A Local Strategy for the Global Migration Crisis

There’s no question that the world is currently facing a global migration crisis. Approximately 65 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide; of these, roughly 21 million are refugees (those who have crossed an international border in search of security) and of these 21 million over half are children.[1] From a structural/security perspective and a humanitarian perspective, this crisis concerns us all. We are called to care about the physical and psychological trauma from which displaced persons are suffering, but it’s also true that the scale of this displacement is so massive that we should also worry about where these brothers and sisters ultimately end up reconstructing their lives. Where should, or will, these refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) go short term? Long term? What will the economic consequences be? What happens with respect to the conflict that they leave behind? This is a humanitarian issue, but it is not only a humanitarian issue. We cannot afford to be apathetic, from either a moral or pragmatic standpoint, about an issue that is destined to eventually touch us all.

Discussions of how (or if) the US should respond to refugees and IDPs have come largely from politicians and the multilateral system. The United Nations feels that it has made great progress in getting 193 member states to agree to a set of global compact agreements (the 2016 New York Declaration) for the development of a Global Refugee Acceptance Program as well as a system for safe and orderly migration, but acquiesces that there is no mechanism for enforcement of these agreements. All over Europe, the nationalists and populists want to build walls; liberals and globalists lobby for something along the lines of an open-door policy, while in the U.S. dialogues and converging policy proposals are accompanied by the same extreme partisanship as in Europe.[2]

A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and a full 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican, indicating incredible polarization.[3] The same study found something I personally view as even more problematic: a large percentage of both parties increasingly view members of the opposing party as legitimate threats to national interest.[4] Mutual distrust and even hatred makes the compromise that is generally necessary for working together on policy decisions almost impossible. Americans are having a hard time coming together even on domestic policy, let alone foreign policy, and trends seem to indicate that this is unlikely to change any time soon. Top-down action isn’t working. It’s time for a shake-up.

In his essay “The Ethics of Globalism, Nationalism, and Patriotism,” Psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes that parochialism, the concern for “matters of the local parish, rather than the larger world” is a word frequently used as an insult.[5] In the case of international refugees and IDPs, the idea of “being parochial” might seem to imply that one is at odds with the goal of helping those in need within the international system. Haidt, however, suggests something different: local attachments draw us out of our self-centered (and perhaps even self-righteous) bubbles and toward engagement in our communities and caring of others.[6] Maybe parochialism is in fact where we start.

Instead of looking to the government or the United Nations, both of which tend to utilize top-down processes to aid that frequently work against, rather than with, local populations, why don’t we start in our own communities and work from the bottom up? The best response to the global migration crisis necessarily involves molding the U.S. back into a cohesive society where people trust each other enough to again welcome those different from themselves, this must start not in Washington but in our own backyards. Referring to one another as “immoral” “close-minded” and “unintelligent”, as Americans do currently, only increases the divisiveness that is destroying us internally.[7]

Those on the far right and on the far left of the political spectrum must stop using rhetoric that fosters discord and anger that ultimately leads to the current policy-making roadblock. We need mutual kindness and respect, not moral superiority and self-righteousness. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are all just humans.

So let’s start with the refugees, immigrants, and political asylum seekers in our own communities. Anyone, regardless of race, religion, or country of origin can be an American. Thomas Sowell wrote that, “it was in later generations, after the children and grandchildren of the immigrants to America were speaking English and living lives more like the lives of other Americans, that they spread out to live and work where other Americans lived and worked. This wasn’t multiculturalism. It was common sense.”[8] Irish, Scots, Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, French-Canadians, Arabs, Indians, Japanese, Chinese, Haitians, Cubans, Mexicans, Colombians, and all other representations of the world of nation states have become “true Americans” in decades and centuries past. There is no reason to believe that this flow of foreigners suddenly stopped, on the contrary it has kept pace with time. Instead of trying to convince those who see the world from a “white” lens that the fiber of what it is to be American is at threat, lets show our brothers and sisters that without the element of migration and constant change this country would cease to exist as the global capitalist epicenter for innovation and entrepreneurship. Let’s help our refugees and immigrants embrace and become part of American society, helping them navigate our melting pot.

