The road to fix America’s broken immigration system begins abroad

Immigration activists hold signs during a rally to protest against the Trump Administration's immigration policy, outside the White House in Washington, U.S., June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Being an immigrant in the United States in the past few years has been difficult, to say the least. The toxic rhetoric against immigration coming out from the White House from day one of the Trump presidency—and the fact that it enjoyed popular support by the Republican base—made many of us rethink whether it was time to simply leave this country for good. Perhaps the most salient feature of Trump’s legacy was that he and his policies put in doubt whether America will continue to hold on to its self-proclaimed title of “a country of immigrants.”

To summarize what the Trump administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies consisted of is: Simply put, there is no place for immigrants in America. Over the past four years, over 400 executive actions directly targeted immigration and immigrants of all backgrounds. It was not only about illegal immigration, and it was not only about unskilled foreign workers. It was a full-fledged attack on immigrants across the board.

At first, the White House went against immigrants from Muslim-majority countries in a move that many analysts early on categorized as racist. Then the White House attacked undocumented immigrants, categorizing them as criminals (despite there being abundant evidence contesting such claims) and calling for a more active deportation policy. Next, the Trump administration cut the number of admitted refugees to the United States to its lowest level in 40 years, and actively established inhumane policies to deter refugees crossing from Central America, such as separating minors from their parents and putting them in cages. Finally, claiming without evidence that the ultimate goal was protecting American jobs amid the pandemic, the Trump administration restricted the issuance of green cards and work visas for highly skilled individuals (a move that me and co-authors estimate cost over $100 billion dollars to the U.S. economy almost overnight).

One of the most obvious deductions of what we saw in the past four years is that without a robust institutional binding framework in place to administer global migration flows, any future president could do and undo as he or she pleases.

With the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, most of the world can be relieved that this circus of nonsense anti-immigration policies will come to an end. At least for now. To me, one of the most obvious deductions of what we saw in the past four years is that without a robust institutional binding framework in place to administer global migration flows, any future president could do and undo as he or she pleases. The truth is that there is too much at stake to let that happen: not only the livelihoods of about 250 million immigrants in the world—50 millions of them in America—but also the well-being of the global economy that partly relies on the hardworking and entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants wherever they are.

With the likely scenario of a Republican-controlled Senate, a divided government will make it nearly impossible for the incoming Biden-Harris administration to pass comprehensive immigration reform of the sort that the U.S. needs. For instance, offering a practical and a just path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants—including Dreamers—is a win-win policy: By eliminating once and for all the uncertainty of an imminent deportation, these immigrants will be more likely to make long-term investments in their children’s education, their communities, and their businesses. In addition, the government must get rid of the arbitrary yearly limit of 65,000 H-1B visas for high-skilled foreign workers, or at the very least, it must allow for the cap to increase along with the demand for skills. A similar case can be made about limits to refugee admissions. Ongoing unresolved conflicts and climate change will likely continue to push entire communities to flee their homes in search of refuge somewhere else. Furthermore, reforms such as offering permanent residence or a path to citizenship to foreign students who complete graduate school in the U.S. would also be smart policy.

But, realistically, we are unlikely to see an ambitious domestic agenda on comprehensive migration reform in the next four years. Hence, it makes sense for the incoming administration to put efforts into the international arena where, without the need for Congressional involvement, important steps can be made to construct an ambitious and robust global governance apparatus for international migration, which could serve as an important stepping stone for a domestic comprehensive migration reform down the road.

In this context, the very first action item for the Biden-Harris administration is to rejoin the United Nations’ Global Compacts for Migration and for Refugees, which despite being not much more than a multicountry declaration, under the right leadership, it can serve as the basis for establishing a system of global governance with practical policies to administer migration flows. For instance, expanding bilateral or multilateral agreements to include Global Skill Partnerships, so that immigrants can receive training before moving to better satisfy the demand for certain skills in their future destinations, or establishing an international rule system to govern refugee resettlement using market-like mechanisms, to name a couple. These practical global or regional agreements inspired by the Global Compacts should be the basis for a robust and comprehensive institutional framework to govern international migration, such as what we currently have for global trade, for example, embodied in the World Trade Organization.

If there’s something we’ve learned during the global pandemic, it is that in order to better deal with the challenges ahead, we need more—not less—global governance and cooperation. This is even more relevant when it comes to immigration, a global flow that will continue to grow. Thus, if the U.S. cannot fix its immigration system at home, it must again lead the way to bring the world together on designing and putting forward the best policies to let immigrants, wherever they are and wherever they come from, achieve their full potential. And for that, the work begins abroad.