reforms in the face of a climate crisis, called the record-low cap of 45,000 refugee applicants that the Trump administration set last year “damaging and unacceptable.”
“At an absolute minimum, we have to be at historic levels,” Inslee, 68, told HuffPost in a wide-ranging interview in New York. “We know the climate crisis is today driving mass migration.”
The United States resettled just 22,491 refugees in 2018, a figure that ticked up only to 24,369 this year. That’s despite the United Nations recording more than 65 million people displaced worldwide. Depending on how you count, the global figure represents the highest number of refugees ever.
Catastrophic weather disasters have displaced an average of 24 million people per year since 2008, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the Swiss-based international organization. By 2050, that number could surge to anywhere from 140 million to 300 million to 1 billion. In 2018, the World Bank estimated the climate change impacts on three regions ― Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America ― could compel 143 million people to flee by the middle of the century.
Historic droughts and repeated crop failures drove many of the thousands of Central American asylum-seekers to the United States’ border with Mexico last year.
“We know that a significant portion of the people on our southern border are climate refugees today,” Inslee said. “We know in the Guatemalan highlands, they lost their growing season, where subsistence farmers have lost their ability to subsist.”
The remarks are likely to draw fire from Republicans. Websites like the Washington Free-Beacon and The Daily Caller, owned by white nationalist-adored Fox News host Tucker Carlson, mocked Inslee last month for drawing the lines between climate change and Central American migration during a segment on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
In 2015, Inslee became the first governor to publicly welcome Syrian refugees, saying in an NPR interview that it was an opportunity to “to really dig deep and see what kind of character our nation and my state has.”
While the steady influx of migrants in Europe has propelled a rise of far-right, xenophobic parties there, Inslee told HuffPost that the United States’ vast size and diversity, and its long history of immigration, make it an ideal place to resettle greater numbers of refugees.
“America has always been a refuge for those most dispossessed,” he said. “That’s a proud tradition so interwoven with what it is to be in America.”
The backlash from a resurgent white nationalist movement, egged on in part by Trump and his allies, is nothing new, Inslee said. He called the current anti-immigrant fervor “a replay of the same movie we’ve seen for 150 years, for the Jewish community from Europe, for the Irish community from Ireland, for the Italian community from Italy.”
“We have to fight the same battle America has always fought with every wave of immigration in American history,” he said. “This is not a unique period.”
The set of climate policy proposals he’s issued so far should help alleviate those social pressures, he said. On Thursday, the Inslee campaign released the most ambitious economic platform of any candidate to date, promising $9 trillion of investments to create 8 million jobs and decarbonize much of the U.S. economy in 10 years.
“We have to fight the same battle America has always fought with every wave of immigration in American history. This is not a unique period”
“If you don’t want mass migration, if you don’t want refugees, get on board with my climate crisis plan to defeat the climate crisis,” he said. “That’s the ultimate way to win this if that’s the perception.”
The plan calls for repealing laws that make it harder to unionize, arguing a revived labor movement and increasing protections for women and minority workers will eliminate poverty and level the economic playing field.
“There is not one economy, there are two economies,” he said. “One of those economies, for the top half of the economic pyramid, there’s been some relative wealth. But for the bottom half, there’s been almost zero wealth creation or increase in wages for over 20 years.”
Inslee remains far behind in polls. But his singular, scientifically sound focus on climate change could resonate with voters if he makes it to the Democratic debate stage. In March, 81% of self-described liberals, 77% of Democrats and 53% of independents reported feeling “highly worried” about climate change in a Gallup poll. An April CNN poll found climate change was a top issue for 82% of registered Democrats planning to vote in the 2020 presidential primary.
While at least nine of Inslee’s rivals publicly backed the Green New Deal framework activists are promoting, the governor’s 15,000-word Evergreen Economy Plan offered the most fleshed out policy vision yet for how to zero out most emissions by 2030.