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Nowhere to Go

How Governments in the Americas Are Bungling the Migration Crisis

On the road again: a caravan of migrants from Arriaga, Mexico, October 2018 Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

In 2015, over 1.2 million asylum seekers arrived in the European Union. They were fleeing war zones in Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Syria; economic deprivation in Nigeria and Pakistan; and political instability in Somalia. The largest group came across the Aegean Sea; many of them reached European territory in Greece and then made their way to Germany. Others crossed the Mediterranean on rickety, overloaded boats or traversed the Bosporus, the Dardanelles, or the Gibraltar strait. Politicians and journalists labeled the situation a “crisis” to reflect its unprecedented scale. But this was not a crisis of numbers. It was a crisis of politics. European leaders initially resorted to unilateral, quick-fix solutions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel implemented a short-lived open-border policy. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban built a razor-wire fence. Other countries sought to accommodate, sequester, or cast out the migrants—mostly to no avail. The human consequences were devastating: over 10,000 people have drowned while crossing the Mediterranean since 2015. Those who made it were greeted not as survivors but as usurpers, free riders, or covert extremists; they soon became scapegoats for the radical right. The political consequences changed Europe forever. 

The Western Hemisphere now faces a migration crisis on a similar scale, with consequences that will likely be just as far-reaching. So far, this crisis has received a piecemeal treatment. Central American migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border, Venezuelans crossing dry plains into Colombia, Bolivians seeking work in Argentina and Chile—these are treated as separate phenomena but are in fact part of the same underlying set of problems. To avoid the kind of human and political toll that the migration crisis produced in Europe, political leaders and policymakers must treat this new situation holistically and learn from past examples. Already, policymakers in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas are repeating European mistakes.

When it comes to migration, there are limits to unilateralism and bilateralism.

So far this year, the U.S. Border Patrol has apprehended over 800,000 people at the southern

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