U.S. Cities Want to Join U.N. Migration Talks That Trump Boycotted

Urban centers want a seat at the table, even if the White House doesn’t.

Members of the New York Immigration Coalition, recent immigrants, and activists rally outside of Trump Tower in New York on Nov. 6. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Members of the New York Immigration Coalition, recent immigrants, and activists rally outside of Trump Tower in New York on Nov. 6. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Cities in the United States are petitioning for formal inclusion in a U.N. global compact on migration just days after the White House withdrew from the accord.

“Cities are on the frontlines of resettling and supporting immigrants and refugees,” a spokesperson from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrants Affairs told Foreign Policy. “Cities are pushing for a seat at the table at a time when many national leaders are increasingly isolationist – and even xenophobic – and disconnected from cities’ values of inclusivity and growth.”

A dozen U.S. cities including New York and over 130 international cities have signed a petition to be sent to Mexican Ambassador to the U.N. Juan José Gómez Camacho and Swiss ambassador at Turtle Bay Jürg Lauber as they meet at a global migration conference this week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. 

Numerous cities will also send a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees asking for cities to be formally included in the process as a global compact on refugees is discussed. Signatories to this letter include the mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Providence, Dallas, and the District of Columbia, as well as officials from Paris, Milan, Montreal, Athens, and Amman, Jordan.

“We need to be part of U.N. decision-making if international agreements are to be responsive to on-the-ground realities,” said Bitta Mostofi, acting commissioner at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, in a statement to FP.

The move comes after the United States announced on Sunday that it was withdrawing from the U.N.’s New York declaration for refugees and migrants. The declaration, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2016, agreed to uphold universal human rights for immigrants, fight xenophobia, and bolster global governance by creating a global compact on migration by 2018, among other commitments. The United States under Barack Obama agreed to participate in the declaration last year.

But the Trump administration shuns multilateral commitments and argues that the global compact infringes on U.S. sovereignty.

“We simply cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a Dec. 3 press release. “The United States supports international cooperation on migration issues, but it is the primary responsibility of sovereign states to help ensure that migration is safe, orderly, and legal.”

Local governments, however, say they need a seat at the table during global migration policy debates, since urban areas are major destinations for migrants amid global population flows that have reached crisis levels.

“While our national government may decline to engage the international community on this crisis, it is imperative that cities join the conversation,” said Penny Abeywardena, New York City’s commissioner for international affairs, in a statement to FP. “We are a city of immigrants, and by raising our voice in this process, we want to show that the New York City values of inclusion, fair treatment, and global cooperation represent the best of American values.”

As the United States has retreated from global leadership under President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, local governments have tried to fill the void in dealing with transnational challenges.

Three dozen U.S. mayors signed a climate compact Tuesday agreeing to curb greenhouse gas emissions despite the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord earlier this year. And as Trump has antagonized long-term U.S. allies and trade partners in North America, Europe, and Asia, governors have side-stepped the White House and worked directly with governments in Europe and Canada to shore up newly uncertain trade ties.

Correction, Dec. 6, 2017: Cities will send a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees asking to be included in discussions about the global compact on refugees. A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that the letter to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees regarded inclusion in the global compact on migration. 

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr