Is International Migrants Day destined to be a day of mourning?

Today, December 18, is officially recognized by the United Nations as International Migrants’ Day.  The date commemorates the 1990 signing of the International Convention for the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Their Families.  But you won’t hear much about this event in the press and media in the United States, because, like other wealthy developed countries that are the destinations for most labor migrants today, our country never signed or ratified the convention.

And should this day be seen as one of celebration, or of mourning?  The panorama of international labor migration in the world today does not inspire much joy.

According to the United Nations, there are about 232 million labor migrants in the world today. In addition there are 60 million refugees and displaced persons , a record for the years since the Second World War.  The vast majority have moved from poor countries to rich ones.  And it is often difficult to distinguish between refugees and migrants:  Circumstances that cause people to uproot themselves, sometimes separating themselves from their families, may combine consideration of economic necessity with threats to personal security caused by war, terrorism and/or political persecution.

In many cases international migrants, whether refugees or economic migrants, find themselves trading off a little bit of economic or physical security against a net loss of rights.  Migrants and refugees easy prey for exploiting employers and landlords, because of their vulnerable situation:  Without voting rights, without access to basic social services afforded to citizens, often without enforceable labor rights and sometimes without legal immigration papers.  And recently we have seen a worldwide explosion of the scapegoating of migrants and refugees by demagogic right wing politicians like Marine LePen in France, Victor Orban in Hungary and Donald Trump in the United States.   Every imaginable ill of modern capitalist society is blamed on immigrants and refugees, so as to distract the public’s attention from the irrationalities and injustices of the capitalist system.   Are there not sufficient jobs?  “Immigrants are taking our jobs”.  Are our schools underfunded and overcrowded? “Immigrants overburdening the educational system”.  Is there worry about crime and terrorism? “Immigrants are pouring across the border to rape and murder us”.

These are all slanders.  But slander or not, the xenophobic language is becoming so violent as to provoke attacks on law-abiding migrants.

The reason for international migration is  covered up in our corporate controlled media.  For example, right now there is another strong uptick in child migrants from Central America coming across the U.S. – Mexico border into Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, similar to the wave of immigration that caused such an un-enlightened uproar last year.  The reasons for this are not hard to understand.  The situation in the Northern Tier of Central American countries-Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras-of chronic poverty and high crime, has got worse instead of better. In Guatemala and Honduras, massive corruption has created a situation in which health care has collapsed because funds for patient care were siphoned off by dishonest officials.  In Guatemala and Honduras, aggressive predatory behavior by transnational corporations, combined with enabling policies of the corrupt right wing governments, supported by the United States, is driving farming communities off their land.  And now there is a massive drought, related to an unusually strong “El Niño” phenomenon (which in turn may be related to global warming), which has left at least 900,000 people in Guatemala alone in danger of starvation as crops fail, and has also affected Honduras and El Salvador.  People driven off the land often have no choice but to migrate to seek work and feed their families. 

Responses in the rich countries which are net recipients of migrants and refugees are disconcerting.  In Europe, the refugee crisis created by the war in Syria has led to a huge resurgence of neo-fascist ultra right groups, which engage in hate speech against the newcomers and sometimes incite violence.  In our own presidential elections, virtually all the Republican candidates and many Republican officials have taken up anti-immigrant positions, conflating the issues of migration, crime and terrorism.  Donald Trump’s statements about Mexican undocumented immigrants as criminals and “rapists” are well known. But he is only the most extreme.  The Republican Governor of Texas, Gregg Abbott, has responded to reports of more child migrants by beefing up the National Guard’s role in patrolling the border to keep them out.

The Obama administration has recently been getting high marks from immigrants’ rights advocates because of the president’s DACA program which affords temporary relief to people brought to the United States without immigration papers when they were children.  But his attempts to expand DACA and add the DAPA program which would extend relief to undocumented parents of U.S. citizen children is tied up in court because of a suit brought by Republican state attorneys general.  Meanwhile, the United States has persuaded Mexico to beef up its enforcement of its borders with Guatemala and Belize in order to block Central American migrants who want to get to the United States.  In practice, this means that would be migrants become even more dependent on smugglers to get them through and are forced to choose even more dangerous migration routes.  This adds to the worldwide toll of thousands of migrants in every part of the world who die in the effort to escape poverty and war.

What too few people are talking about is how to end the situation of violence and penury that forces people to migrate in the first place.  This would require sacrifices on the part of the United States and the other wealthy countries:  To give up the habit of intervening in other countries to remove regimes we don’t like even if this leads to chaos as it did in Iraq, Libya and now Syria, to do something about the drug abuse problem in this country, to stop backing exploitative corporations that work to block needed reforms in the poor countries, to really do something about environmental degradation and global warming that negatively affect poor countries’ abilities to feed their people.

But are the American people aware of these things?   Probably not, and it is up to us to inform ourselves and our neighbors before we can affect the policies of our government.

If we don’t, International Migrant’s Day will really be one of mourning for the foreseeable future.

Photo: Next Year Country blog


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.