US Media Depictions of Climate Migrants: The Recent Case of the Puerto Rican “Exodus”- Hilda Lloréns

Hilda Lloréns is a cultural anthropologist and a decolonial scholar. The thread that binds Dr. Lloréns’ scholarship is understanding how racial and gender inequality manifest itself in cultural production, nation-building, access to environmental resources, and exposure to environmental degradation.

US-Media-Depictions-of-Climate-Migrants–H.-Llorens_searchable

In this essay, Hilda Lloréns argues that media depictions of Puerto Rican climate migrants tend to reinforce stereotypes about the “disastrous tropics” and portrayed climate migrants as in need of salvation. Lloréns posits that the media, and more importantly, the governments rarely address colonialism and its racialized oppressions and inequities-central factors of social instability, environmental decay, and migration.

Pictures from News Outlets in the U.S.

 

ONLINE ENGAGEMENT (Deadline 4/19 until 11:59 PM)

Instructions:

In the comment section below, pick and answer FOUR of these questions:

.Why do you think Lloréns starts with a quote from Derek Walcott about land dispossession, destruction, and people’s disappearance? (124)

.Describe the scenes at the airport in the days after the hurricane. How the news outlets interpreted these scenes of desperation? (124-6)

.What are the stereotypes behind the concept of the “disastrous tropics” exploited by the media? (127-8)

.How the dependency on fossil fuels and climate change are affecting island societies? (128)

.Why Lloréns argues that Puerto Ricans have LONG been economic and climate migrants? (130-131)

.According to Lloréns, why the media depict Puerto Ricans as “climate refugees”? (131-2)

.If the governments what to really prevent “death and suffering” and climate forced migrations, what situations Lloréns proposes they should tackle? (132-33)

*Recommended Articles:

“Puerto Rico faces another disaster: The coronavirus pandemic” by Rachel Ramirez

“Colonialism Made Puerto Rico Vulnerable to Coronavirus Catastrophe” by Chris Gelardi

10 thoughts on “US Media Depictions of Climate Migrants: The Recent Case of the Puerto Rican “Exodus”- Hilda Lloréns

  1. Question 1:
    Lloréns starts the essay off with a quote from Derek Walcott, in which he depicts the land, dispossession, destruction and the disappearance of the peoples of Puerto Rico, to accurately illustrate the realities occurring. His quote starts off by stating that “The Caribbean is not an idyll, not to its natives”, which clearly describes the Caribbean as a non-peaceful place, specifically for the native peoples on it due to the United States exploitation and destruction of Puerto Rican land. Walcott goes on to describe the hardworking Puerto Rican people, specifically “it’s peasantry and fisherman”, who “are not there to be loved or even photographed”, which the US is known for…photographing their struggles and calling it art. The people of Puerto Rico and aspects of nature are tied together, symbolizing the relationship of the land and its people and the importance of it towards their daily lives.However, the quote continues and states that “everyday on some island, rootless trees in suits are signing favorable tax breaks with the entrepreneurs”, representing the US and its capitalistic ways that eventually end up “positioning the sea almond and the spice laurel of the mountains to their roots”. This idea of poisoning aspects of nature to their roots implies that the US’s economic interest in Puerto Rico is destroying the roots, livelihood and deprives resources from native people. The end of the quote, “a morning could come in which governments might ask what happened not merely to the forests and the bays but to a whole people” expressed the future issues that Puerto Ricans will encounter. Not only will the “forests and the bays” end up in US possession, destroyed and exploited but as well as the people of Puerto Rico.

    Question 2:
    After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, masses of stranded people attempting to find shelter filled the airport. Majority of their faces showed “a range of emotions from consternation and dejection to outright despair”.Others were using their luggage as “make-shift chairs, beds and pillows” while some “stood in snaking lines” with “exhausted babies and toddlers carried by family members” as “elderly and frail looking people in wheelchairs” waited in the departure lines. The news outlets interpreted these scenes of desperation as the Puerto Rican airport becoming a “Refugee Camp” and reported “ People prefer to wait here instead of dying on the island”. Despite having a “refugee camp” and media portraying the airport as a place of safety and hope for people, the conditions of the airport showed otherwise. The airport didn’t supply comfort to those in it due to the “miserably hot” temperatures that reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the failing cooling system, generators that depended on “a rapidly dwindling and dangerously low fuel supply” and buildings that couldn’t withstand the “harsh cyclonic conditions” sweeping through the Caribbean. People who were camped at the airport, were reported to be “desperate to escape the chaotic conditions” of Hurricane Maria, not feeling safe in places beyond the airport, attempting to leave and flee to the “safe”, “orderly” and “normal” continent of the United States, unsure of what life would be like.

