When a large group of Haitian migrants arrived at the United States-Mexico border the reaction in the US media was relatively predictable from both sides of the political spectrum.
Progressive media decried the abusive behavior of the CBP officers, who apparently whipped migrants. Other criticism was directed at President Joe Biden for relying on a public health order put in place by his predecessor to deny migrants their right to seek asylum. Conservative media, which under former President Donald Trump might have praised such a response, blamed Mr. Biden for incentivizing migrants to come to Del Rio.
With all this commentary about what was happening at the border, the media generally neglected to acknowledge the actual systemic, global causes which reach far beyond the Rio Grande. Without an understanding of such causes, we can expect more immigration problems. Worse, trying to simply “fix” immigration without addressing the deeper issues ignores some serious threats to the preservation of democracy.
For one, Haitian migrants didn’t just appear at the border out of nowhere. As The New York Times notes, many of them journeyed from Chile, where they had been generally welcome since arriving there after the 2010 earthquake until a crackdown by the right-wing Chilean government in December of last year.
The continuing collapse of nearby Venezuela under President Nicolas Maduro has recently led to an influx of Venezuelans to Chile as well. This increase helped stoke anti-immigrant sentiment in the country, leading to the aforementioned crackdown. This policy and crowding-out by Venezuelan immigrants, on top of the perception that Mr. Biden’s new administration would be welcoming, led many Haitians who had resided in Chile to strike out for the US.
The 2010 earthquake, which proved devastating to life in Haiti, was not a result of global climate change. It does, however, provide a window into what the United States and the global community can expect from the future. While the extent and exact nature of what will happen is unknowable, as climate change worsens, migration of some kind will follow.
Sea level rise will force many to leave homes near the world’s coasts. Increased average temperatures will make some regions of the world simply unlivable. Standalone disasters like floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornados and more will push people out of vulnerable regions. It’s also a safe bet that developing and poor nations will bear the consequences most painfully, and those who are the least secure and prosperous will have the most reason to leave their homes.
Beyond climate change, our increasingly unstable international system plays a role. Consider the aforementioned example of Venezuela. This country—largely as a result of Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarianism and incompetent economic management but partially due to an aggressive U.S. sanctions campaign—is on the road to collapse. China, which was once a tenuous partner of Venezuela’s, primarily perceives its global interests as economic and not ideological. Now it is less interested than it was in providing support to a regime which is no longer considered a safe investment.
Whether it’s Chinese or American policy, the tendency is for each to act alone to pursue their individual interests. Rather than seeking international cooperation to alleviate issues and mediate between competing factions, the great powers seem to be in the business of picking sides or abandoning perceived losers altogether.
Great powers aren’t just disinterested in cooperation but increasingly interested in competition. The world is entering into a new era of multipolarity, not uncontested American dominance. Whatever the flaws of the American order, a period of increased friction between great powers likely heralds a breakdown of the effectiveness of international institutions for resolving disputes. The great powers will take sides in civil wars—as they already have in the Middle East and North Africa—rather than supporting institutions such as the United Nations which might otherwise play a mediating role. As such crises proliferate, so will the refugees fleeing conflict and seeking better lives elsewhere. Syria’s civil war and subsequent migrant crisis stands as one obvious example.
It’s important not to overstate the case, or state it in a way that is alarmist, for example by referring to “waves” or “caravans” of migrants. But it is true that the relative stability of the geopolitics of the 1990s is gone. Climate change and a multipolar distribution of power will likely—although not surely—increase movement across borders in response to unnatural disasters, state failure, and armed conflict.
Increased immigration, then, is a surface issue. And it’s also true that older systemic problems drove immigration long before these new systemic booster causes. One persistent factor is the structure of the present world order. High levels of development in the liberal democratic world are in many ways a legacy of its extractive relationship with the global south, which has been consigned to poverty with little way out. This relationship no doubt has driven and will continue to drive citizens of those countries to seek opportunity elsewhere. It’s also the case that the existing international framework for immigration and asylum-seeking is woefully underdeveloped. But new and developing causes will increase migration, and the leaders of those countries to which it is desirable to migrate, like the United States, are not prepared for that fact.
