What the U.S. Can Learn From the U.N. on Migration and Development

The United Nations second High-level Dialogue on Migration and Development took place on October 3 and 4 during the first week of the federal government shutdown. It included a heavy dose of the familiar diplomatic statements of high principle. Participants widely agreed on the need to respect migrant rights, fight human trafficking and xenophobia, assist migrants in crisis, increase cooperation, develop evidence-based policies, and manage migration in ways that promote development. The UN often faces harsh criticism for championing conventions, resolutions and declarations that many member states adopt with little intention or ability to follow. Yet when it comes to migration and development, statements of high principle have been undergirded by evidence and coupled with content and concrete achievements. The dialogue offers two principal lessons for the United States.

First, good-faith dialogue trumps political grandstanding. Since the first High-level dialogue in 2006, 150 nations and countless civil society representatives have met in the state-led Global Forum on Migration and Development to discuss what John Kenneth Galbraith accurately called the "world's oldest action against poverty." While the United States has increasingly criminalized migrants, participants in the Global Forum have strategized on how to maximize the benefits of migration -- for migrants and sending and receiving communities -- while minimizing the tensions and hardships that it engenders. From these discussions, advocacy agendas and concrete initiatives have emerged on how to engage diaspora groups as development actors, to reduce the costs of migrant remittances (which equal three-times the size of all overseas development assistance), to permit the "circular" migration of skilled workers from developing countries, to create the underlying conditions that attract investment, to facilitate immigrant integration, and to prevent the abuse of migrants by labor brokers, traffickers and government officials. Meanwhile, Congress and the President are still not talking to each other nine days into the federal government shut-down, as default looms and the window for passage of immigration reform legislation slowly closes.

Second, the dialogue highlights crucial issues that the impoverished U.S. immigration debate has mostly ignored. It does not treat migration as a problem to be solved, but as one of the world's most productive and promising development tools. It recognizes that the very logic globalization -- which liberalizes the movement of goods, services, and information -- requires that displaced persons move to economic opportunity, often across national boundaries, whether legally or (if impossible) illegally. It considers the nearly 80 million U.S. baby boomers retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day, falling fertility rates throughout the Western Hemisphere (in Mexico from 7 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2010), and the diminishing ratio of working age to elderly persons in the Hemisphere -- from five to one in 2010, to a projected two to one in 2050. The dialogue has crystallized a rising challenge for aging, developed nations: i.e., how to attract the fewer available workers from developing nations who will have a greater incentive to stay home? It considers facts, like the 900,000 decrease in U.S. unauthorized immigrants from Mexico since 2007, and queries whether the United States might one day look back nostalgically on the period of heavy illegal migration from Mexico. By contrast, the Senate would unnecessarily double the number of Border Patrol agents and deny newly legalized immigrants Social Security credits based on work they performed while unauthorized.

Finally, the dialogue is premised on an accurate understanding of why persons migrate. Most do not migrate to break the law, to threaten host communities, to monopolize public benefits, or to undermine core values. They come to support their families and improve their life prospects, sometimes simply to survive. They seek to participate and contribute to their new and old communities. Pope Francis recently characterized immigrants as "children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more." The migration and development dialogue seeks to know more so that migrants and their communities of origin and destination might have and be more. It seeks to facilitate the participation of immigrants, so that they might be more effective instruments of development. The United States would do well to follow suit.