    Question 4:
    The dependency on fossil fuels and climate change are affecting the island’s societies due to the lack of “essential technologies” that the island depends on for several necessities such as “modular solar panels” that power the hospitals for those in need and to prevent further deaths. Other necessities include “electrification, vaccination and water purification” or “airplane travel”. However, the dependency on these “advanced technologies” depend on fossil fuels, which are “among the top sources of greenhouse gasses” and consequently has led to the “increasingly unbalanced nature”, which the Puerto Rican people depend on for food, their livelihood and shelter and eventually causes “stronger, more violent Atlantic hurricanes”.Island societies like Puerto Rico and “low lying coastal areas in the Caribbean and Pacific” are front-liners or the first ones affected from climate change and the consequences from it, despite being the ones who “contribute only a tiny fraction of all greenhouse gas emissions”.

    Question 7:
    Lloréns believes that if the governments were genuinely trying to prevent “death and suffering” and climate forced migrations, the government should improve “inequality and carless development” which recognizes climate hazards as an actual disaster. However, instead governments recognize and minimize these disasters, sufferings and deaths as the Puerto Rican “climate refugee” and not for what it really is.

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  2. After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was extremely damaged, and its people camped out at the airport. The hurricane shut off the island’s electricity and without electricity, the airport was not fully powered. It would need generators to power it and turn on its air conditioners. Without air conditioners, the airport was very hot, and it would rise to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The airport was full of people because that is where they felt safe. The people had a feeling of relief when arrived at the airport because that meant they would be leaving the island soon and escaping the chaos. In the reading, Llorens states, “…as Puerto Ricans often refer to the continental US, where life was imagined as ‘safe’, ‘orderly’ and ‘normal’” (126). Puerto Ricans believed that if they wanted a better/ safer life, they needed to leave their island. The damage to the island was not getting better and people began to lose hope which gave rise to why the airports were filled and airplanes had reached its capacity each plane ride. Many were fleeing from disaster and destruction on their homeland.
    In the media, Puerto Rico was displayed showing its people mourning and its island destroyed. Post Maria, Puerto Rico was viewed as “climate refugees.” The term “environmental refugee” is defined as, “…people who were forced to migrate as a result of environmental deterioration or catastrophic conditions in their homeland” (129). Puerto Ricans were classified as internationally displaced persons (IDPs), not refugees because they are US citizens. Due to the island’s disaster, climate hazards, contamination and pollution, more people migrated. As they migrated to cities in the US, people made connections between the term “refugee” and “illegal immigrants” which lead to Puerto Ricans experiencing discrimination. As they migrated away from the suffering in Puerto Rico post Maria, they experienced more suffering in the US based on how people interacted with them.
    1-The central concerns of Llorens are how Puerto Rico stood post Maria, Puerto Ricans migrating to the US, how Puerto Ricans were being labeled and treated, “climate migrants” living standards in the US, how fast people were migrating and how many were leaving, and discrimination.
    2- Hilda Llorens uses persuasive writing styles in this reading because she is explaining what happened in Puerto Rico post Maria and gives her own opinions. In the reading, it states, “if the goal is to prevent death and suffering, governments must implement policies to…” (132). Llorens gives opinion while attempting to convince readers.
    3- One section that highlights both answers to questions 1 and 2 is section “Puerto Ricans as climate refugees?” on page 129- 133. Llorens explains the issues with labeling Puerto Ricans as “climate refugees” such as labeling their island as a traditional habitat. When doing this, you are disregarding the fact that migration to and from the island usually follows natural climate hazards or economic conditions. The term refugee means “…those who fear being persecuted… and are unable or unwilling… to seek protection from their home countries” (130). This is wrong when it comes to Puerto Ricans because they are US citizens so they cannot be labeled as a refugee, given that they did not cross any international borders. Images that surfaced the Puerto Rican “climate refugee” targeted many Puerto Ricans. They were examined by the public which allowed large amounts of people to make judgements about Puerto Ricans. Many saw Puerto Ricans as needy and helpless and developed their own negative assumptions about them. Due to the numerous amounts of migrants, cities have been experiencing a shortage on the needs of the Puerto Rican climate migrants. Due to the shortage of housing, Benjamin Munoz, a 70-year old Orlando resident, says many Puerto Ricans have no place to live, which leads to discrimination against them. People see the Puerto Ricans who are in need without a home or in shelters and develop negative assumptions about them based on their living conditions. The author explains how the suffering of Puerto Ricans due to climate change could easily be any other group of humans and that we need to work together to prevent the suffering amongst individuals that are yet to come.
    4- The writer complements the concerns of other writers we’ve read in class because all the writers so far have touched upon topics such as race, class, discrimination and their homelands. The authors issues discussed complements the other authors because they are all concerned with rebuilding their land and identity within that land. Most readings explained how their people must or came together in order to inform their government about the needs of the people.
    5- Two questions that I have for the group are:
    • Do you believe it is right to label Puerto Ricans as “refugee”?
    • If so, would you rather consider them as “climate” or “environmental” refugees? Why?

