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Six Paradoxes on the Theme of Migration



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One of the Institute’s long-term areas of research interest is the status of asylees, refugees and migrants around the world. While these groups have always constituted vulnerable populations in the United States and in many other nations as well, Donald Trump has, since 2015, led a campaign in the U.S. to demonize these individuals in the eyes of a substantial minority of Americans. He used his campaign for office and the four years of his administration, beginning in 2016, to vilify this population by claiming that most were criminals, terrorists or wastrels. His assertions were uniformly false, but his use of such tropes was hardly new in American history. Immigrants have long been ostracized in this country as somehow less than and dangerous to those who already reside here. Paradoxically, these claims have often been offered by those, including Trump, whose parents or grandparents were immigrants themselves.  

        As I write, several leaders in European and Latin American nations have emulated Trump and have similarly scapegoated immigrants and refugees to gain or to retain power.  This rhetoric and policy stance was exacerbated in some European nations by the exodus created by the Syrian civil war and Afghanistan’s collapse. This turn has led the European Union and the United States to adopt policies temporarily to suspend or block the international right to asylum, a convention those nations had long supported. Overall, these leaders’ decisions and practices have led to a reality that finds the international community’s most fragile states, with least capacity to do so, shouldering a continuing disproportionate responsibility for the world’s migrants, refugees and asylum seekers despite efforts adopted by the United Nations in 2018 to avoid just such a scenario.

This fraught situation is characterized by several paradoxes that I sketch briefly below. I do so to highlight how far afield present policies of the U.S. and other nations have strayed from protecting human rights, and to illustrate several ongoing trends that are likely to create challenges in this policy domain for decades to come.

Paradox 1

Nations cannot grow economically with static or declining populations, and yet the United States birthrate is now so low that our country may soon fail to replace its existing population. This fact constitutes a deep irony for policy makers, including Trump and his party, who pillory immigration in the name of ensuring economic vitality and innovation. It also suggests the likelihood that most such officials are aware they are embracing lies when pressing such claims, but they do so because they believe supporters will respond emotionally to those falsehoods and support them at the polls. Assuming the nation’s current population trend holds, the stance of these politicians will surely do nothing in economic terms in the long pull to assist those whose support they have galvanized. Indeed, the reverse is likely to obtain.

Paradox 2

The human species as we now know it very likely originated in what is today’s African continent some 200,000 years ago, but in the relatively short space of roughly 40,000 years thereafter, it spread or emigrated throughout the planet. In this important sense, virtually all the earth’s present human inhabitants can rightly be considered immigrants or asylees. More, many indigenous peoples around the world, including many Native American tribe members in the United States and First Nation peoples in Canada, as well as the Nenet and Dukha people in Siberia and Mongolia, respectively, continue to migrate, or once routinely migrated, as an integral part of their lives.

Paradox 3

If migration can be said to be innate to the human species, the same must be said for the broader animal kingdom for whom today’s maze of national borders and purported sovereignties is meaningless as they follow migratory paths they have plied for centuries, whether wolves, caribou, polar bears, other mammals or countless species of birds, insects and fish.

Paradox 4

Climate change, human pollution of land and waters, and atmospheric warming and desertification are today prompting new waves of human migration. Unless international leaders and institutions take far more aggressive steps than the policies they have undertaken to date, that trend looks set only to worsen in coming decades as increasing shares of the earth become unfit for humans due to water scarcity, rising seas, heat-related maladies or infectious diseases. To the extent that many individuals fleeing persistent hunger, famine or absolute immiseration will come from relatively poor rural and informal communities in their nations of origin, they will require disproportionately higher levels of assistance to help with their transitions to new lives than those emigrating for other reasons, wherever their new homes may be located. The enormous sums likely to be necessary for this purpose will need to come not only from the nations directly affected, but also from other countries throughout the world.

Paradox 5

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed afresh the vast and growing inequality within the United States and between the major industrialized nations and the remainder of the world. While much of the maldistribution of rights, wealth and opportunity is the result of deliberate policies undertaken during the last 50 or so years as neoliberal ideology has held sway in the West and beyond, the pandemic has clarified the enormous challenges confronting disadvantaged communities in poor and rich nations alike as they have sought to address the crisis. In Latin America, hit especially hard, COVID has resulted in accelerating political and social conflict in multiple nations and a related crisis of gender violence. The economic collapse of Venezuela particularly, and the continuing outmigration from Central America symbolize the region’s ongoing fragility and the difficulties that scenario presents for the sustenance of democratic institutions in the face of widespread demagoguery, conflict and need. COVID has exacerbated long-standing social and economic inequalities across the subcontinent and fed both a demagogic response and a large-scale migration. In the United States, the virus has hit poorer individuals and already vulnerable populations, including Native Americans, especially hard, with death rates in those populations and areas generally far exceeding those occurring elsewhere.

These paradoxes highlight the fact that the challenge of alterity, which both defines and underpins the migration issue, exists alongside a companion willingness among humans to protect their own against the vagaries of existence and even to migrate to safeguard that possibility. Nonetheless, today’s migrants often exist in an imagined netherworld largely created by demagogues. Those officials use that abstracted space to press other citizens to dehumanize immigrants and thereby to undermine their humanity and human rights. No author of whom I am aware has captured this dynamic better than the sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, who has offered the following observation concerning it:

The overall effect of these and similar imputations, slanders and calumnies (as a rule, poorly—if at all—supported by facts) is, first of all, the dehumanization of incomers. … casting them. … as persons stripped of both lay and religious significance and value. Dehumanization paves the way for their exclusion from the category of legitimate human rights holders and leads, with dire consequences, to the shifting of the migration issue from the sphere of ethics to that of threats to security, crime prevention and punishment, criminality, defence of order and, all in all, the state of emergency usually associated with the threat of military aggression and hostilities.[1]

Paradox 6

A final paradox concerning this policy sphere takes two guises. First, even as a share of elected officials in the United States and other nations remain busily engaged in dehumanizing immigrants in the fashion that Bauman noted, the pressures created by the policies those same lawmakers have developed and continue to support look likely only to redouble the world’s migrant stream in coming decades. More, their dehumanizing efforts will make thoughtful policy responses to those realities much more difficult to attain than would otherwise be the case. Second, to the extent that demagogues persuade large majorities in their nations to undermine the rights of incomers, they will weaken the role and rule of law in the international order and the rights of all citizens in affected countries. In this sense, migration policy can be considered something off a bellwether of the health of democratic institutions at both the national and supranational scales.

We will continue to study the dynamics of immigration and refugee policy and governance regimes at the Institute as one vital lens by which to continue to chart the health of freedom and human rights globally at all analytical scales. How our nation and the international community collectively treat refugees and migrants during the next several years will tell us much about whether U.S. citizens, and humanity more broadly, will live largely in freedom or will exist in authoritarianism’s chains in coming decades.


[1] Bauman, Zygmunt. Strangers at our Door. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016, pp. 85-86. 

Publication Date

January 1, 2022