I want to thank the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) for the opportunity to share my thoughts on the United States’ approach to international migration policy and to discuss these critical issues with experts in the field. I appreciate the invitation from MPI President Demetrios Papademetriou, Vice President Don Kerwin, and Kathleen Newland. I am especially honored to appear with my friend Doris Meissner, also of MPI, who is a dedicated and seasoned expert on these matters. And thanks, too, to the Catholic Immigration Network and Georgetown Law Center for hosting us. Finally, I want to thank my colleagues in the Office of International Migration in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration for collaborating so closely with me on the words I’m about to offer.
It’s important to consider that when we talk about international migration policy, we are in many respects referring to an array of national practices that apply to citizens and non-citizens who cross borders.
Thus, international migration policy largely reflects the effort, by the United States and other governments, to develop common principles, approaches and initiatives with respect to those national practices. And while it’s not immigration policy, our views on domestic immigration policy certainly inform the effort to develop these common principles, approaches and initiatives with other governments, and our views of what other governments should be doing should certainly inform our approaches to our own domestic practices and law.
In fact, it was only over the past two decades or so that the Department of State recognized international migration as a distinct area of policy focus. In 1993, the Department created the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) out of the Bureau of Refugee Programs, and international migration was an issue of growing importance. Civil wars in Central America and the collapse of the Soviet Union had led to large movements of people and questions about how they should be treated from a policy and legal standpoint. With large-scale migrations of foreign policy importance, issues like human trafficking and other abuses of migrants also came to the fore. And with these events, the Department began to chart a policy and develop a range of programs that articulated and promoted our perspectives on international migration.
And this is as it should be, given the critical role that migration has played in our nation’s history. A huge percentage of the world’s migrants have ultimately found themselves in the United States. Indeed, our country has been built on immigration, and our national political leadership – whether Democrat or Republican – has continually articulated the view that immigration has made enormous contributions to our cultural diversity and richness, and to our economic growth and development. To be sure, perspectives on the economic impacts of immigration do vary. But positive views of those impacts are supported by analyses suggesting that due in some measure to immigration, the United States has largely been spared some of the troubling demographic trends that have bedeviled – and will continue to impact – the fiscal systems of other advanced industrialized countries that have been less hospitable to immigrants.
In articulating our approach to international migration over the years, the State Department has noted the U.S. effort to promote legal, humane and orderly migration, emphasizing the importance of family unification, appropriate treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, assistance and protection to vulnerable migrants such as trafficking victims and stateless persons, and regional dialogues on international migration to promote the policy objectives I’ve just mentioned.
We have also supported migration management efforts, asserting that there is no necessary conflict between enforcement, on the one hand, and protection and inclusion, on the other.
PRM has supported a wide range of programs on every continent to increase the ability of countries to manage their borders in a humane way, provide assistance to vulnerable migrants, especially those trafficked for sexual or labor exploitation, and increase cooperation among countries.
Our foremost international partner in addressing migration has been – and continues to be – the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), another major partner for our Bureau, IOM grew out of the crises of refugees and displacement in Europe at the end of World War II.
The programs we have been supporting, mostly in partnership with IOM, have been solid, even imaginative, and have produced concrete benefits for a large number of vulnerable migrants over the past years. But as the number of small, discrete projects grew to nearly fifty, we have felt a need to sharpen our focus and develop a more targeted strategy, and to capture both in a clear and concise statement of mission.
In the effort to sharpen our focus, we are not operating in a vacuum. Echoing many of the sentiments of their predecessors, Democrat and Republican, both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have provided us with valuable guidance on how we might proceed. President Obama has reaffirmed that we are a nation of immigrants enriched by our diversity, and the Secretary of State has stressed the critical importance of support for vulnerable populations, including populations in transit. In addition, as recently as earlier this month when she released the 10th Annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the Secretary reminded us that we must ensure that our domestic policies live up to ideals we often promote to others.
So we’ve given considerable thought in our Bureau about how we ought to characterize our overall policy and program mission in these critical areas. Let me offer our preliminary thinking about such a statement, with the caveat that we’re still honing in on an exact formulation.
In essence, we will seek to promote safe, humane and orderly international migration policies and practices, which play a critical role in supporting family unification, advancing development in both countries of origin and destination, enriching the cultures of host countries, encouraging cooperation between states, safeguarding human rights and ensuring stability and security, and we will seek to ensure that the policies and practices we implement and advocate to others uphold international protection principles.
In pursuit of these objectives, we will narrow our capacity building and direct assistance programs to focus on about eight critical geographic regions where migration flows raise critical humanitarian and protection concerns. We also anticipate complementing this project focus with policy engagement and advocacy.
We believe that this more narrow orientation will enhance the overall policy impact of our work, and also have more of an effect on the process of creating best international migration practices.
In Africa, that means a focus on the Gulf of Aden, from the Horn of Africa and East Africa toward the Middle East. It also means focusing on movements from sub-Saharan Africa into North Africa and onward toward Europe; and, finally, on flows to and through Southern Africa.