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  3. Question 2- After Hurricane Maria, many Puerto Ricans felt that they could not remain in Puerto Rico, and proceeded to move to the United States. The airports were thus full of people of all ages- babies, children, adults, and elderly people in wheelchairs. Some of them were standing in line, and some were sitting. People were slumped in their chairs from desperation, yet others sat upright. Some people slept, using their luggage as mattresses. Mostly all of them had some type of negative emotion on their faces, such as fatigue, sadness, desperation, worry, and anxiety. The airport looked like a shelter, or, as a newspaper headline put it, “Puerto Rico’s Biggest Airport Becomes a Refugee Camp” (125). The airport also did not have any air conditioning and barely any electricity, adding to the chaos. It was crowded and messy and hot, and for the first two days, there weren’t even any planes landing or taking off. However, people still came and waited until the planes were flying again.
    These scenes were portrayed in the U.S. media, and news outlets interpreted them as burdens. Soon they would be in the U.S., and the U.S. would have to take care of them, draining its own resources. They were not seen as people who would fend for themselves or contribute anything to society, rather as burdens who would leech off the American welfare system.

    Question 3- “Disastrous tropics” is the phrase used to describe the people living in the tropics, mainly brown and black, as “fecund, unrestrained, and unrelenting, capable of great ferocity” (127). They have many children and babies, and the crowds are usually intergenerational. They look poor, shocked, confused, traumatized, ill and/or dying. They are surrounded by dirt, debris, bugs, dirty water, and stifling heat. They are viewed as “disastrous”, due to the fact that they live in the tropics. Because of their environment, and lack of adequate technology to control their environment, they live at the brink of disaster. These stereotypes make people from the “disastrous tropics” look like they need “saving” from their place of living by the American government and the technology that Americans can offer, which help “tame” their environment.

    Question 4- As technology advances, more and more of it depends on fossil fuels as its source of power. The more fossil fuels that are used, the more greenhouse gases are released. One of the effects of these greenhouse gases is that it helps produce stronger and more aggressive and violent hurricanes and storms in the Atlantic Ocean. Because Puerto Rico is an island and surrounded by water on 4 sides, it is disproportionately affected by the storms, despite the fact that it emits very little greenhouse gases. As Lloréns says, “Unjustly, island societies and low-lying coastal areas in the Caribbean and Pacific are on the front lines of climate change and will likely continue to experience its worsening effects and consequences” (128).

    Question 7- Lloréns says that in order to prevent death and suffering, governments must address the social factors that turn climate change from a hazard to an actual disaster. By “social factors”, Lloréns is referring to inequality (I would assume economic, racial, and gender inequality), and careless development, by which I assume she means developing infrastructure that is not safe for the environment.

