“If you conceptualize migration as national security issue, if you criminalize migration, then your approach will always be reduction of migration,” says Mexican ambassador to the United States Martha Bárcena Coqui. Instead, she suggests, “We need to conceptualize migration as a political, social, and economic phenomenon.”
Bárcena Coqui and David Milliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, led off the second day of the Leading The Way 2020 (#LTW2020) conference on Tuesday. They talked about global migration and how it has changed during the age of COVID, and about how changing the conceptual frame around immigration could help open more rational and productive discussions.
As Michael Clemens pointed out on the first day of the conference, the United States needs immigrants. “In a zero immigration scenario,” he said, “the proportion of workers to retired people, which is four to one now, will descend to two to one. This is a gigantic opportunity for mutual gain for people coming in and for people already here.”
Migration patterns were changing before the pandemic hit in early 2020. The preceding five years saw diminishing migration of Mexicans to the United States, due in part to increasing economic opportunities in Mexico.
Migration of other nationalities to the United States, through Mexican territory, increased rapidly in 2018 and 2019. That included a major influx of Central American refugees. The percentage of migrants who were single males, dominant in earlier years, diminished, with more families moving together. Many were driven by years of drought and loss of hope in the future in their home countries.
The pandemic brought a decrease in migration, with countries on lockdown. The root causes of migration remain: continuing drought across Central America, as well as economic collapse in the region and in the whole world. Bárcena Coqui said that the IMF and CLACS estimate that economic growth in Latin America will be a negative nine percent in the medium term.
With pent-up pressure for migration building, she said, there must be a way for orderly, safe migration.
Agreeing with the ambassador’s analysis of economic and climatic forces driving migration, Milliband added a focus on political drivers. He noted the continuing forced migration of people from hot spots including Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, and now Venezuela. Ethiopia, historically host to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Eritrea, is now seeing increased domestic conflict and has more internally displaced Ethiopians than refugees.
“As we think about global management of migration,” Milliband said, “it’s really important not just to say it is complicated. Some flows of migration are forced migration.”
What does that mean for the United States? Here’s what Milliband has to say, from my notes, which are not word-for-word, but close:
“America historically has had bipartisan support for refugee policy. Reagan admitted more refugees than any other president. It would be great if we could get back to the day when U.S. support for refugees could become part of bipartisan policy.
“America can’t solve every refugee problem in the world, but can start with:
• Allowing in more refugees for organized, security-based transfer of the most vulnerable for resettlement in the United States. They are vetted abroad, met at airports here, agencies like the International Rescue Committee get them settled, help them find housing and jobs and transportation. We have a 98% repayment rate on car loans to refugees. Increasing the number of refugees admitted is doable and within U.S. control
• Making sure asylum processing system is fast and efficient. Now asylum seekers are sent back to Mexico where they are in danger, or they sit for 3-4 years waiting for processing by the U.S. system. In contrast, Germany processes asylum applications in 6-8 weeks
• Supporting countries hosting refugees, which are mostly poor countries around the world, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. Without support, more people will flow out of those countries.
• Protecting specific groups that are most at risk, such as religious minorities, women and girls. Rather than thinking about shelter, think about protection—a safe house to escape pursuers, safe resources, protection from non-state actors.”
Despite the dark days of this pandemic, Milliband says, “We should always look for a brighter day. The people we serve do not give up, so we should not give up.”