The Cost of Fleeing Climate Change

How an adoption racket in Arkansas offered a way off the Marshall Islands.

Navigational charts, wall decorations, and hats at the Marshallese Resource and Education Center, in Springdale, Arkansas, where estimates of the Marshallese population hover between twelve and fifteen thousand.

In the summer of 2015, Shelma Lamy and her infant daughter, Neslina, got on a plane in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, and flew to northwest Arkansas. Life in the islands had been difficult. While Lamy was growing up, her parents worked nonstop—her father was a carpenter but also drove a taxi; her mother was a cook in a restaurant—so she spent much of her time helping with chores around the house, cooking and cleaning, and watching the smaller children, including a brother who was half-paralyzed. In the eighth grade, she stopped going to school, like many other kids her age; as she got older, it was hard to find work. The unemployment rate in the Marshall Islands is nearly forty per cent, and most of the available jobs for someone with little education are men’s jobs, such as construction, Lamy said—“and they don’t always bring enough money to support the whole household.” Often, one household, as was Lamy’s case, includes three or four families living together.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands, situated between Hawaii and the Philippines, includes twenty-nine widely dispersed coral atolls and five volcanic islands, spread across seven hundred and fifty thousand square miles of the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the Second World War, the United States took control of the Marshall Islands from Japan and quickly turned the region into a nuclear-weapons test site. Over the next decade or so, the U.S. military dropped sixty-seven atomic bombs in the islands, primarily around and on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls, severely contaminating the region with plutonium and other particles of radioactive fallout. There have since been high rates of thyroid cancer and birth defects, including congenital cataracts. Lamy was born with a cataract in one eye, which severely restricts her vision, though it is impossible to know with certainty whether radiation exposure was the cause. Her daughter was born with the same condition.

The islands, which, on average, are six and a half feet above sea level, now face another existential threat: rising seas, shifting weather patterns, and high temperatures associated with climate change. High-tide flooding is a frequent occurrence, even in the most developed areas of Majuro, where boulders and land fill have been deployed to protect infrastructure. In 2015, an unseasonal typhoon left Majuro Atoll “like a war zone,” as one Marshallese official put it. In 2016, the Marshall Islands suffered a drought so severe that water was rationed to residents for a limit of four hours per week. Coral reefs and the fish they sustain are dying, and extended periods of dangerous warming in the water creates fish-killing algae blooms, as well. In the first week of December, fifteen-foot waves flooded Majuro, washing away several homes and businesses, while the country’s two hospitals were at capacity due to the largest recorded outbreak of dengue fever.

That same week, Hilda Heine, who was the President of the Marshall Islands until January, spoke by video feed to world leaders gathered for the United Nations climate talks in Madrid. The Marshall Islands are “facing death row,” she said. Rich nations’ failure to commit to rapid, and much more ambitious, emissions cuts, she pleaded, was the equivalent of “passing sentence on our future, forcing our country to die.”

While migration from the islands to the United States has been increasing, thanks largely to remittances from family members who are already here, much of the population that wants to migrate cannot afford a plane ticket. When Lamy got pregnant with Neslina, at the age of nineteen, she was overjoyed, but quickly realized that she would be raising her on her own, with no support from Neslina’s father. When she got pregnant a second time, a year later, she was scared. She started speaking with her relatives to see if there was someone else who might help. Adoption between relatives and in-laws is common throughout the Marshall Islands, and children often live freely between households—raised, in fact, by a village. According to one study, as many as twenty-five per cent of all Marshallese children are adopted. But most birth parents are still able to see their children regularly and maintain relationships with them into adulthood.

Lamy, at first, had such an arrangement in mind, and yet none of her relatives were in a position to raise another child. Then one of her uncles told her that there might be another option. An acquaintance knew an American attorney named Paul Petersen, who had been a Mormon missionary in the Marshall Islands years ago and now ran an adoption agency in the United States. If Lamy was interested, Petersen would fly her and her daughter to Arkansas—where some of her relatives had settled a few years prior—and give her money throughout the course of her pregnancy to pay for rent, food, clothes, medical bills, and other expenses. An American couple would then adopt her baby after she gave birth. Lamy wondered whether she would have a say in who the adoptive parents would be. Her uncle did not know—that would have to be sorted out once she arrived in Arkansas. In any case, adoption in exchange for a ticket to the United States seemed like the best choice, almost too good to be true.

A month later, an aunt met her at the airport and gave her a ride to her apartment in the town of Springdale, an old agricultural outpost with around eighty thousand residents and home to the corporate headquarters of Tyson Foods. Lamy was twenty years old and seven months pregnant. “I couldn’t believe I was really living in America,” she told me. “I felt like I had won the lottery.”

In Majuro, everyone has heard of Arkansas, and virtually everyone knows someone who lives there. When the Marshall Islands gained full independence from U.S. administration, in 1986, the country entered into an agreement called the Compact of Free Association with the U.S., which allows Marshallese citizens to live and work in the United States freely, without a visa. The U.S. maintains a missile-test site on Kwajalein Atoll, and military interests—as opposed to concern about the atomic damage that had already been done on the islands—were at the center of American negotiations. The portal to Arkansas began when a Marshallese man named John Moody moved to the United States and eventually settled in Springdale for a job at one of Tyson’s chicken plants. As word spread that jobs were plentiful—George’s, Inc., Cargill, and Butterball also have poultry-processing plants in the area—relatives followed. In 2008, a Marshallese consulate opened just off of Springdale’s main street.

As climate change has intensified over the past decade, “the numbers have been getting larger each year,” Melisa Laelan, the founder and head of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, told me. Laelan is a Marshallese princess and grew up in Majuro. When she was seventeen, she joined the U.S. military and served for ten years, including stints in Bosnia and Afghanistan. She eventually settled in northwest Arkansas in the two-thousands and got a job as a court translator. In 2011, she founded the organization to support Marshallese citizens, a third of whom now live in the United States. The population in the islands is slightly more than fifty thousand. 

Although thousands of Marshallese migrants live in Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California, and other states, the concentration in the U.S. is greatest in northwest Arkansas, where population estimates hover between twelve and fifteen thousand. In light of the threat that climate change poses to the Marshall Islands, Laelan sees it as her mission to continue building a social infrastructure so that islanders in Arkansas can thrive. “We gotta prepare our community for the future,” Laelan said. “This is the Springdale Atoll. We are surrounded by Marshallese.”