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  4. Question1
    I believe Llorens starts with the quote from Derek Walcott to foreshadow what will be discussed in the rest of the passage. I also believe she opens with this quote to keep this idea that the “Caribbean is not an idyll” ( which is what it is to many)in the minds of the readers. When we think about the Caribbean we think about it’s beauty, we think about the tropical climate, we think about its warm and inviting beaches, and more, we don’t stop to think about the natives or their lives. I believe this quote as also mean to be a reminder that these beautiful islands are also many people’s homes and not just vacation destinations.
    Question2
    The days after the hurricane lead to the airport being flooded with people. Many people waited on long lines, used their luggage as furniture, many people looked exhausted and ready to leave the island. People were suffering the unbearable heat of the airport with no electricity, light,etc. The media took photos of this and created headlines that emphasized the conditions people had to endure yet ultimately exaggerated this idea that the tropics are a place that needs to be saved.
    Question3
    The stereotypes are that indigenous inhabitants are extremely fertile, unrestrained, unrelenting, etc. The photos the media displayed of people in the airport fed these stereotypes because it showed many children and people in distress. This simply reinforced these ideas that indigenous people are weak, and incapable of caring for themselves.
    Question4
    The dependency on fossil fuels is making it nearly impossible for island societies to prevent certain situations. An example of this would be the many deaths that could have been prevented if hospitals had power. The overuse of fossil fuels also makes hurricanes and natural disasters worse. This use of fossil fuels is making Islands not only dependent but also putting them in more danger than before, because the dependency mixed with the worsening of natural disasters makes it harder for these island societies to support themselves.

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  5. Why do you think Lloréns starts with a quote from Derek Walcott about land dispossession, destruction, and people’s disappearance? (124)

    I think Llorens starts with a quote from Derek Walcott because it is a summary of all her ideas that she presents in the rest of the essay. People who are not natives of the Caribbean look at it as this ideal place for vacationing and relaxation, but for the people who live there it is their home where they work. The beauty of the Islands provide sustainable work for them. Governments in the Caribbean are selling out their unique land for profit. Ultimately that puts native people’s livelihoods in danger.

    Describe the scenes at the airport in the days after the hurricane. How the news outlets interpreted these scenes of desperation? (124-6)

    The scenes at the airport were scenes of despair. People were tired and using their luggage as makeshift beds and chairs. There were exhausted babies and elderly people in wheelchairs just waiting to depart from the island. Although the airport acted as a place of refuge, it was far from comfortable. The building was made of steel and concrete and due to the hurricane destroying major power sources the airport could not turn on its air conditioning. People were desperate and they just wanted to escape the island.

    What are the stereotypes behind the concept of the “disastrous tropics” exploited by the media? (127-8)

    The stereotypes behind the concept of the “disastrous tropics” is that tropical regions are fertile, unrestricted, and weak. This trope focuses on the despair of the people in tropical regions. It focuses on the amount of babies and children. It is almost as if they are saying that these people have not better to do than reproduce. Secondly it focuses on the people who have despair on their face, who look as if they are sick or dying, and people who are dead. Lastly it focuses on people who are surrounded by unfortunate circumstances. Such as dirt, mosquitos, or dirty water. This trope promotes the idea that these places have no order and are in major lack.

    How the dependency on fossil fuels and climate change are affecting island societies? (128)

    The dependency on fossil fuels and climate change are affecting island societies in negative ways. Puerto Rico relies heavily on fossil fuels. As a result they are lacking in alternative energy sources. When a hurricane hits they have no other energy source, and that is extremely dangerous because places like hospitals cannot function. Also due to the fact that Puerto Rico relies so heavily on fossil fuels, their nature is being negatively impacted. Fossil fuel is the top source of greenhouse gas and that has created an unbalanced nature in Puerto Rico. Due to all of that they are experiencing and will most likely will continue to experience strong violent hurricanes if they do not make a change.