Moreover, immigration is not an isolated policy issue. It has been, in both Europe and the United States, a flashpoint for the rise of far-right populist and anti-democratic politics. Former President Donald Trump’s promise, in his announcement of his candidacy for the White House, to “build the wall” was surely a moment that will earn itself a paragraph or two in history textbooks.
Retiring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees from Syria to the European Union, perceived as the polar opposite of Mr. Trump’s sentiment, helped notch European far right parties a historically high share of seats across the continent’s democracies. But it’s also worth noting that Ms. Merkel and other European leaders did their utmost to keep the overwhelming majority of refugees in camps in Turkey. Even the liberal world’s chosen champions have failed to confront the issue in the most meaningful of ways, even as they paid a serious political price for what they did.
The American right’s decades of climate change denial and exploitation of xenophobia for political gain have already generated and will plausibly continue feeding a vicious feedback loop. Climate denial inhibits appropriate responses to climate change. This ecological disaster in turn motivates more movement across borders. This increase in migration then fuels the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the very people opposed to addressing one of its principal causes.
In order to “fix” immigration, many Americans between the extremes of the political spectrum have placed their faith in common-sense reform which offers amnesty to those undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States and makes it easier for new arrivals to get approval to live and work here. In exchange, they suggest heightened border security.
As far as that goes, this is a reasonable proposal, but it does little to change the fact that systemic causes are likely to increase migration patterns. Under such circumstances, heightened security at the border could produce more images like those we saw as CBP officers repulsed Haitian migrants seeking a better life. Progressives will mobilize against such cruel behavior. At the same time, increased flows into the country—even legal and regulated—will surely provide fruitful opportunities for the far right to win political points, as latent fears of demographic change are activated. In short, as beneficial as comprehensive reform might be, in some ways it is doomed to fall short.
The constellation of underlying factors—climate change, a decline in international cooperation, and the populist right’s vicious feedback loop—means that the arrival of Haitian migrants at the border and Mr. Biden’s response require systemic, rather than discrete, analysis. Cable news media, for its part, tends to frame such issues as discrete: “crisis at the border,” and the like.
But that gets us nowhere. If the variety of challenges confronting the United States and the global community are viewed as discrete and not intimately interrelated, proposed solutions will fail to get at underlying causes. When democratically elected policymakers fail to address perceived problems—either the cruelty to which migrants are subjected or the xenophobic fear of demographic change—faith in democracy erodes, and the arguments of aspiring strongmen ring truer.
That doesn’t mean that discrete solutions to our problems are useless. Comprehensive immigration reform that can achieve buy-in across the left and with some help from the center-right is a necessary step. But we do have an obligation to look elsewhere, too.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. Biden’s infrastructure bill and his Build Back Better reconciliation bill are a clear step in the right direction for addressing immigration challenges. Revitalizing our public services, creating new jobs, and expanding the welfare state, as well as putting forward some solutions to our climate crisis, actually complements immigration reform. Academic literature suggests that when citizens have limited welfare benefits, they tend to fear immigration more. When benefits are more robust, anti-immigrant sentiment decreases. If you’ve got a big enough cake, there’s no reason to dread new arrivals to the party.
It is also the case that the road to confronting climate change is long, but if the reconciliation bill passes the Biden administration can boast at the upcoming COP26 climate conference in Glasgow that it’s taking real steps. When it comes to organizing international cooperation, credibility is crucial. Every slight reduction in the projected increase in global average temperature could reduce displacement by the millions.
Mr. Biden’s legislative agenda is just a first step, and not a perfect one. That the GOP, with its anti-immigrant populist rhetoric, enjoys major structural advantages in elections suggests that obstacles remain. But getting caught in a mentality of doom is hardly productive. American policy action may be on the defensive now, but the first step to regaining a better footing is acting decisively rather than despairing.
Some bipartisan agreement on immigration reform might be possible next year, if Mr. Biden’s current agenda passes, and the upcoming midterm elections do not kill the possibility of a major policy initiative. There is reason—however tenuous—to take heart in the possibilities of the future, but we must see politics systemically, and mobilize effectively for appropriate solutions rather than bandages.Subscribe to Spectacles
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