The Immigration Debate

Closing the distance between legal requirements and humanitarian instincts is a global, rather than national, enterprise.


Thirty-two years of diplomatic service taught me a number of things. One is that wherever politics and society seem irredeemably dysfunctional, it is not an accident. It is, at some level, intentional. Someone has a vested interest in continuing the chaos. Someone is getting rich, or powerful, or both; and even the most zealous reform efforts will likely fail unless those interests are mollified or neutralized.

The immigration debate follows that lesson. It is shrill, jumbled, disjointed, often illogical—and largely irrelevant to the reality it claims to address. A big, beautiful wall across our southern border may do little to stem the flow of drugs, criminals, terrorists and even unauthorized migrants into the United States—but its promise is pure gold. Like all the other sharp notes in this performance—including the travel ban, chain migration and anchor babies—the cacophony surrounding the wall helps both supporters and opponents puff out their chests and strut their virtue.

The only losers are those who have more than a partisan or emotional interest in resolving the conflict, including actual immigrants and the communities that receive them. They should not expect a resolution to their real and pressing concerns anytime soon.

Yet the scope of irregular migration today—with upward of 65 million people on the move—is such that it cannot be pushed aside. At the same time, no single country can respond adequately on its own. Diplomacy in the interest of fashioning international agreements to manage the problem is the only viable approach.

Legal Requirements vs. Humanitarian Instincts

Public talk about immigration reminds me of every discussion I ever heard in a Bosnian coffee shop during my 2014-2015 tenure as principal deputy high representative, and earlier as a refugee officer. It invariably begins and ends with an impassioned reference to some horrific event that obscures rather than illuminates the issue at hand. Both sides illustrate strongly held opinions with graphic examples excoriating the other point of view. Anti-immigrant zealots demonize immigrants as rapists and murderers; the other extreme sanctifies them as innocent victims of circumstance or malice. Both points of view are dehumanizing. They rely on stirring but distorted images to carry their arguments rather than on real people with complex motives and histories. Their aim is to capture the moral high ground, not to solve the problem.

Focusing on national immigration reform as a response to that wave is neither comprehensive nor realistic.

But manipulating imagery does not change the facts. Immigration has no inherent moral value, and immigrants are neither more nor less virtuous than anyone else. They were pushed or pulled from their homes by a host of different reasons from personal ambition to cataclysmic disaster. Some are victims, some are opportunists; some should be welcomed, some rejected. What separates migrants and non-citizen immigrants from their citizen neighbors is vulnerability. Regardless of wealth, stature or origin, immigrants are at the mercy of authorities and systems over which they have little or no influence. Their voices and images may be emotionally affecting, but their future is beyond their control.

That dependency drives the conflict about immigration reform, setting the rule of law against humanitarian impulse. It also opens the door to diplomacy. National laws deciding who may and may not enter a country always produce inequities; they always leave on the outside someone who has a legitimate need for entry but lacks the appropriate legal category or political timing to gain it. Visa classifications, refugee protocols and asylum guidelines cannot keep pace with global trends—from criminal violence and global warming to new definitions of marriage and family composition. Immigration liberalizers point to the law’s deficiencies and appeal to values over statutes, while build-the-wall advocates tout the law as the final, unyielding authority. The debate has turned into a name-calling melee as the number of migrants and intending immigrants continues to grow.

My own views on migration evolved in two parts. As a junior consular officer in the Dominican Republic, I scrupulously followed the rules and kept away from America’s shores the “wretched refuse” desperate enough to believe our own mythology. Years later, as a refugee officer, I met humanity’s outcasts in the makeshift places they sought shelter. The memory of a refugee child from Kosovo haunts me still. Who had the right to confine a 10-year-old boy behind a chain link fence? Legally, the government of Macedonia, whose border he had crossed; morally, nobody. It is shocking to me that I may now encounter that same scenario in the United States: legally permitted, morally repugnant.

Unproductive Approaches to Irregular Migration

Erasing that image and closing the distance between legal requirements and humanitarian instincts is a global, rather than national, enterprise. No single country has the political or social bandwidth to respond adequately to the growing demands and pressures of irregular migration. Sixty-five million people on the move do not fit into existing categories, either legal or humanitarian. Neither will they be deterred by piecemeal border controls. Focusing on national immigration reform as a response to that wave is neither comprehensive nor realistic. It is akin to promoting air conditioners as the answer to climate change. The problem will just continue to grow until it overwhelms efforts to avoid it.

Equally unproductive is treating irregular migration as principally a development challenge. Initiatives to reduce poverty or end conflict may have merit in their own right, but they are a long-term gamble, at best, and seldom include migrants in their plans and programs. The Dadaab complex in Kenya, a “temporary” shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees for three decades, is a case in point. By any rational measure, Dadaab is a development challenge rather than a humanitarian crisis, but that transition never happened. In the meantime, its occupants remain in limbo, deprived of relatively normal and productive lives. Those who are able will continue to migrate and seek their futures elsewhere, including in the United States.

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, though nonbinding, marks the first comprehensive effort to address human mobility at the global level.

Sidestepping the challenge of irregular migration leads nowhere. The only realistic starting point for effective, palatable reform is to accept shared responsibility for managing migration in the first place. We cannot eliminate the reasons large numbers of people move unexpectedly, nor can we isolate ourselves from their impact. We can, however, build agreements and networks across borders that establish the norms and rules for their treatment and that address the concerns of the communities that encounter them. We can, through diplomatic agreements, impose a semblance of order on what has become chaos.

There is precedent for this approach. The 1951 Refugee Convention and the subsequent regional agreements it prompted have created a durable framework for the protection of people fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in other countries. They make refugee protection a duty under international law and prohibit forcible return home. The agreements also establish common criteria for adjudicating refugee claims. The regime is imperfect and under stress, but it works. It measures progress, clarifies disputes and assigns responsibility. It is also the basis for a web of public and private, national and international agencies working to implement and improve it. Until recently, the United States was its most generous and reliable supporter.

A Necessary First Step

Extending the principles of protection and due process beyond refugees to all vulnerable migrants seemed within reach as recently as the United Nations General Assembly in 2016. All 193 member-states approved the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants that, among other actions, called for a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The compact was approved in December 2018. Although nonbinding, it marks the first comprehensive effort to address human mobility at the global level. It extends human rights norms and development goals to previously disregarded people while reaffirming the prerogative of every country to enforce its own laws. While not a permanent solution to runaway migration, the compact is a necessary first step toward diplomatic problem-solving. It is a meeting place, not a traffic cop, and shifts the needle away from blame toward shared responsibility.

Predictably, however, storm clouds gathered early. The United States was the first to jump ship, citing the paper-thin excuse that the compact interfered with sovereign law enforcement even though it explicitly reaffirms state sovereignty on all immigration decisions. A transparently flimsy excuse made even before the document had been fully drafted, it nevertheless emboldened others to follow. By the time the compact came to a vote, 29 countries had abandoned the effort, leaving 164 to endorse it.

Washington’s position on almost any significant issue signals either permission or caution; and at best, when directed skillfully, it compels action.

This backtracking is significant because it reflects pernicious nationalism as much as supposed flaws in the compact itself— such as signaling climate change as a trigger for migration and encouraging the use of detention only as a last resort. Politically manipulated fear of migrants from “shithole countries” (as our president has called them) and Muslim refugees from war zones had advanced a narrative that facts, no matter how twisted, simply did not support. Yet while the threat may be fake news, proclaiming it worked to the advantage of politicians and pundits who trade on isolationism, supremacy and ignorance.

It may not be unusual for countries to walk away from nonbinding agreements, and often their absence goes unnoticed. The United States is an exception to that rule; its absence is always felt and its presence is almost always required for meaningful international agreements to take root. An ambassador from a Middle Eastern country sitting next to me in Geneva in December 2011 groaned and shook his head when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared to the packed audience that gay rights are human rights. I asked him why he had come, knowing the direction of the speech in advance. He smiled, shrugged and said: “The American Secretary of State. Of course I’m here. But I don’t like it.” He didn’t have to like it, but he did have to deal with it—as long as the United States and its allies continued to press the point.

Diplomatic Leadership

While a Secretary of State’s moral and diplomatic authority may be less compelling today than it was then, it still matters. Influence is not optional for the United States. Washington's position on almost any significant issue signals either permission or caution; and at best, when directed skillfully, it compels action. Not supporting the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is a missed opportunity to set a global agenda that is too complex and ambitious to thrive without U.S. diplomatic and financial support. There are signs of hope, mainly in Africa, in countries that have embraced the compact and are building the legal and humanitarian framework it promotes. They may have some regional success; but globally their influence is no match for the challenge they face.

So the question remains: Where will the global leadership come from? Humanitarian imperatives and rule of law requirements are still on a collision course. The administration apparently hopes the problem will go away if we hide behind a wall. It will not. The rational choice is to join ranks with those seeking a coordinated response to the challenge. That is the direction American diplomacy should take and American diplomats should endorse.

David Robinson retired as a career member of the Senior Foreign Service in 2017, after a 32-year career. In addition to serving as ambassador to Guyana from 2006 to 2008, he served as assistant secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization from 2016 to 2017. Ambassador Robinson was also a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration from 2009 to 2013, and special coordinator for Venezuela in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2008 to 2009. He previously served as principal deputy high representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, implementing the Dayton Peace Agreement; as assistant chief of mission in Kabul; and as deputy chief of mission in La Paz and Asunción. Currently he is associated with the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.