The U.S.’s International Migration Policy: We Can Do Better

Immigration is a complicated topic, but it does not have to be. Focusing on a common vocabulary and specific policy solutions is a step in the right direction.
The U.S.’s International Migration Policy We Can Do Better

U.S. President Donald Trump began his second address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 25, 2018, boasting that his administration “has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” He touted a booming economy; the stock market at all-time highs; unemployment at all-time lows; a mighty wall on our southern border (in the initial phase of construction, he assured); the most powerful military in U.S. history; and a “Little Rocket Man” turned “Respected Chairman.”

But not once did he mention immigration as a success story for a nation in its 20th month of unprecedented “winning.”

When President Trump finally got to the subject of immigration, he focused on the kind that exclusively dominates his discourse and policy principles—illegal immigration. He asserted to his counterparts and the watching world that illegal immigration “funds criminal networks, ruthless gangs, and the flow of deadly drugs . . . , exploits vulnerable populations, hurts hard working citizens, and has produced a vicious cycle of crime, violence, and poverty.” In Trump’s world, not just his America, one can pin virtually any societal ill and failure on letting too many immigrants (illegal for sure, and in some cases, legal as well) across the border.

It was difficult, however, to reconcile President Trump’s praise for his fellow “emissar[ies] of a distinct culture, a rich history, and a people bound together by ties of memory, tradition, and . . . values,” with his negative characterization of the immigrants whose distinct and historical contributions helped build America in the first instance.

A common theme from President Trump during the UNGA was his rejection of “the ideology of globalism,” and his embrace of “the doctrine of patriotism.” Trump has officially withdrawn U.S. presence, support, and, in some cases, even recognition of the Paris Climate Accord, the Joint   Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA/“the Iran nuclear deal”), International Criminal Court, the UN Human Rights Council, and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to name a few. Trump warned that those initiatives and entities were parts of an international framework and world order that amounted to “new forms of coercion and domination.”

This effort to “Make America Isolationist Again” unfortunately forces our allies to find ways to solve critical issues such as immigration in spite of—not in concert with—the U.S., thus compounding the isolation.

President Trump’s take on immigration stands in stark contrast to the immigration message Morocco delivered in New York on September 19—especially poignant considering Morocco’s position literally on the frontlines of the immigration challenges now facing both Africa and Europe. This year alone, nearly 40,000 immigrants have already crossed to Europe via Spain from Morocco, which is almost double the number who made it to Greece and Italy through the Mediterranean (formerly the more commonly used routes) during the same period.

Morocco has also faced criticism for its treatment of Spain-bound immigrants, as it increased its efforts to capture and/or relocate them to other cities in Morocco. (According to Spain’s Foreign Minister, President Trump reportedly advised that building a mighty wall across the Sahara could stem the flow of migrants to their country.)

During UNGA’s High-Level Panel on Migration and Structural Transformation in Africa, Morocco’s Foreign Minister, Nasser Bourita, reiterated that for Morocco, migration is not a “problem; it’s an opportunity” to strengthen economic, cultural, and political ties with Morocco’s African and European partners.  

This approach is rooted in the vision set forth by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI for “a national migration policy that is humanist in its philosophy and responsible in its approach.” As part of this vision, Morocco has taken the lead on migration issues within the African Union which created, earlier this summer, the African Observatory for Migration and Development (OAMD) based in Rabat to coordinate African national policies on migration. It is also why Morocco will host the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) this December.

However, as with those other “new forms of coercion and domination,” President Trump announced that the U.S. will not be participating in this GCM.

So, while the American administration opts out, what can the rest of the world do? The GCM lays out 23 robust objectives that should guide countries’ domestic migration legal framework, and here are three objectives to start out with:

  1. Use Better Words — Immigration should not be reflexively associated with crime, gangs, and drugs or characterized by infestation, epidemic, and invasion (by heads of state or by ordinary citizens). How we speak about immigration in our national and international conversations affects how immigrants (including their properly documented/citizen children and families) are perceived and received by society.  
  2. Be Better Neighbors — Committing to shared principles on immigration with our fellow nations does not compromise our sovereignty or patriotism, as President Trump argued. No one is trying to force us to build a wall or take one down—just implement immigration policy fairly and humanely. (By the way, the GCM’s objectives are legally non-binding.)
  3. Do Better Things — President Trump’s call to immigrants to help “make their [own] countries great again” does not have to be a nationalist dog whistle telling immigrants that they need to fix their own houses because our doors are closed. Focusing on and prioritizing bilateral and multilateral initiatives, programs, investments, and policies that improve conditions that would otherwise drive immigrants to leave their homes is in every country’s interest.

The United States is not Morocco, Spain is not Turkey, and Jordan is not Mexico. Realities on the ground in each country and region require tailored approaches to address migration challenges effectively. There is no one-size-fits-all wall. However, the responsibilities that governments have towards their citizens are common among nations: to protect them and help them prosper, and uphold the principles of treating outsiders fairly and humanely.

We can and must do better.