20 Sep 2018 19:29 IST

Illegal migration is tearing nations apart

A field named "new jungle" with makeshift shelters for migrants and asylum seekers in Calais, northern France in 2015. It housed around 3,000 migrants, fleeing war, political turmoil and poverty. | Reuters (File photo)   -  REUTERS

Refugee migration is deeply divisive because it pits emotions over logic, and tolerance over reason

Two months ago, Time magazine published a flammable cover image of a weeping two-year old Honduran girl looking almost imploringly at President Trump, who, dressed in his immaculate business suit, seemed to be sternly looking down. Metaphorically, it was a powerful expression showing how rich countries seem to be treating migrants of poor nations inhumanely — in this case, separating families from children — and not doing their fair part to help.


The problem with the image, which quickly went viral, is that the picture was fake. The girl and the president were never together — the image had been expertly photoshopped. Nor was this girl ever separated from her mother by more than two feet, for more than a few minutes, when the mother was being questioned by border patrol officers. But the magazine chose to stand by the image because the standards of journalism have changed in the hyper-charged social media environment we live in.

Each migrant’s story is heartbreaking but the John Lennon solution of open borders is creating havoc around the world. No host country has the wealth, infrastructure, or the cultural tolerance to assimilate large inflows of refugees. Which is why, in 2016, Sweden, one of the world’s wealthiest and most liberal democracies, began to pay migrants to return home. A far-right party in that country won so many seats in in last week’s election to parliament — largely running on an anti-migrant platform — that the outcome stunned Europe.

Rise of the far right

This is not the first time this has happened. Angela Merkel’s 13-year hold on Germany is, at best, tenuous, thanks to leaders of the country’s southern states who are strongly against immigration. In Denmark, the government is enforcing discrimination policies against migrants which, according to the New York Times, bring back memories of the Holocaust. New leaders from Italy, Austria and Hungary are all forcing the EU to be less migrant-friendly.

The main issue here is that of contiguous migration. When North African migrants arrive at a Greek or Italian port and seek asylum, international law requires that these countries process the asylum request and, if approved, accept them as migrants. But this places an enormous burden on just two countries of the 28-member EU — a status Greece and Italy gained simply because they are located on the Mediterranean coast closest to North Africa. Not that the migrants want to stay in Greece or Italy either; they prefer to go further north, to Germany, France, and Norway, seeking greener pastures.

EU member nations are now aggressively fighting over how to allocate refugees to each other because few want them in their own countries. This “not in my backyard” hypocrisy is a fact of life.

South America’s woes

The contiguous migrant issue is paramount in the Americas too, especially across the southern border of the United States. The majority of migrants fleeing domestic violence and gangs are from three countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The contiguous country bordering the latter two is further south, Nicaragua, to which migrants should legally make their asylum claim. But Nicaragua, with all respect to it, is not Switzerland. So migrants head north, to Guatemala, join with thousands of Guatemalans and head further north to Mexico.

By law, Mexico should accept all of these refugees, but the country is overwhelmed by its own crime, drug cartels, human trafficker gangs and corruption problems. So, it allows these families to travel further north, dangerously, for nearly 2,000 miles to hit the US border. The election of a new leftist president in July, someone who is very pro-migration, will only make matters worse. He will take office in November.

The governing laws of destination countries regarding refugee acceptance are different and this further complicates the situation. US law requires all migrants to approach the US embassy in any foreign country to file for asylum — or, within the US, at a valid port of entry. The state of Texas alone has 29 ports of entry, with more in New Mexico, Arizona and California, the other states which border Mexico. When a family claims asylum, the US government treats it humanely while the claim is processed. If the claim is denied, the family is deported if already within US borders, according to international law.

What US law stipulates is that migrants crossing its borders illegally are guilty of a crime punishable by six months of imprisonment. But migrants routinely and deliberately violate US law. Rather than go to a port of entry, they instead try to chance free, undetected border entry across the Rio Grande river or a desert plateau. Their thinking is that if they somehow make it inland without getting caught and claim sanctuary in a state, they can reside illegally forever. Seven states — California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont — have passed generous laws requiring local law enforcement to not turn illegal immigrants over to the US government for prosecution or deportation.

The problem with “catch and release”

When families cross the border or flee inland, they are often apprehended by US Border Patrol agents who arrest and detain them under the full power of the law. When the Trump administration announced a “zero-tolerance policy” to stem illegal migration, chaos ensued because US law also states that children cannot be detained when families are arrested. So, families are forcibly separated where adults are taken to jails and children are turned over to a different agency where they are fed, educated and given opportunities to play.

The adults are generally released after just a few days of detention because even a wealthy government as the US does not have so many jails to house all migrants. Upon release, the migrants apply for asylum and are asked to reappear in a US court at a later date to have their asylum requests heard. But the migrants know how to game the system. They rarely show up for their court hearing, lose themselves into one of the sanctuary states and join the 11-15 million illegal immigrant families already in the country. This “catch and release” process is a huge problem.

The US government is struggling to enforce its laws but also be humane, something that is almost impossible to do. Liberals advocate for illegal migrants to not be apprehended, charged or detained, and be simply be welcomed in the US so that families will not be separated. But this would make matters worse as the policy would act like a magnet, attracting even more migrants to the border. It also amounts to saying that countries should not enforce their borders, a nonsensical position in this age of international terror.

Refugee migration is the world’s biggest crisis, and no one has a solution which works for all. It is deeply divisive because it pits emotions over logic and tolerance over reason, resulting in a battle that humanity has so far not won.