What a Just Immigration Policy Doesn’t Look Like

It’s not a system based on chance, it does not encourage our enemies, and it can’t be addressed in 140 characters.

Illustration by Thomas Pitilli

The Somali-British writer Warsan Shire begins her poem “Home” with the line, “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.”

Whatever the inciting forces are that propel people to undertake what is inevitably a dangerous, expensive, and arduous journey from their homeland into the unknown — the kind that rips apart families — they must be grim. And in the increasingly politicized debates within “destination countries” over what to do with those arriving seeking safety, we have failed to examine the root causes that drive people from their homes in the first place.

There are in the world, right now, more than 65 million displaced people. That’s more than at any time since World War II, and it’s only going to grow. In the next five or 10 years, there will be huge swaths of individuals displaced by climate change. The United States has historically resettled more refugees than every other country combined. This may be the year that the tradition falters.

The United States must continue taking in refugees, and we should be taking in a lot more than we are now.

But this is not an issue that lends itself to simple political messaging. It calls into question fundamental assumptions. In order to believe that a lot of people are going to be displaced by climate change, you have to believe that climate change exists.

Oversimplifying and politicizing our understanding of forced global migration is a handy but dangerous political tool. The forced displacement of humans, and how to handle it as a global community, is an incredibly nuanced and complicated issue. It cannot be aptly understood or addressed in 140 characters.

When President Donald Trump issued the first travel ban in January, the Islamic State referred to it as a “blessed ban” because it reinforced the group’s narrative of an anti-Islam West. But when our country takes in refugees, we’re giving people refuge from the Islamic State and the other “evil” forces that we claim to be trying to fight, bolstering our allies in the region that struggle to host millions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and demonstrating that our projection into the Middle East is not myopically militaristic.

Yet immigration is much broader and more encompassing than just the question of refugees. In Europe, there is an ongoing debate about whether the people washing up on the shores of Greece and Italy are economic migrants or refugees. That determination is legally important in the United States and Europe because the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees prohibits the deportation of someone with a valid claim to refugee status. But the terminology also has a dialectical significance, an implied “good immigrant” and “bad immigrant.” It is much easier to dismiss an economic migrant as someone who’s merely opportunistic, as opposed to someone escaping the jaws of a shark.

Immigration doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. We’ve allowed the rhetoric to become so polarized that many believe that there is a dichotomy between the working American in the Rust Belt trying to afford rising health insurance premiums and the immigrant trying to come over to seek a better opportunity, to contribute to America, or to flee persecution.

What they want is essentially identical: to work hard and achieve happiness, safety, and security for themselves and their families. A founding premise of America is that this is a place for immigrants to come and start over.

A “just” immigration policy can look like a lot of different things. What we’re seeing from this administration is a sharp series of examples of what it cannot look like. It can’t look like a system that prefers certain religions or countries of origin, that is arbitrary or prejudiced or abusive. It can’t scare children out of attending school or women out of reporting domestic violence. It can’t boil down to the luck of who happens to be stamping passports in your customs line.

Of course we cannot let in every single immigrant and refugee in the world, but ours cannot be a selection process based on bias or fear or discrimination. It must be a transparent process that treats all people with respect. It must be welcoming.

It should not ever be a system where refugees or immigrants, having uprooted themselves from their homes and journeyed thousands of miles, arrive at our borders only to be told, “America is closed.”

As told to Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, a contributing writer to Foreign Policy. This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of FP magazine.

Illustration by Thomas Pitilli

Becca Heller is the director and co-founder of the International Refugee Assistance Project and a visiting clinical lecturer in law at Yale Law School.

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