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  6. QUESTION 2:
    “After Hurricane Maria, Airport Looks Like a Shelter,” “Puerto Rico’s Biggest Airport Becomes a Refugee Camp,” “People prefer to wait here instead of dying on the island,” these are the headlines that people say when talking about the chaos at the airport after the hurricane. In the first weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the media circulated images depicting a sea of Brown and Black bodies crowding the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, the massive number of expectant passengers overflowing out to the airport’s curb. The people at the airport look tired, their faces registering a range of emotions from consternation and dejection to outright despair. Some people were lying down, resting or fast sleeping on the airport’s floor. The others waiting in lines, exhausted babies and toddlers carried by family members, as elderly and frail-looking people in wheelchairs lined up in the departure gates.
    The media reported that thousands of Puerto Ricans filled each airplane to capacity with seemingly no end to be the numbers of departing daily. They blame migrants for causing chaos and delaying flights. And claim that they are burdens when they emigrate to the US.
    QUESTION 3:
    They describe that people who live in tropical areas are mostly Indigenous (Brown) and African (Black). The crowds at the airport stood as evidence of the fecundity of tropical people, who often appear gathered in intergenerational groups. The number of babies and children present, including vegetation and nonhuman animals, is a key characteristic of this trope. Imagery from the disastrous tropics quintessentially depicts individuals, groups, and crowds who look variously stunned, bewildered, dejected, destitute, traumatized, unfit, ill, disabled, dying, or dead. They claim that because the tropics are so impetuous, their people live by default at the edge of disaster. And to be livable for “modern,” “evolved” people, tropical nature must be tamed using human ingenuity and advanced technology.
    QUESTION 4:
    Electrification and airplane travel, depend almost entirely on fossil fuels, and they are among the top sources of greenhouse gasses, which have led to an increasingly unbalanced nature that is now producing stronger, more violent Atlantic hurricanes, such as María. Unjustly, island societies and low-lying coastal areas in the Caribbean and Pacific are on the front lines of climate change and will likely continue to experience its worsening effects and consequences, even though these societies contribute only a tiny fraction of all greenhouse gas emissions.
    QUESTION 6:
    The media’s construction of Puerto Ricans as climate refugees served several ends. It underscored the catastrophic nature of the hurricane, as well as its traumatic consequences. It is widely believed that the conditions leading to refugee status always produce trauma in the individuals or groups who experienced it. The popular images and cultural characterizations of Puerto Rican climate refugees made them a “target population” whose “behavior and well-being” would be closely examined by the public as well as by policy makers. The media constructions that use this framework are often built on preexisting racial, classed, and gendered assessments. They thus re-inscribe some groups as more advantaged than others, and more importantly, the policies they endorse often reinforce long-standing beliefs about the specific population at the center of public discourse. An “exodus” of Puerto Rican climate refugees draws on the negative, racialized cultural referents of refugees as impoverished, needy, and destitute.

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    1. Your selection of quotes is really good and helps to discuss the questions, but please remember to include quotation marks. Also, while quotes are good to prove a point, they should not be the central aspect of your response. I am more interested in your own takes.

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  7. Question 2

    After Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico, the media broadcasted images showing a sea of Brown and Black bodies crowding the airport. There were passengers overflowing out to the airport’s curb as well as photographs and videos of the people at the airport looking tired, their faces registering a range of emotions from consternation and dejection to outright despair. The news outlets interpreted these scenes of desperation as the airport becoming a “Refugee Camp” which states on pg.125, “Puerto Rico’s Biggest Airport Becomes a Refugee Camp” and also reported that people prefer to wait here instead of dying on the island.

    Question 4
    The dependency on fossil fuels and climate change are affecting island societies because of the lack of essential technologies. This is a “matter of life or death” as stated on pg. 128. The lack of access to alternative energy sources, such as modular solar panels to power hospital operating rooms or dialysis machines can led to preventable deaths. Examples given such as, electrification and air planes travel, depends mostly on fossil fuels and they are among the top sources of greenhouse gasses. This leading to an unbalanced nature which is producing stronger, more violent hurricanes such as María.

