US Leaves UN Global Migration Discussions, to Church’s Dismay

Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops have called for a robust worldwide response to the international migration crisis, but the Trump administration fears an undermining of national sovereignty.

A mother and her children are among the world's millions of refugees.
A mother and her children are among the world's millions of refugees. (photo: Catholic Relief Services Instagram)

WASHINGTON — Global migration has reached historic levels, as an estimated 244 million people — 3% of the global population — are living outside their home countries. Approximately, 60 million migrants include those displaced by wars across the world.

However, the U.S. government has opted to withdraw from ongoing United Nations discussions for an international compact on global migration, on the basis that the negotiations to strengthen global governance over the matter were “inconsistent with U.S. law and policy.”

“While we will continue to engage on a number of fronts at the United Nations, in this case, we simply cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Dec. 3 in a statement.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed its disappointment at U.S. withdrawal from the Global Migration Compact and urged the Trump administration to reconsider.

“With a growing global concern about protracted forced migration situations, the U.N. process provides an opportunity for the United States to help build international cooperation that respects such rights and protections on behalf of those seeking safety and security for their families,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, said Dec. 2 in a joint statement with Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas. “Participation in that process allows the U.S. to draw on our experience and influence the compact.”

Bishop Vásquez, the chairman of the USCCB’s migration committee, stated that Catholic social teaching “recognizes and respects” a nation’s sovereignty and responsibility to decide how it will regulate migration into its territory. He also stressed the Church has taught this right also carries an obligation to “to assure human rights for all migrants and special protections for vulnerable migrants, such as refugees, forced migrants, victims of human trafficking and women and children at risk.”

The three days of U.N. negotiations that took place in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, concluding Dec. 7, are an intermediate step toward the adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018. The framework for negotiations was based on the nonbinding New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants adopted by the U.N. in 2016.

Pope Francis has called for global solidarity on behalf of migrants and refugees and lent his personal support to the Puerto Vallarta conference. In a videotaped message, he called on participants “to welcome, protect, promote and integrate” migrants and refugees.

“The idea was to work toward a nonbinding framework that countries could agree to,” said Bill Canny, executive director of the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services. He said the framework focused on key needs, such as for migrant children to receive education, support for countries with large numbers of migrants and refugees and working  for measures preventing economic exploitation of migrant labor and for ongoing humanitarian assistance to refugees.

Canny said the U.S. decision will likely have the effect of strengthening the resolve of other countries to go forward. He expected the U.S. will likely pick and choose what elements of the final global compact it will participate in.


Sovereignty Debate

Others, however, applauded the U.S. decision on national sovereignty grounds.Marguerite Telford, a spokeswoman for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors a restrictive approach to immigration, told the Register that they were “thrilled” by the Trump administration’s decision. Telford said the language being negotiated was too broad and risked handing over too much decision-making on international human rights to a global body.

“National sovereignty is important; having the American people decide our destiny is important,” she said.

Telford said the compact would have infringed on U.S. law that makes it illegal for unauthorized immigrants to be employed in the marketplace. She also added it would have interfered with U.S. law that allows the government to detain people at the border. Unaccompanied minors who arrived at the border, she added, rarely showed up for immigration court after they were released.

Telford said that the U.S. should instead focus on solving the crises that drive migration.

U.N. officials, however, stressed that while an international framework was necessary, member states would have to determine how to implement it consistent with their sovereignty.

“The U.N. is the best — and, in fact, the only — forum in which this response can be formulated,” said Miroslav Lajčák, the president of the U.N. General Assembly, according to the U.N. News Center.

An authority familiar on negotiations at the United Nations, who spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity, noted the U.S. decision to withdraw from upcoming negotiations on the migrant and refugee compacts was not acting in the best interest of its citizens. Removing the U.S. voice from the negotiations could lead to even greater liberalization of refugee law and “soft law,” which may then be adopted by a future Democratic administration that does not share the concern over undermining national sovereignty.

“The Trump administration would do well to take a page from the playbook of the U.S. delegation to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which actively negotiated and thus molded the convention to its own political viewpoint,” the analyst said, adding the U.S. was one of the nations that never acceded to the convention, despite participating in its formulation.


Sovereignty and Migration

In a 2014 document “Mission for Migrants,” the U.S. bishops taught that sovereign nations have a right to control their borders “in the service of the common good of its citizens.”

However, they stressed this was “not an absolute right” because nations have an obligation to “the universal common good,” as taught by St. John XXIII in Pacem in Terris. The bishops said nations “should seek to accommodate migration to the greatest extent possible” and that the U.S. and other economically powerful nations have “a higher obligation to serve the universal common good.”

“In the current global environment, in which there are jobs in the United States which immigrants fill, the United States should establish an immigration system which provides legal avenues for persons to enter the nation legally in a safe, orderly and dignified manner,” the bishops taught.

The Church’s approach to the global migration crisis involves balancing the concerns of human dignity for migrants “made in the image and likeness of God” with the need of sovereign nations to care for the common good of their societies within their borders, explained Vincent Rougeau, dean of Boston College’s Law School. But global migration is a global problem requiring international cooperation, said Rougeau, an expert in the intersection of Catholic social teaching and territorial sovereignty.

“The idea that one nation can absent itself from a global, international conservation on the strategy for addressing it seems somewhat inconsistent with the nature of the problem,” he said.

Rougeau added that the U.S. has long had a history of generosity toward refugees, but the Church is calling the U.S. and Europe, the wealthy nations of the world, to do more because they have more capacity to be generous than poorer and middle-income states bearing the burden of refugee crises.

“Migration can happen for any reason,” said Rougeau. “We have to cooperate with the other nations of the globe to find real solutions to this problem.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.