In the Gulf of Aden, hundreds of people drown each year, when overloaded boats capsize or smugglers throw migrants overboard to avoid detention or prevent sinking; in parts of North Africa, vulnerable migrants are without access to asylum procedures and subject to detention and deportation; and in Southern Africa, they often experience robbery, rape and other forms of violence and exploitation.
In Southeast Asia, we will focus efforts to promote the protection of highly vulnerable migrants – victims of trafficking, minors, stateless persons and others – who are often part of broader economically driven migration flows, and we will concentrate on areas where abuses appear to be most prevalent.
In the Middle East, we plan to concentrate on Iraqi migrants living in neighboring countries who are especially vulnerable to human trafficking. In addition, we anticipate policy engagement and advocacy on irregular migration in the broader region.
And in the Americas, we will focus on two sets of migration flows that present significant protection concerns: the Caribbean, with an emphasis on irregular migration flows, and parts of Latin America that are experiencing new large-scale inflows of migrants and asylum seekers from other regions of the world. In this respect, for example, we recently received a request from a country in Central America to assist in the voluntary repatriation of victims of human trafficking who were stranded, with no resources to get home.
In each of these areas of focus, our programs and our engagement with international organizations and national and local authorities will be designed, first, to build the capacity of governments to manage issues humanely and responsibly; second, to provide direct assistance to vulnerable migrants; third, to link capacity building and assistance to broader regional cooperation on best practices; and fourth, support efforts by IOM and UNHCR to coordinate effectively so that vulnerable migrants do not fall through the cracks.
Beyond a new mission statement and a sharpened program focus, we are working very hard to ensure that, with respect to international migration, we practice at home what we preach abroad.
I was in Bangkok earlier this month, meeting with senior Thai foreign policy officials and discussing with them the treatment of the Rohingya, a stateless minority ethnic group in Burma. Many Rohingya have fled over the past many years toward Thailand, Malaysia, and elsewhere in the region to escape persecution. In early 2009, when a group of sea-bound Rohingya reached Thai waters, the Rohingya were given some food and water, but they and their boats were pushed back out to sea. When I urged the official to ensure against any such actions in the future, I was asked about U.S. government treatment of asylum-seekers rescued at sea.
It was a fair question.
And while our interdiction policies have certainly been subject to critical assessment by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others, it was very important that I was able to assure my Thai interlocutor that the U.S. Coast Guard, day in and day out, meets a solemn obligation to rescue people at sea, provide them with food and other assistance, and ensure their safe disposition. It was also very significant that I could tell my counterpart that individuals rescued at sea in the Caribbean have an opportunity to voice protection concerns, and I described for him our process for addressing these issues.
To be sure, the risk of large-scale and irregular migration requires smart migration management measures, including effective law enforcement, but that imperative must coincide with the vindication of protection objectives.
And we can make those points more effectively to our friends overseas if we are respecting protection principles in our own policies. In fact, with this objective very much in mind, we in the Department of State are reviewing our efforts to ensure protection of individuals interdicted at sea, and will be discussing these issues with our colleagues in other parts of the government.
To increase the effectiveness of these kinds of initiatives, we are also reaching out to partners in other agencies of government. I have begun to meet regularly with Alejandro Majorkas, the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), on a wide variety of international migration and protection issues that jointly impact domestic and foreign policy. This year, the U.S. Government, led by PRM and USCIS, will chair the Intergovernmental Consultations on Migration, Asylum and Refugees – which, as many of you know, is a key intergovernmental forum on migration issues. We have chosen to explore the theme of Humanitarian Responses to Crises with Migration Consequences. We are also working closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other agencies in preparation for the Global Forum on Migration and Development, taking place this November in Mexico.
And, of course, our partnerships are not limited to DHS colleagues, and include agencies such as the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services as well as the White House.
Within the Administration, the Department of Homeland Security has the leading role with respect to domestic immigration law and reform. But our domestic practices often define our approaches on international migration issues, and have major foreign policy implications. This has been clearly evident in the strong and negative reaction by our friends and allies to the recent immigration legislation enacted by the Arizona legislature. And it underscores the importance of the international migration work at the Department of State and our contributions to the broad discussion of these critical issues.
Finally, let me address the migration-related elements of PRM’s response to the Haiti earthquake. Our response reflects an additional area of program emphasis: the need to be opportunistic in filling migration-related gaps in responses to key foreign policy challenges. Immediately following the earthquake, the U.S. government initiated a broad, multi-agency humanitarian response, but the bulk of the initial response effort was focused on the most heavily impacted areas near Port-au-Prince.
At the same time, tens of thousands of Haitians were crossing the border with the Dominican Republic to seek medical treatment or to join friends and family. Through IOM and other organizations, we have supported important projects focused on the vulnerable populations at or near the border – to include counseling, assisted voluntary return, healthcare and non-food items such as blankets, kitchen items, and hygiene kits. This gap-filling role taps the migration expertise of our bureau, and serves as a model for future responses.
Moreover, it is consistent with our overall goal of ensuring that our future migration policy and program efforts have greater policy impact, and therefore more effectively enhance the quality of life for people in transit.
That, it seems to me is, is an appropriate and noble goal for international migration policy. Thank you.