Editorial: What is our responsibility to migrants?

  • Migrants beg and pray not to be taken away by Mexican immigration authorities during a raid on their caravan that had earlier crossed the Mexico-Guatemala border, near Metapa, Chiapas state, Mexico, on Wednesday. AP

Published: 6/9/2019 12:05:17 AM

The number of migrants detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents at the Mexican border, at 144,200, hit a seven-year high last month.

President Donald Trump’s response was to threaten to impose tariffs on Mexican imports beginning tomorrow, which would have damaged the economies of both countries. On Friday, Trump called off the impending trade war when Mexico agreed to do more to stop the influx of migrants, most of whom are coming from the Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

But the president’s order to suspend foreign aid to those three nations ensures that the number of people fleeing north will grow as conditions in their home countries worsen.

As in other parts of the world, changes caused by climate change will force further migrations. One estimate predicts that in the next year alone, 1% of the population of Guatemala, 17.6 million, and Honduras, 9.5 million, will migrate north over the next year.

Immigration issues are complex. A host of them swirl about the current border crisis. Is the treatment of migrants fair and humane? If so, only marginally. Is a bigger, longer wall the answer? Of course not. Can a solution be found in a reform of U.S. immigration policies? Sadly, not under the current administration.

Current definitions of a refugee do not include people fleeing lands that are underwater, without water or unable to produce food. Should environmental refugees be treated like refugees fleeing war or government or religious persecution? We think so.

Across Europe and even in Scandinavia massive influxes of refugees have strained social safety nets, led to an increase in reactionary movements, contributed to the election of authoritarian leaders and fueled racism. America’s border issues doubtless contributed to the election of Trump and the partisan divide afflicting government. Can the United States have a generous immigration policy and avoid a backlash that threatens democracy? We don’t know.

There is an issue central to the immigration debate that should be discussed in Congress, debated in academia, discussed from the pulpit and considered by every citizen: What, if any, moral responsibility does the United States have to admit refugees. How many can be welcomed quickly without changing the nation’s distinct but evolving culture?

Estimates of the number of climate change migrants alone range from the U.N.’s 140 million by 2050 to 200 million or more. America is responsible for big share of the CO2 causing climate change. Does that mean that ethically it should accept migrants in proportion to the damage its emissions have caused?

There are those, Thomas Jefferson was among them, who argue that migrating in search of a better life is a natural right. But that right conflicts with another; the right of the citizens of a nation state to determine and control its borders, and decide who and how many to let in.

Some argue that the planet belongs to all its residents. Rich, sparsely populated nations, the argument goes, have a duty, particularly as the world’s population continues to grow beyond its current 7.2 billion, to make space for people in standing-room-only countries. Bangladesh has 2,600 people per square mile, India 1,368, the Netherlands 1,200, Germany 800. The United States, the world’s third largest country geographically, has a population density of 80 per square mile. We could let more people in, but should we? How many, and under what terms?

All we can be sure of is that migrants will continue to come whether we like it or not.

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