The United States has weathered another crisis on its southern border. The 15,000 Haitian refugees huddled in sweltering heat under a bridge in Texas have been relocated to processing centers in the U.S., returned to Mexico, or repatriated to Haiti.
While the immediate problem has been addressed, the long-term one remains. Forced migration is not a series of isolated crises, but a chronic problem in need of a comprehensive solution. In an overpopulated world with dwindling resources, even prosperous nations like ours must face the difficult question of how many immigrants it can absorb.
Migration is as old as humanity. The earliest communities consisted of hunter-gatherers who followed the seasonal migration of wild herds. From the 16th through the 19th century, European nations sent their surplus population to overseas colonies, where they displaced indigenous peoples, often quite brutally. The industrial revolution created a demand for factory workers and farmers to feed them. An expanding economy and vast tracts of land attracted waves of European, Asian and Latin Americans to the United States.
Forced migration, the compulsory movement of people, is quite different from voluntary emigration in search of employment and opportunity. Since antiquity, people have fled wars and natural disasters. In recent years, however, the frequency of displacement and the number of people affected have increased exponentially. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tracked just over 40 million displaced persons in 2010. By 2020, the number had more than doubled.
Americans perceive this mass movement as a series of unrelated events: The Syrian refugee crisis, the Rohingya refugee crisis and the U.S.-Mexico border crisis. But these upheavals are part of a nearly continuous wave of forced migration. Most of those fleeing war and natural disaster are internally displaced people who flee their homes without leaving their homeland. Of those who cross an international border, the largest number land in neighboring countries. Those who can afford it make the long and hazardous journey to western Europe or the United States.
International law defines refugees as “persons outside their countries of origin who are in need of international protection because of a serious threat to their life, physical integrity or freedom in their country of origin as a result of persecution, armed conflict, violence or serious public disorder.” However, U.S. law provides a narrower definition. In addition to fleeing persecution, the person must be “of special humanitarian concern to the United States," "not firmly settled in another country" and "admissible to the United States.” Those caveats allow Washington to be very selective in who it admits.
Both international and U.S. law make an increasingly dubious distinction between “asylum seekers” fleeing persecution and “economic migrants” seeking a better life. A person fleeing drought-induced famine is no less desperate than one escaping a war zone, but only the latter can apply for refugee status. Motives are often mixed. Many young men who left Syria during the war were at risk, but some insisted on going to Germany because it offered better benefits than other European states, which raised questions about their real intent.
While war and persecution continue to drive people from their homes, natural disasters caused by climate change account for an increasing number of those who flee. Of the more than 80 million displaced people identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2020, 21.5 million were “climate refugees,” people forced to migrate because of “climate change-related disasters.” Rising sea levels alone may threaten as many as 630 million people by the end of this century. Recurring floods, fires and drought will displace millions more.
These factors guarantee continued pressure on U.S. borders as desperate people from poor and violence-wracked countries seek a better life in more prosperous ones. We desperately need a comprehensive, long-term immigration strategy that considers our ability to accommodate immigrants and addresses the root causes of forced migration. Instead, we have seen a series of ad hoc responses to each ensuing crisis. Immigrant rights groups demand a path to citizenship for the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States and advocate for more humane treatment and expedited processing of asylum seekers. Both measures are necessary, but what about the next 12 million and the 12 million after that? Just how many people can we take in? Progressives and even moderate Democrats have no satisfactory answer to that painful question.
For their part, Republicans have weaponized immigration. They have embraced the nativist ideology that produced the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 Immigration Act, which favored immigrants from northern and western Europe. The “America First” agenda of the previous administration included a “Muslim ban” and the infamous border wall. Such xenophobic measures do not keep us safe, and they ignore the economic reality that immigrants from Mexico and Central America (including those here illegally) pick our vegetables, clean our homes and hotels and wait on us in restaurants. They take jobs most Americans don’t want, as well as doing much of the work in meat packing and other industries. The same populist pundits who rail against Muslims and Mexicans seem remarkably unconcerned about the 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants living in the United States. Their racist agenda could not be clearer.
A rational immigration policy must also consider the role the United States has played in creating conditions that force people to flee. Washington had a bad habit of supporting Latin American dictatorships that forced many of their own people to flee persecution. The claim Afghan refugees have on us hardly needs to be stressed.
We are a nation of immigrants that still has room for more people seeking freedom and opportunity as well as a real obligation to some of those fleeing persecution. But our ability to absorb newcomers is not unlimited. That realization should spur us to develop a humane but rational approach to immigration.
If we fail to formulate a coherent policy that does not change with each administration, we can expect to see more ugly scenes at the southern border.
Tom Mockaitis is professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.” Twitter: @DrMockaitis