This a column about the Central American immigration caravan, but bear with me for one Middle East anecdote.
When I first went to Iraqi Kurdistan more than 18 years ago to teach in its universities, Kurdistan was a very different place. Saddam Hussein’s shadow hung over the region, and there was widespread fear that he could reinvade the territory he had struck with chemical munitions just over a decade previously. Iraqi Kurdistan was also struggling under a dual embargo: As part of Iraq, it was subject to international sanctions and, because the United Nations agreed to channel aid through Saddam’s government, it faced continued efforts by the genocidal Iraqi leader to starve it into submission. Perhaps it was not surprising, therefore, that so many Kurds were willing to pay people smugglers to escape to Europe and a better life. Some went by land, but others tried sea. Kurds often talked about a small group smuggled on board a ship carrying scrap metal. Halfway through the ship’s voyage, ownership switched and so did the ship’s destination. Rather than come to port in France, the ship ended up in Mozambique. The Kurds, discharged onto the beach but thinking they were safely in Europe, immediately declared themselves refugees and claimed asylum. And hence the Kurdish community of Mozambique was born because when asylum is sought, the right to travel beyond ends. Refugees do not have unlimited right to travel; by tradition and law, they stay in the countries in which they land until receiving legal permission to move onward.
The same is actually true with Europe. The 1985 Schengen Agreement eliminated the need for visas and allowed freedom of movement among its European signatories, but the treaty was predicated on the fact that those countries on Europe’s periphery and first port of entry airports would conduct security and checks on behalf of all. Refugees who reach Europe and seek asylum may win protections based on acceptance of their refugee status, but they do not have the right to enjoy the same visa-free travel as European citizens and Schengen visa holders. Those arriving on Italy’s shores from North Africa, for example, do not have any right to transit to Germany or Scandinavia but, according to law and tradition, should remain in Italy until they receive advance permission or a visa to settle elsewhere. Put another way, it may be ungenerous, but it is perfectly legal for the Austrian or Hungarian governments to build fences and push migrants by force away from their border. After all, if refugees are truly fleeing political violence instead of migrating for economic reasons, they are safe as soon as they reach European shores. They may want to settle in Denmark, but they are safe when they land in Greece.
Admittedly, what every policymaker and immigration advocate knows is that safety is not the chief goal of many refugees seeking a new life in Europe. It is no coincidence that the European Union accounts for 7 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world’s economy, and 50 percent of the world’s social service spending. Put another way, a Syrian would much rather relocate to Europe than Bangladesh or Ethiopia.
Not everyone is so permissive. Many immigration activists speak longingly of a multipolar world. The irony is, of course, their perspective alternate poles — China and Russia, for example — would shoot migrants on sight if they tried to cross their borders illegally. That is not an American option, but neither should be a right to remain.
This brings us to the so-called migrant caravan from Central and South America. Many journalists highlight humanitarian reasons for refugees deciding to pull up stakes to make the long and, at times, hazardous journey northward to the United States. These stories may be true, even if they are cherry-picked. Too many journalists subordinate the neutrality of the craft to political enabling. They are more likely to convey a compelling story that advances their own political agenda than report the case of a migrant who admits he or she just wants to make more money or to enjoy a more generous social safety net.
Regardless, even if the entirety of the caravan do not feel safe in their homelands, a family fearing political reprisals in Nicaragua are safe when they reach Honduras or Guatemala. Mothers fleeing gang violence in El Salvador are out of immediate danger when they reach Mexico. If the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and various non-governmental organizations truly cared about refugees or international law, they would seek to process them across the borders from their countries of origin. Venezuelan refugees might end up in Colombia or Brazil, Hondurans might end up in Guatemala, and Guatemalans in fear for their lives might seek refuge in Mexico. Those are the countries in which the refugee camps should be built. After all, proximity is a virtue, as the goal of refugee relief is to remove people from harm’s way but then seek a return once danger recedes.
Economic migrants, of course, are a different story. Rather than march across Mexico, they could simply line up in front of embassies willing to grant visas and a chance at a better life. That certainly is the model in other parts of the world: South Asians and residents of poorer Middle East countries, for example, come to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or Kuwait with visas and work papers in hand, rather than try their luck on rickety boats. They may toil in crowded conditions for two, five, or even ten years but, when they return, they have acquired more capital than they could have hoped for had they stayed in their home countries.
When it comes to the migrant caravan making its way through Mexico, the ramifications of the arguments made by immigration activists and an increasingly large chunk of the Democratic Party are as serious as they are absurd. Put aside the notion of nationalism and the meaning of citizenship itself.
If every migrant or refugee has the right to come to the United States, what is the point of visas? If illegal immigration is embraced, what is the benefit for adhering to the laws and regulations which govern legal immigration? President Trump has sought to reduce the State Department’s budget. Would immigration activists propose that Trump slash most if not all consular positions? After all, if visas are beside the point, why maintain a staff to issue them? And if the visa process is arbitrary, what does that mean for all the background and security checks worked into the system? Proponents of the Obama administration’s efforts to welcome Syrian refugees, for example, sought to assure the public that each would go through multiple background checks before ever stepping foot on American soil. If those checks served any purpose, why should every other potential migrant not meet the same standard of vetting before reaching the United States?
Immigration is a virtue, but so is a nation of laws, rules, principles, and regulations. Normally, there should be no contradiction between the two. But what activists now advocate not only prioritizes the former above the latter, but they also threaten to shred decades of immigration and humanitarian legal precedent.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.