In our pursuit of bottom-up solutions, we must focus on our communities to help change the stereotypes promoted by all propaganda systems that portray refugees as terrorist and security threats. By this I don’t mean tell anyone who fears refugees of Middle Eastern origin that it is “not an issue,” lets stop lying to ourselves. To change the perception we need personal contact. Let’s work to increase the profile of refugees already living within the U.S., emphasizing success stories of those who have been relocated from areas of conflict and subsequently assimilated successfully and peacefully into their new American communities. Contact breeds empathy. Seeing an actual person—speaking, interacting, and engaging with people on a personal level—are all things that make refugees relatable. Not enough of this presently occurs at the local level in our country. If face-to-face contacts increase, empathy increases, fear diminishes and positive change takes place. But people have to be allowed to make mistakes and sometimes say and do the wrong things. We are human. We can apologize and move on—and this is how we learn.

Third, we can increase donations to nonprofit organizations that help refugees and IDPs. External aid is not just the government’s responsibility, and based on the most recent federal budget proposal it seems likely that an increased portion of aid will come from the private sector. Arguably the best forms of aid come from nonprofit organizations such as Food for the Poor, a charity that serves rural areas in Latin American countries such as Guatemala. 96% of donations to FFTP go directly to aid programs, compared to the just 68% spent on aid programs by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.[9] The Syrian American Medical Society is another grassroots agency that emerged as a grassroots response to the Syrian crisis. Like Food for the Poor, the Syrian American Medical Society works directly within the communities, maintaining 100 medical facilities within Syria as well as numerous mobile clinics.[10] Such organizations work more closely with the communities and are therefore better able to understand and anticipate the needs of said communities, whereas those making policy in the UN are often so far removed from on-the-ground work that they are briefed about situations rather than experiencing the crisis with their own eyes.

Fourth, our political polarization should come to an end and we should instead work toward meeting each other in the center. Again, this has to start at the local level. We are the people of the United States and those polarizing our politics are our elected representatives. We want a cohesive government that works and not one that spins its wheels. Ask your neighbor who voted for Trump if s/he can watch your cat while you’re away. Ask your neighbor who voted for Hillary if s/he wants to sit on the porch with you over a cup of coffee. Lets work our differences with love and maybe that way our representatives will learn from the civil society they represent. This isn’t an overnight solution, but is part of a long-term readjustment that puts America back on track to produce better and more positive humanitarian results. Once our society trusts itself again can it begin to trust those who will continue to come to this country in pursuit of the American Dream; roll back the bans on travel, increase the annual number of refugees admitted, and devote more resources to resettling those who enter. Lets help the new Americans in their path to financial security and success because their success is our success, it is the only way that capitalism grows and replenishes itself.

Forget the government. If Americans can pick up the pieces and put itself back together into some semblance of the whole it once was, then we will have achieved two things: 1) a move away from the partisanship which has plagued our politics for the past decade or so, and 2) implementation of policy that adopts an increasingly generous approach to refugees over time, as it once did. James R. Rogers correctly wrote for First Things, “Americans, as those of every nation, are responsible to attend first to their own. As with families, this decentralization normally helps with the provision of people’s needs, rather than hindering it. But America ‘first’ cannot mean America ‘only.’”[11] And most people, including Trump supporters, understand this. Let’s work with our neighbors, starting in our local communities, to change perspectives and provide a helping hand to everyone who needs it. This has always been—and I hope will continue to be—the American way.

“A Local Strategy for the Global Migration Crisis” was written by Katherine Prescott, a fourth-semester International Affairs major at the University of Maine with a concentration in International Security and a minor in Anthropology.

[1] United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, Figures at a Glance. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html

[2] Jonathan Haidt, Nationalism Rising. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/07/10/when-and-why-nationalism-beats-globalism/

[3] Pew Center, Political Polarization in the American Public. http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/

[4] Ibid

[5] Jonathan Haidt, The Ethics of Globalism, Nationalism, and Patriotism. http://www.humansandnature.org/the-ethics-of-globalism-nationalism-and-patriotism

[6] Ibid

[7] Pew Center, Partisanship and Political Animosity in America. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/22/key-facts-partisanship/

[8] Thomas Sowell, The Multicultural Cult. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/250190/cult-multiculturalism-thomas-sowell

[9] charitynavigator.org

[10] Syrian American Medical Society, https://foundation.sams-usa.net/healthcare-medical-relief-work/

[11] James R. Rogers, How Many Foreigners is America Worth? https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/03/how-many-foreigners-is-an-american-worth

Stefano Tijerina

About Stefano Tijerina

My name is Stefano Tijerina and this blog’s objective is to connect Maine’s social, environmental, economic, cultural, and political issues to the global system, centering on how the local impacts the global and how the global impacts the local or what is known in Global Studies as the "Glocal" effect. In our present era of globalization it is crucial for the general public to understand how the new dynamics of the international system impact our lives here in Maine and how our local decisions impact the earth. These are my personal views, and they do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine.