**Update: Here we go. But it’s not clear if this is legal under the law in Guatemala and nothing says “re-elect me” like bowing to punitive Trump administration pressure.
- **Update: Apparently Guatemala has pulled out of Safe Third Country talks so the Administration is now pushing a policy of “country of first asylum.”
De-colonization and Global Migration
In the early 1960s, European colonization collapsed all over the world, falling in on itself like a series of dominoes and leading millions into freedom after one of the darkest chapters of world history. Many complex forces led to political independence, but perhaps none was more important than World War II, which left European countries wreaked and impoverished, shrinking in on themselves. Unfortunately, this reprieve was short-lived for many former French colonies, who today struggle in a grey zone between true independence and quasi-French rule. The reprieve was also short lived for many Central American countries, which have struggled with invasive US policy for decades, as the United States adopted a proto-colonial role in the region.
Meanwhile, the post-independence period, with rising wages, increased education and access to technology, has led to an increased interest in migration on the part of many people living in post-colonial states. While many are forced to flee due to conflict and persecution, many more are on the move in search of a better life and, most critically, in search of something few post-colonial states can offer in large enough quantities: political stability and good paying jobs.
The enormous rise of the global middle class has led to an increase in reverse migration. By far the vast majority of migration continues to occur between neighboring states, but where once, millions of Europeans spread all over the world in search of opportunity, now, the flows have now somewhat reversed, with some working and middle class people now making the return journey.
If we adopt the logic of current politics, KEEPING PEOPLE OUT is a vital goal for the United States and Europe. Instead of being supported by extensive government policies designed to encourage migration in the face of enormous physical hardships, as was the case for Europeans in the 19th century, people who migrate outside of their home regions today are beset by a patchwork of policies deliberately designed to make migration as difficult as possible. But some of these policies have been working better than others.
Re-Colonization as Part of Managed Migration
In the 2010s, it became increasingly apparent that former French colonies in northern Africa were not going to do their former colonial rulers any favors by stopping migration to Europe. Post-conflict Libya in particular became a funnel for migration as international cartels moved thousands through an increasingly formal network across the Mediterranean and into Europe.
In response, Europe essentially recolonized Niger in a bid to stop the flow from ECOWAS member states. ECOWAS freedom of movement ends at the Niger-Libya border and it is there that the EU is making its stand to KEEP PEOPLE OUT. Today, the EU pays millions to beef up Niger border security and has stationed EU member state troops at the border. Niger has passed new laws making “people smuggling” a serious crime. In return for all of this, Niger may be receiving as much as 1 billion Euros in aid. If we try to occupy the morals-free headspace of EU migration policy makers, where KEEPING PEOPLE OUT is the most important goal in human history and all values must be tossed to the wayside to accomplish it, the Niger program has had some success is decreasing migration to Europe through North Africa and is therefore “working.”
Can Re-Colonization Work for Trump in Central America?
Trump hasn’t been able to build a wall with Mexico. But KEEPING PEOPLE OUT was the raison d’etre of his political campaign, so the Trump Administration is desperate for a solution. Adopting the logic of Trump’s voters, where KEEPING PEOPLE OUT is more important than any other government goal, are any of Trump’s policies likely to work? Right now, the administration has created a humanitarian emergency by enforcing the letter of the immigration law, while also failing entirely to KEEP PEOPLE OUT. But changing the laws in today’s political climate is next to impossible. So the only solutions that will KEEP PEOPLE OUT must happen outside the US, in the realm of foreign policy, where Trump has more of a free hand.
Someone seems to have finally sat down and read the US immigration code and realized that they desperately need a Safe Third Country agreement with Mexico. The administration has been trying to bully Mexico into signing this agreement for months, but so far, all they’ve gotten is vague promises to deploy troops to the border. Likewise, attempts to violate US law with the illegal “Remain in Mexico” policy likely to fail in the courts (though this is now less certain given the rightward swing of the 9th circuit, under whom all asylum claims are automatically fraudulent and, therefore, all asylum seekers are automatically subject to eventual deportation under 8 U.S.C. § 1225(b)(2)(C ).
More on the use of this obscure and vague statutory provision can be found here, but it’s clear that Congress did not mean to circumvent the entire asylum process and create a bizarre and unprecidented jurisdictional bubble in Mexico simply by adding a single clause to the immigration law. The purpose of this clause was clearly to allow failed asylum-seekers to be deported to Mexico while the await final deportation to their country of origin. Even this interpretation is problematic for asylum-seekers who do not have a valid visa for Mexico.) Even if “Remain in Mexico” survives, it’s not clear that creating a border crisis in Mexico is going to help anything.
So the administration has apparently turned its attention to Guatemala, where Trump claims he is close to success. Of course, signing the agreement is only the beginning, as transforming Guatemala into an actual safe third country will take a massive US investment in their immigration, asylum and border control system and, quite likely, the deployment of US troops and personnel. (Also, such an agreement would not apply to asylum-seekers from Guatemala itself.) It will take the sort of investment and takeover the EU are trying in Niger. It’s not clear the administration has the attention span or organization capacity to make this work. So far, their attempts to negotiate have begun with threats by cutting existing aid, which implies that they are unwilling to invest the kinds of money it would really take to get Guatemala to sign on.
This brings us back to the ultimate aims of US immigration policy. Right now, we have a system increasingly designed to KEEP PEOPLE OUT. It costs billions of dollars and often results in unspeakable cruelty for which we, Republicans and Democrats, are responsible. After all, it was the Clinton administration who first criminalized immigration and the Obama administration who increased deportations.
One of the few things everyone in this country can agree on is that our immigration system isn’t working. It’s not working for the US and it’s not working for other countries in the region. And it’s definitely not working for immigrants. The questions all US citizens must now ask themselves are “How important is it to me, personally, to KEEP PEOPLE OUT? What am I willing to do, or have done for me, in order to KEEP PEOPLE OUT?”
Until we can all answer those two questions, our government will continue to lurch around, passing and then breaking its own laws.
****Update: A possible regional framework, endorsed by a number of human rights organizations, is proposed here.