Last week, the Trump administration supposedly signed a “deal” with Mexico to stem migration from central American countries to the United States. Many commentators have noted that Trump prefers bilateral deals to regional cooperation. But, unfortunately for Trump, experience has shown that regional organizations, including the hated EU and, dare I say it, the UN, are best at managing and limiting migration.
First, I should say that as a human being on planet Earth, I reject utterly that immigration to the United States is anything but good for the country as a whole, thought like all changes, it can produce ill effects if not managed properly. This post, however, will accept as a given that many American voters are unhappy with current levels of immigration and would like to see them reduced. The question then becomes, how can this be done?
Idea #1: Congress
US law has developed over the years to be quite friendly towards immigration, recognizing it as a strength for the economy. Though the GOP is now pretending otherwise, it has been fairly immigration-friendly in the past as long as immigration is controlled, while Democrats, and particularly unions, have often been more moderate than they now appear, particularly when it comes to immigration schemes that encourage low-wage and temporary workers. As a result, we have a system of laws that everyone agrees is Byzantine and nonsensical, but is actually quite moderate, with a heavy focus on border control, family unity, workers, and a pathway to citizenship. I say the law is pro-immigration, however, not pro-immigrant, as it is designed mainly to boost the overall US economy and provide businesses with workers, not to uphold human rights. The law treats immigrants as cogs in the economic machine, not as people, but that said, it allows for a pretty significant inflow of immigrants each year, though much lower than at many points in the past. As a result, much could be done to make the laws more restrictive if voters are willing to pay the economic costs.
The most obvious way for Trump to limit immigration to the US is to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that limits either the categories and overall number of green cards and visas to the US. Limiting temporary visas, like student visas, would also do much to reduce visa-overstays, a major source of undocumented immigrant to the US. The Heritage Foundation has actually outlined many of these changes in a recent report. Some of them might even receive bi-partisan support, like eliminating the visa lottery and country quotas while increasing other visa categories. Large reductions in immigration could be accomplished via immigration reform without running afoul of the US Constitution. The fact that Trump did not immediately push for this after his election when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress is perhaps the greatest tragedy of his presidency from the perspective of many Trump voters. Instead, he allowed the GOP to focus on their main priority, a tax cut for rich people.
Idea #2: Diplomacy
Since we now have a divided Congress, Comprehensive Immigration Reform is once again out of reach. What else can Trump do to stem immigration that doesn’t require changing the law? This brings us to the second way to reduce migration: diplomacy. International diplomacy is one area where Trump has a pretty free hand. One big thing he could do is sign a Safe Third Country Agreement with more countries, particularly Mexico. This would allow the US to return asylum-seekers without having to adjudicate their claims. There has been a significant amount of media coverage of Trump’s quest to get this agreement signed, but at the end of the day, there is only so much that Mexico will likely be willing to do on its own. And if you don’t believe me, take a look at how things are going for Germany with the implementation of the 2016 Turkey-EU agreement to decrease migration. Closing off the pathway through Turkey has decreased the number of people entering Europe, but it has also led to the creation of massive and likely unsustainable camps along the border and the rerouting of migration via the Mediterranean. Diplomacy has also been an important part of getting sending countries to identify and accept back their nationals.
The laser focus on Mexico and a Safe Third Country Agreement obscures the regional, and increasingly global, nature of immigration and the rapidity by which the system will simply circumvent barriers and find a new way to bring people into the US. Part of this is down to the increased globalization and efficiency of the gangs who run people smuggling. Today, immigration is not run by individual smugglers and coyotes, but by massive, international mafia organizations. Human trafficking and people smuggling are big business, increasingly run by professional criminal networks and bringing in a low estimate of at least $32 billion. The Trump administration has paid little attention to cracking down on these networks, focusing instead on the victims, the immigrants, which is akin to targeting Bubbles while ignoring Walter White. While the administration has made some stabs towards combating human trafficking as an isolated issue, it’s not clear how much real effect these initiatives will have, given that human trafficking is a trans-national problem that requires a trans-national response and part of the larger problem of supply and demand in the world of international migration.
But there are other tools in Trump’s toolbox that he is simply ignoring, possibly because he actually has no interest in “solving” the migration “crisis,” but maybe because he doesn’t want to hear that the solution requires creating and supporting regional and international organizations, things Trump hates. Unfortunately, Trump’s approach to international and regional organizations has created a huge missed opportunity to develop an effective border control strategy. If you didn’t hear much about Nielsen’s “regional compact” on migration, it’s because not only was it not clear how the compact would work, but Nielsen was fired right after she signed it. Something that has had some success in other parts of the world would be to create a regional border protection agency along the lines of FRONTEX in the EU. In particular, a regional border monitoring agency could off-shore a lot of the US’s border patrol functions, as FRONTEX has done in Africa, working closely with international organizations, like the International Organization for Migration and with governments likeNiger. Note that I am not writing these sentences from the perspective of a human rights lawyer, I am simply pointing out that regional measures to crack down on migration are working, somewhat. There is emerging evidence, however, that the unholy alliance between Niger and the EU is starting to produce unintended and potentially catastrophic affects on the local economy. In the future, the EU’s experiment of outsourcing border control in Niger may look more like a disaster in the making if it ends up destabilizing yet another Sahel country. And this brings us to the only true solution to the “problem” of immigration: ending inequality, instability and climate change.
Idea #3: End Inequality, Instability and Climate Change
Many people think that migration is caused by extreme poverty. This is actually not true, as extremely poor people lack the means to travel and are trapped in place by their poverty. In fact, migration usually occurs because better off people are looking for jobs and stability. Once people have accumulated some resources and education, they have the means and the tools they need to better their lives. The explosion of the global middle classhas led to a sharp increase in the number of people who can afford to migrate. And for many people who have accumulated some wealth and education, but lack opportunities in their home countries, the natural response is to look for a better future elsewhere. Much attention is focused on income inequality within countries, but the real driver of immigration is income inequality between countries. The standard of living is simply much, much higher for the average American than it is for middle-class people in most other countries, but the cost of living for the urban middle-class in many parts of the world has sharply increased. But perhaps most importantly, middle class people everywhere want and need political stability in order to thrive: stable educational and social services, cheap transportation, plentiful work opportunities, land and home ownership and peaceful elections. A country that can’t or won’t provide these things will see its middle class start to leave.
Increasingly, climate change is causing exactly the type of instability and loss of livable land that fuels migration. We can look to climate change to drive people to migrate not only within countries, but between them. Already, Vancouver rates highly for immigrants due to its climate and the promise of long-term political stability that perhaps only the Canadian government can provide.
Unfortunately, it will not be easy for Trump or any other American president to solve these entrenched problems without signing on to the very types of humanitarian, peace-building, environmental and economic policies his administration seems to hate the most. In a world where problems are increasingly global, nationalist policies simply won’t cut it anymore.