    Question 5
    Lloréns argues that Puerto Ricans have LONG been economic and climate migrants because the media narrative classifies Puerto Ricans as climate refugees and ignores two important issues. First, the 1951 Refugee Convention does not recognize “environmental” or “climate” refugees. These categories of displaced people as deserving protection emerged later. Under the 1951 Convention, refugees are defined only as those who fear being persecuted “on the grounds related to race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and are unable or unwilling, for fear of persecution, to seek protection from their home countries” as stated on pg.130. The second issue is because Puerto Ricans are US citizens, they are not considered refugees since they did not cross international borders.

    Question 6
    According to Lloréns, why the media depict Puerto Ricans as “climate refugees” because this has pushed them into the center of the discourse on climate change crisis. This has had several effects on the population itself as its plight is used as evidence of the climate crisis positioning them as victims stuck in unfair power relations. Basically, the historically negative evaluation of Puerto Ricans as dependent on the state has also constructed them as burdens on the state.

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  8. Question 2: After the hurricane, there were many brown and black bodies around the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport and the airport was on paused due to the many pieces of equipment being destroyed. Then, there were people who were laying down: resting and others were sleeping on the floor. Since many people were scattered around the airport, the headline stated that the airport looked like a shelter. This leads the JetBlue clerk stating that the people decided to wait inside the airport rather than dying on the island. Once, some of the passengers were at the gate, they were relieved because they knew that they were leaving soon. In the weeks that followed, it seems that these people were looking for salvation because they filled each plane, ready to leave.
    Question 4: The dependency on fossil fuels and climate change are affecting the island societies because of the lack of access to alternative energy sources, leading to preventable deaths because the energy was used to power hospital operating rooms and dialysis machines. Adding on, airplane travel depends on fossil fuel: the source of greenhouse gases, this leads to an increasingly unbalanced nature that produces violent hurricanes, like Maria.
    Question 6: The media depict Puerto Ricans as “climate refugees” because climate refugees were a way to have more directly index to the role climate change plays in causing population displacement and migration. As climate refugees, they ignore two important issues. The refugee convention did not recognize environmental or climate refugees. Later, the refugees are defined only as those who fear being prosecuted on the grounds related to race/religion. Second, because Puerto Ricans are U.S citizens, so they are not considered refugees (because they did not cross international borders).
    Question 7: The government wants to prevent “death and suffering” and climate forced migrations, where Lloréns proposes that they should implement policies to improve the social factors, such as inequality and careless development that turn a climate hazard into a disaster.

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  9. Describe the scenes at the airport in the days after the hurricane. How the news outlets interpreted these scenes of desperation? (124-6)
    Some scenes at the airport in the days after the hurricane included people looking tired with worried and desperate facial expressions. There were people lying on the floor, resting and some into deep sleep. They used their luggages and bags as objects for comfort. The news outlets interpreted these scenes of desperation as Puerto Ricans only way out. There were headlines describing this as “After Hurricane Maria, Airports Looks Like a Shelter,” Puerto Rico’s Biggest Airport Becomes a Refugee Camp” and “People prefer to wait here instead of dying on the island.” The news outlets understood that Puerto Ricans viewed this airport as an escape from the horrible conditions Puerto Rico had.

    How the dependency on fossil fuels and climate change are affecting island societies? (128)
    The dependency on fossil fuels and climate change are affecting island societies by having more deaths that can be prevented when patients are in hospitals that need energy resources. The use of fossil fuels have lead to being part of the top sources of greenhouse gasses which can cause an increase in unbalanced nature which produce more violent Atlantic hurricanes.

    What are the stereotypes behind the concept of the “disastrous tropics” exploited by the media? (127-8)
    The stereotypes behind the concept of the “distratrous tropics” exploited by the media include individuals, groups and crowds who look variously stunned, bewildered, dejected, destitute, traumatized, unfit, ill, disabled, dying or dead. The media believe these people need a sense of order of policing in the state, they lack goods and resources and plea for humanitarian aid and relief.

    .If the governments what to really prevent “death and suffering” and climate forced migrations, what situations Lloréns proposes they should tackle? (132-33)
    The situation Lloréns proposes the governments should tackle to prevent “death and suffering” and climate forced migrations include implementing policies to improve the social factors such as inequality and careless development. Llorens suggests this because she has seen how Puerto Ricans have been abused and suffered discrimination. Coming to the U.S they don’t feel welcomed but isolated.

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