United States fails to participate in key global conversations on migration

On December 2, the State Department announced—and multiple news outlets reported—the decision of the Trump administration to end U.S. participation in the Global Compact for Migration (GCM), a non-binding international agreement that is in the process of being negotiated by 193 member states of the United Nations. The GCM is an attempt to improve coordination and governance on migration, seek new solutions to challenges posed by increased migrant flows, and strengthen the contributions of migrants to sustainable development. Numerous groups working to advance migrants’ rights have condemned the U.S. withdrawal from the GCM process.

The State Department’s statement came on the eve of an important intergovernmental meeting in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to prepare the world’s governments for the negotiations during most of 2018. The Trump administration’s statement pointed to the New York Declaration of 2016, which kicked off the process for UN Member States to negotiate a Global Compact, as containing “numerous provisions that are inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies and the Trump Administration’s immigration principles.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley further noted that “decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone.”

The GCM is a historic opportunity to improve the governance of migration. The compact is likely to address issues such as deportations, the rights of child migrants, and labor migration—but no one knows what will be in the final compact because there is no initial first or “zero” draft. In addition, the United States could decide not to support the final text if it fails to improve the status quo, and the GCM will be a non-binding agreement, meaning the United States is not required to comply with it under international law. As a result, Ambassador Haley’s statement that “the global approach in the New York Declaration is simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty” is misleading.

The U.S. government could have participated in the negotiations and then decided whether or not to support the compact. The United States is the major immigration country, hosting 20 percent of all the world’s migrants, and has decades of experience spread across multiple federal agencies that could have been useful to share with countries grappling with migration issues.

Exiting the GCM at this early stage is also inconsistent with longstanding U.S. government practice. The United States never realistically considered signing the 1990 UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, but was an active participant in the negotiations and contributed to the text, so that the final treaty included U.S. input. The United States handled the intergovernmental negotiations for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in a similar way, even though the Bush administration believed that the Americans with Disabilities Act made U.S. accession to the treaty unnecessary. Nonetheless, the United States intervened frequently in 2005 to suggest changes and additions to the text.

While we have serious concerns and critiques regarding many of the policy choices the Trump administration has made so far on immigration, the GCM is likely to have an impact that extends far beyond the four or eight years of the Trump administration. Therefore, the administration should return to participating in the international negotiations to craft the Global Compact for Migration, and negotiate in good faith to achieve an agreement that helps protect the rights of all workers—foreign- and native-born alike. The United States needs to participate in processes like the GCM that bring the world together to manage the migration challenges it faces while maximizing its benefits for countries of origin and destination.