Global Migration

Migrants Deserve Better

As the line between migrant and refugee becomes increasingly blurred, we must call for humane and respectful U.S. Immigration Policies

Migrants Deserve Better
Carol Barton is part of this interfaith group calling for compassion toward immigrants.

As people around the world vehemently reject outrageous proposals to ban Muslim immigration to the United States or to exclude Syrian refugees, we should consider recent measures governments have taken to deter migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. We need only look at these actions to see that statements calling to keep out Muslims, Syrians, Mexicans and South Americans are not made in a vacuum.

In the summer of 2014, approximately 90,000 women and children fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador began crossing the U.S. border seeking asylum. Instead of finding safe refuge, they have been treated like criminals. Under expedited removal, U.S. Border Patrol officers, with authority to instantly screen asylum seekers, Link opens in a new window. bypass immigration hearings and deport the vast majority. Asylum seekers do not have the right to free legal defense, and despite valid claims, those without lawyers are deported. Those allowed to stay are put in family detention centers, which are run by private companies. The Obama Administration reopened and expanded family detention centers with the influx of immigrants last year. Some mothers and children have been jailed in these centers for lengthy periods despite trauma they suffered from home and from the journey. When released, these mothers are forced to wear electronic GPS monitors so the United States government can track them.

Link opens in a new window. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the United States and Mexico have apprehended almost one million Central American refugees since 2010 (including 130,000 minors) and deported approximately 800,000 (including 40,000 minors). Link opens in a new window. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report asserted that Border Patrol's deportation practices violate regulations.

In 2015, the migration of Central American women and children has decreased — not because fewer are fleeing home but because the United States is now Link opens in a new window. outsourcing enforcement to Mexico, paying tens of millions of dollars to keep potential asylum seekers away.

This summer, the world's focus turned to the plight of tens of thousands of Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and Eritrean refugees. Hateful rhetoric against migration reached a fevered pitch in the United States when governors vowed to keep Syrians from entering their states. With public and world pressure for the United States to increase its acceptance of Syrian refugees, some politicians are responding with hate and intolerance.

In contrast, we have applauded European countries' efforts to help refugees. American media have reported Germans welcoming refugees at train stations. Germany has provided shelter, language classes and a stipend; by the end of this year, they will have received and begun to resettle some 800,000 refugees. And the European Union (EU) will resettle 160,000 refugees currently in Italy and Greece.

However, things have started to change. The fear and mercilessness mongered in the United States are spreading across the Atlantic. Our country is exporting a policy model that flies in the face of humanitarian assistance and human rights. According to Michele Levoy, executive director of the Brussels-based Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, "the EU follows the U.S. in its policies on migration. With some lag time, EU policies are increasingly about beefing up borders and outsourcing migration controls to neighboring countries."

Similar to the United States' expedited removal, the European Commission recently created Link opens in a new window. hotspots in Italy and Greece for "registration, identification, fingerprinting and debriefing of asylum seekers, as well as return [deportation] operations." This summer, Hungary showed more overt hostility when riot police assaulted migrant families at the border with tear gas and water cannons, sealing the border and erecting a wall. And, as of this month, Macedonia Link opens in a new window. is refusing to admit refugees from any country except Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, stranding thousands from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.

As the United States has done with Mexico, the EU intends to outsource enforcement, Link opens in a new window. pledging $3.2 billion to Turkey to keep refugees away. Turkey has vowed to tighten border controls and migrants who are considered ineligible for refugee status in Europe will quickly be deported. This can potentially trap refugees in Turkey, unable to work or put their children in school yet unable to move on.

The line between migrant and refugee is becoming increasingly blurred. Both groups flee desperate situations and will take any risk to seek safety elsewhere. Efforts to dissuade or criminalize them will not stop them from coming but will cost many more lives in transit or upon return. Rather than investing billions in enforcement, the United States and other countries need to address the crises causing people to move. War, poverty, lack of jobs, climate-related extreme weather, violence and expulsions due to corporate resource extraction have caused people to risk everything to find a better life. Compassionate, not punitive, responses are needed to help the estimated 232 million migrants seeking physical and economic security today. As U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein Link opens in a new window. told the General Assembly in September:


Deaths and violence, closed borders, ever higher fences, and families torn apart tell a story of failure ... failure of the international community to prevent the causes of forced movement in the first place. And it is the failure to protect the most vulnerable of the world's migrants as they move ... movement is rarely "voluntary" ... Refugees fleeing persecution and conflict journey together with migrants fleeing poverty, discrimination and despair. They are not two different kinds of people, "deserving' and 'undeserving." They are all human beings ... [we] must acknowledge the humanity and the human rights of all migrants, regardless of their status, and fulfil the obligations of international law.


Proposals to exclude certain refugee groups are morally unacceptable. We need to take a stand against the inept actions that deny migrant and refugee human rights, as nearly 200 interfaith leaders did earlier this month when they stood on New York City Hall's steps to call for unity and compassion against hate-filled, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic proposals to keep people out.

U.S. news media call attention to the past evil of Japanese internment camps, but history is being repeated under a new name — family detention centers. As we fail to critically examine U.S. actions, Europeans are now following our intolerant lead. Let's lead in a different direction, one that is compassionate, fair and respectful to the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Let's lead and pay attention to women from Syria and South America asking, "Don't people know that we have no place to go back to? Don't people know that our children are being killed?

Carol Barton is executive for community action for United Methodist Women,

Posted or updated: 12/16/2015 12:00:00 AM