When Hurricane Laura slammed into Louisiana in the summer of 2020, it was the strongest storm in the state since U.S. record-keeping began. For 42-year-old Angel Argueta Anariba, it was the beginning of a period of misery: the first of three major storms to hit Central Louisiana’s Catahoula Correctional Center, where he was detained.
More than 20 years earlier, another climate catastrophe had upended Argueta Anariba’s life. In November 1998, he had fled Honduras in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. Now he found himself confronting new climate nightmares in Louisiana, with no possibility of escape.
The privately run facility where Argueta Anariba was held was one of several new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in Louisiana. The implications of caging thousands of people in a state that’s notorious for extreme weather crystallized with the intensifying wind.
In the days that followed the storm’s landfall, detainees throughout the state would endure appalling conditions caused in no small part by ICE’s lack of preparedness for climate disasters. An Intercept investigation found that more than half of ICE’s detention facilities, including Catahoula, are already facing significant climate risks.
“Climate change has already exacerbated extreme weather conditions, and we are seeing a direct impact on incarcerated people warehoused in immigration detention facilities across the country,” said Karla Ostolaza, managing director of the immigration practice at the Bronx Defenders, a public defense group that is representing Argueta Anariba. “We are very concerned that more extreme weather events caused by climate change will lead to further exploitation and disregard for detained immigrants at ICE facilities.”
On August 26, with Hurricane Laura lashing the Catahoula facility, the lights went out and the water stopped running, according to a court affidavit by Argueta Anariba. The services were down for five days. Several inches of water pooled on the ground. With the air conditioning down, the dorm felt like it was over 100 degrees. In the first days, facility employees brought in a few gallons to drink, twice a day, for more than 50 people.
“The toilets would not flush during this time, and some people were forced to defecate on the trays that they gave us for meals and then throw those in the trash,” Argueta Anariba said, adding that with staff avoiding the dorms, garbage piled up. The stench made Argueta Anariba feel sick and aggravated his asthma. “The smell was excruciating.”
2020 would soon set the record for the number of hurricanes that crashed into the continental U.S. Within weeks of Laura, wind and rain from another storm hit the Catahoula facility.
Evacuees from other facilities were bused to the detention center. Tensions were high in the overcrowded prison; Argueta Anariba said a pepper spray-like substance was frequently used as a means of crowd control. “I could not breathe and vomited several times,” he said. “My face felt like it was burning.”
When a third storm hit, electricity went out again, but with the heat less severe, the situation was more tolerable.
“In the three hurricanes that passed,” said Argueta Anariba, who is undocumented, “I lived the worst part of my life.”
The Next Disaster
The past decade has given rise to the notion of the “climate migrant,” a term that describes people like Argueta Anariba who are forced to leave their nation because of a climate-related disaster. The climate crisis means that migration to the U.S. is likely to increase in the years ahead. Around 680,000 climate migrants are expected to cross the U.S.-Mexico border between now and 2050, according to an analysis by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine.
“I traveled with many people who came from Honduras, escaping from the destruction that was the country,” Argueta Anariba told The Intercept in Spanish. “They’re still in this country, continuing forward, working to get ahead.”
For some climate migrants, the journey ends when they are ensnared in the U.S. immigration enforcement system. Many will find themselves in detention centers that are, an Intercept investigation found, especially vulnerable to climate risks.
To determine how the climate crisis impacts incarcerated people, The Intercept mapped more than 6,500 jails, prisons, and detention centers against heat, wildfire, and flood risk. ICE detainees were held in some 128 facilities as of 2020, according to research by the Carceral Ecologies team at UCLA. Catahoula Correctional Center is one of 72 immigration detention centers The Intercept identified as facing significant climate-related risks — risks that are poised to get more severe as the climate crisis deepens. (ICE did not provide answers to The Intercept’s questions for this article.)
The U.S. refugee system generally does not recognize climate disaster as a reason to grant asylum. In cases of environmental catastrophes, the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency, has the power to designate a country for temporary protected status, a program that allows some of its citizens to temporarily live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
The designation, though, is rarely applied. The program, for instance, was not opened up to those fleeing Honduras when hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated the country in 2020. When TPS is applied, onerous conditions can thwart those seeking its protections. After Hurricane Mitch, Hondurans were afforded TPS status, but Argueta Anariba didn’t qualify in part because of a criminal conviction, his lawyer said.
If restrictive U.S. immigration policies go unchanged, more climate migrants will end up in detention facilities. Without either new investments in infrastructure or a rethinking of U.S. immigration policies, detained migrants will be facing worsening climate risks — this time without the chance to flee.
Prisons at Risk
No states have more ICE detention centers than sweltering, storm-prone Texas and Louisiana. All 10 immigration detention facilities in Louisiana and 19 in Texas are in counties that have historically experienced more than 100 days annually with a heat index over 90 degrees. Those temperatures are hot enough to cause health problems in places where medical care is lacking and air conditioning often breaks down, if it exists at all.
ICE’s detention standards include only vague references to maintaining comfortable temperatures and offering climate-appropriate clothing, and advocates say there’s minimal enforcement. Even in the much-cooler Northeast, extreme heat is already creating dangerous conditions. “ICE frequently exposes people in their custody to extreme heat conditions without air conditioning in the summer and freezing temperatures without adequate heat in the winter — leading to increased health risks among the people we represent,” said Ostolaza, of the Bronx Defenders.
It’s going to get worse, according to county-by-county heat projections from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Historically, no ICE detention centers were in counties where heat spiked above 105 degrees for more than a month annually — a level of heat the National Weather Service designates as dangerous. By 2100, the county where Catahoula is located is likely to see nearly two months annually over 105 degrees. Across the nation, every ICE detention facility will see longer periods of high heat.
