US Absent from Mexico Talks on 'Global Compact for Migration'

By Nayla Rush on December 13, 2017

The Trump administration earlier this month decided to end its participation in the United Nations "Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration" days before a meeting in Mexico City. The withdrawal was to be expected, but by pulling out prior to the multinational gathering, the administration missed an opportunity to make a case to world leaders for its approach to migration.

The "Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration", also known as the Global Compact for Migration (GCM), was set in motion in September 2016 following the unanimous adoption by the 193 UN members states (including the United States) of a resolution entitled "New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants". The UN describes it as "a landmark political declaration that is directed at improving the way in which the international community responds to large movements of refugees and migrants, as well as to protracted refugee situations." It is meant to establish a "global framework" for a "global response" to a "global phenomenon". Based on this agreement, "migration, like other areas on international relations, will be guided by a set of common principles and approaches."

(The official statement released by the U.S. Mission to the UN does not mention the "Global Compact on Refugees", which is a related but distinct effort from the one on migration, leaving unanswered whether the U.S. is pulling its support from both compacts.)

The goals of the GCM include to establish official mechanisms to monitor human rights violations and abuse of migrants, review policies that criminalize cross-border movements, encourage family reunification, eliminate child immigration detention, focus on inclusion of migrants in host societies, provide safe passage to work (including legal avenues) and appropriate protections for migrant workers.

The Trump administration's announcement to withdraw from the GCM came two days before a preparatory meeting scheduled in Mexico last week. Talks in Mexico were organized to provide a "platform for different nations and stakeholders to jointly shape a vision" for the GCM. Formal intergovernmental negotiations under the auspices of the UN were to follow in February 2018; after which consultations with member states and other relevant stakeholders were set to begin. Lastly, the presentation and adoption of the GCM is expected to take place during the 73rd UN General Assembly in September 2018.

The decision to work towards the adoption of a Global Compact on Refugees in 2018 was also reached following the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. According to the UN, "the two processes [the compact on migration and the one on refugees] are separate, distinct and independent."

The Global Compact on Refugees will focus on four key principles:

Easing pressures on countries that welcome and host refugees;

Build self-reliance of refugees;

Expand access to resettlement in third countries and other complementary pathways;

Foster conditions that enable refugees voluntarily to return to their home countries.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was tasked with creating a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) to put these principles into practice. Following that, a Global Compact for Refugees will be presented to, and is expected to be endorsed by, UN member states at the 73rd General Assembly session in September 2018.

The U.S. endorsement of the "New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants" and participation in the Global Compacts were decided by the Obama administration. It is not uncommon for a new president to reconsider its predecessor's commitments, especially if the transition meant also a shift in political color. The withdrawal of the Trump administration from the GCM process was to be expected given his public takes on U.S. immigration policy.

My colleague Andrew Arthur pled for such a move a couple of months ago, warning against a reliance on international agreements when it comes to migration. In early October, he wrote the following:

There are certainly many instances in which the international community should be "guided by a set of common principles and approaches." It is doubtful, however, whether immigration policy is such an instance. The United States should proceed cautiously, at best, in agreeing to a "one size fits all" policy that would govern global migration. Most crucially, the administration should consider whether it is appropriate, and on what terms, this country should accede to a "global compact" that will contradict U.S. law and undermine national sovereignty.

What is less comprehensible is the manner in which this was implemented. The withdrawal announcement came only two days before the scheduled talks in Mexico – a three-day meeting agreed on in April 2017. The U.S. had plenty of time (some seven months) to give an advance notice to the UN leadership and to member states.

But there was another missed opportunity here. The U.S. could have attended this meeting to present the new administration's take on immigration issues and explain why it was unable to pursue its collaboration beyond this point.

Upon reaching power, President Trump vowed to enforce U.S. immigration laws (including deportation), review his predecessor's de facto open border policies, and reassess the numbers of legal immigrants allowed into the United States. Moreover, and instead of pushing for more resettlement or other admission pathways, the Trump administration sought to reinvent a broken refugee system, assist those it resettles better and longer, and help millions of refugees where they are more efficiently.

The elaboration of such principles in Mexico would not have convinced every participant, but they could have resonated well with a few who share such viewpoints. And if we were to be very hopeful, this could have encouraged them to voice their apprehensions and admit to their reluctance to pursue this path towards a global response for migration.