White House Doesn’t See the Point of Global Cooperation to End the Migrant Crisis

September 10, 2015: Refugees waiting to take a train from Keleti train station of Budapest city

The White House statement by Nikki Haley, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, stated, “our decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone.” In this most recent manifestation of President Donald Trump’s “America first” doctrine, on December 2nd, the United States withdrew the United States from the Global Compact for Migration, a commitment by 193 countries to take responsibility for safeguarding the record number of people fleeing their homelands around the world. The Administration’s heartless move slams migrants at a moment when they most need our support.

According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, there are more than 65 million forcibly displaced people around the world, including 23 million refugees and 10 million stateless people. Forced through no fault of their own to leave their homes due to war and natural disasters, communities, and countries, these vulnerable people risked losing their lives, their livelihoods, and their dignity had they remained where they were.

We have seen this before. The Nazis unleashed a similar tide of refugees. When countries rejected Jews seeking asylum, they effectively sentenced them to death. After World War II, world leaders came together to say never again: they agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and strengthened refugee laws to shelter millions of displaced people.

Today, the world faces the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, as more than five million have fled the war in Syria, most to live in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In response, UN member nations last year unanimously adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, a non-binding declaration affirming the will of world leaders to share responsibility to save lives and protect human rights while establishing a path to help refugees and migrants create lives and livelihoods in host countries.

Here at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the Program on Forced Migration and Health works to expose and address the unique challenges migrants face, including separation from family members, exposure to gender-based violence, lack of education, and limited access to healthcare services, particularly sexual and reproductive healthcare. What is happening to human beings is reprehensible.

The New York Declaration was an important step toward more specific member state commitments through the UN Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, to be adopted by 2018. Negotiations on this Global Compact are ongoing at the Global Conference on Migration in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. However, two days before the conference, the White House announced it was withdrawing from the process, saying the New York Declaration contains provisions inconsistent with the nation’s immigration and refugee policies.

On this issue, the Trump Administration rhetoric and action has been consistently awful, starting with the January Executive Order refusing entry to refugees for 120 days, an additional 90-day ban and “extreme vetting” for individuals from 11 countries, and the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). In the latest blow, earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court approved a third iteration of the Administration’s travel ban.

The Trump Administration is far from done. The Administration has proposed slashing UN funding by 40 percent, a heartless act that would starve the UNHCR. This move comes at the precise moment when the agency’s work is needed most. And in the coming months, they will push to build the border wall President Trump campaigned on while tripling the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. (Although undocumented immigration has declined in recent years, ICE arrests are up nearly 40 percent since last year.) At the same time, the White House is working to limit the number of refugees entering the U.S. to 45,000 — an all-time low — while ending the U.S. refugee reunification program that helps family members reunite with refugees already resettled in the U.S.

Of course, xenophobia is not uniquely American. In March, we saw the European Union strike a deal with Turkey to ensure migrants would not reach European shores. Ireland still upholds an immigration policy established in 1999 which leaves refugees without access to education nor decent housing. Australia is infamous for holding asylum seeker in offshore detention facilities.

However, the United States has long been a beacon for immigrants, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty and the words of Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor…”). Today, 14 percent of the U.S. population is foreign born and another 12 percent are children of immigrants. Americans have not always approved of accepting large numbers of refugees. Even so, the U.S. has accepted more refugees than any other country since 1980 — a safe-haven for almost 3 million individuals — and 10 states, including New York, Texas, and California, receive more than half of these new arrivals. In 2016, thanks to the Obama Administration’s commitment to the New York Declaration, the U.S. admitted 85,000 refugees, increased alternative pathways of admission into the U.S. by providing special immigrant visas to over 11,000 people, and contributed and additional $37 million to UNHCR to ensure refugee children can access quality. Tragically, these positive moves are now being erased.

Welcoming migrants isn’t just the right thing to do for vulnerable people fleeing trauma, war, sexual violence. Immigrants are also a key to our sustainable future, adding to our diversity and sense of community, creating jobs, and paying taxes that contribute to the Social Security Trust Fund. These tenets are at the core of the Compact the Trump Administration just renounced. By turning his back on the world, the President treads a dangerous path.

Terry McGovern, JD, a human rights lawyer, is Chair and Professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Harriet and Robert H. Heilbrunn Professor and Chair, Population and Family Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health