When it comes to wildfires, it’s smoke as much as flames that causes problems for detained people. In addition to well-documented fires threatening the West and its detention centers, over one-third of the ICE facilities facing severe or extreme wildfire risks are located in the South, according to data from the U.S. Forest Service. Wildfires burned not far from a detention center in Texas in early March, and a holding facility in Florida, on the edge of the Everglades, has repeatedly been evacuated due to fires.
Shoddy infrastructure is already failing to keep up with snowballing climate-related problems. Catahoula has low flood risk, according to data from the First Street Foundation, and the water coming in during Hurricane Laura likely had more to do with structural problems than with flood vulnerability. ICE detention centers’ climate control systems are known for breaking down; summer after summer, public defenders have demanded that ICE address air-conditioning failures in a detention center in northern New Jersey.
For many immigrant advocates, the climate emergency lends new urgency for systemic changes that go beyond fixing buildings. “If we can foresee that these facilities are going to need infrastructure reworking, it’s a good sign that we need to end detention centers as a whole,” said Dagoberto Bailón, a coordinator for Trans Queer Pueblo, an Arizona-based organization that works with LGBTQ+ migrants.
In the cases of some risk-prone facilities, ICE is looking to scale up detention. In Georgia, the Folkston ICE Processing Center faces severe wildfire risk yet is in line for an expansion that would make it one of the largest ICE detention facilities in the nation, increasing its number of beds from 780 to 3,018.
Organizers have, however, scored victories. In New Jersey, the Hudson County Correctional Facility faces extreme flood risk and flooded during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. As of this past November, under pressure, the facility no longer houses ICE detainees.
ICE and the Climate Crisis
ICE, for its part, is already preparing for the future. The Department of Homeland Security is evaluating detention facilities for climate risk and gearing up for the new migrant influx.
“Catastrophic events, such as floods, wildfires, and extreme drought, may prompt mass migration which has the capacity to overrun DHS facilities and infrastructure supporting the Nation’s immigration system,” the agency wrote in its Climate Action Plan, released in October 2021. “Climate change is likely to increase population movements from Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean and impact neighboring countries.”
DHS lists increased migration among its top five climate vulnerabilities, but its climate action plan is light on details about what the agency will do about it. Department officials are working on creating a plan to predict and plan for future waves of mass migration, according to the climate report, hinting at more arrests and detention. “Increases in human migration may require more resources and operational capacity at the U.S. border to facilitate the application of immigration law, including the law governing claims for humanitarian protection,” DHS wrote.
And DHS is aware that many of its facilities could be at climate risk: “This risk could require relocating or even abandoning current infrastructure in certain circumstances,” the report says, calling for incorporating climate resiliency when expanding the detention infrastructure.
Until now, a main factor that ICE had used to choose where to locate detention centers was local communities’ demands for prisons to bolster their economies. In the case of Louisiana, criminal justice reforms led to fewer people being held in jails and prisons, creating economic gaps that were filled by new ICE contracts.
To Trans Queer Pueblo’s Bailón, it’s all part of a pattern that needs to be broken. “The U.S. is really good at solving problems by trying to put people away,” he said. “Investing in people looks like investing in other countries, investing in migration and having the means to have a smooth migration process, rather than having these detention centers where abuses happen.”
As a kid in Honduras, Argueta Anariba would spend four hours a day at school and eight hours planting and harvesting crops. He loved his classes, especially math, but he also appreciated learning at his father’s side in the fields. He knew from an early age that a bad harvest meant going to bed hungry. Today, climate-driven drought has pushed many Honduran farmers over the edge. In Argueta Anariba’s case, it was a storm.
Hurricane Mitch roared through Argueta Anariba’s community when he was 20. “We lost everything: property and land, jobs, crops,” he remembered. By then, he had two little children. “The government didn’t have capacity to help all the people that were affected. Due to the situation, I traveled to the United States to try to support my family.”
After passing through Guatemala and Mexico, Argueta Anariba made his way to Washington, D.C., where he joined a tight-knit community of Hondurans from his region.
His problems with ICE began after he demanded payment for one of his jobs. Argueta Anariba’s employer responded by threatening him, he said. In the weeks that followed, the conflict escalated until, according to Argueta Anariba, one of his former boss’s friends — who had gang ties — pulled a knife. Argueta Anariba stabbed him in self-defense, he says, and spent the next seven years in prison before being put in ICE custody.
An immigration judge ruled that Argueta Anariba cannot be released while he waits for the government to decide his asylum claim. By now, he has been in ICE detention — which is not supposed to be punitive — for seven years, a period equal to his prison term.
Last winter, he endured yet another climate change-related disaster, when a sudden cold snap struck Louisiana, leaving him shivering in a detention center with inadequate heat.
Despite it all, going to Honduras isn’t an option. Although a climate disaster drove Argueta Anariba to migrate, his asylum plea isn’t about a storm. While he was in prison, masked men broke into his mother’s home and beat her, demanding to know when Argueta Anariba would return to Honduras. Unable to rely on protection from a Honduran government with a reputation for corruption, Argueta Anariba is convinced that he will be murdered by associates of his Washington attacker if he returns.
In the coming weeks, Argueta Anariba may get the chance to leave confinement for the first time in more than 14 years. At a new bond hearing, a judge will reconsider whether Argueta Anariba should be released until his immigration case is decided.
More than anything, Argueta Anariba wants to be there for his kids again, the youngest of whom are U.S. citizens. “To be my own boss is my dream, and also I wish to help the community, to serve on some public projects. I would like to be part of pro-migrant organizations,” he said. “Maybe it’s for that reason that I’ve had to suffer and overcome some obstacles, if in the future I have the chance to get out and to show the public that we deserve one more opportunity.”