The Trump administration’s decision on Dec. 2 to withdraw from talks on the United Nations’ Global Compact on Migration is drawing criticism from bishops and Catholic officials who say the move is shortsighted and undercuts the United States’ leadership role in the international community.
Administration officials said the decision was motivated out of concerns that the compact would undercut the nation’s sovereignty and the right to enforce its own immigration laws. Catholic officials who work on migration matters told Our Sunday Visitor that the compact is voluntary and would not hinder the United States’ right to determine who can enter the country.
“The compact may be under the auspices of the United Nations, but it’s sovereign governments coming together to agree on how to proceed. And because the United States is both the most generous donor (to the U.N.) and has the most interests around the world, we would play a key role in any solution,” said William O’Keefe, the vice president of government relations and advocacy for Catholic Relief Services.
The United States had been part of the talks since they began in April. The negotiations grew out of a political declaration adopted last year by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly in which member nations agreed to spend two years discussing an international agreement to protect the rights of migrants and assure their safe settlement and integration into society.
The United Nations decided to address the migration issue as wars, economic hardship, poverty, climate change and violence have displaced about 65.6 million people around the world, the largest number since World War II. Of them, about 22.5 million people are refugees, according to the United Nations.
“There’s a record number of migrants on the move globally. Every week we see images of migrants dying in the ocean, trying to flee a conflict situation,” said Kevin Appleby, international migration policy director for the Center for Migration Studies, a Catholic think tank founded by the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo.
Appleby told OSV it is important that there be multilateral efforts to address the ongoing mass migration in a way that protects human rights.
“No nation, however powerful, is an island, and no nation by itself can impact this global issue in a way that makes a real difference,” Appleby said. “These are forces that one nation can’t control. The global community has to address this in a uniform matter.”
In a joint statement issued on Dec. 5, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, and Bishop Joe E. Vásquez, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, urged the Trump administration to reconsider its decision to withdraw from the compact. Archbishop Broglio said the process at the United Nation provides an opportunity for the United States “to help build international cooperation that respects such rights and protections on behalf of those seeking safety and security for their families.”
Ashley Feasley, director of migration policy and public affairs at the USCCB, told OSV that the bishops respect the sovereign right of nations to oversee and enforce their own borders, though she added that can still be achieved while participating in the U.N. compact, which she noted is voluntary.
“The compact is going to move forward,” Feasley said. “U.N. nations are going to look to find consensus and engagement on this issue, with a forward-looking lens. With the United States not being there, that means the U.S. is not at the table to influence and shape it as much as they probably would had they been there.”
Said Feasley, “I think the United States would be welcomed if they chose to come back and re-engage, and I think civil society will continue to be involved on this issue.”
But in public statements following the move, several administration officials, while acknowledging the severity of the global migrant and refugee problem, said they believed pulling back from the compact talks was the right move to safeguard the United States’ rights as a sovereign nation.
“While we will continue to engage on a number of fronts at the United Nations, in this case, we simply cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said in a statement on Dec. 4.
Nikki R. Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement announcing the withdrawal that the declaration adopted last year by the U.N. General Assembly — President Barack Obama’s administration supported the declaration — contains “numerous provisions that are inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies and the Trump administration’s immigration principles.”
Haley, a child of Indian immigrants, emphasized in her statement that “America is proud of our immigrant heritage and our longstanding moral leadership in providing support to migrant and refugee populations across the globe.” However, she said, “our decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone.”
Other have noted that the U.N. declaration’s principles risk undermining President Donald Trump’s goal of putting in place stricter immigration policies, as well as his efforts to curtail refugee resettlement in the United States. In September, Trump delivered a speech to the United Nations where he said that uncontrolled migration is “deeply unfair to both the sending and the receiving countries.”
Symptoms of withdrawal
In addition to criticizing the Trump administration’s arguments — telling OSV that the compact is voluntary and would not force the United States or any other nation to implement immigration policies against their interests — Catholic officials said the withdrawal from the U.N. talks is the latest step in the administration disengaging from multilateral talks in favor of a more isolationist approach.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration announced it was withdrawing from the Paris international agreement to combat global warming. In recent months, the administration has also indicated that is considering scrapping the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, six other nations and the European Union.
That approach runs counter to the international cooperative model championed by the Holy See. In August, Pope Francis issued a 20-point action plan on refugees and migrants to help spur governments and lay the groundwork for drafting the United Nations compacts on refugees and migration.
On Dec. 6, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations, told a global conference on migration in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, that member U.N. states must fulfill their concrete commitments to international development in order to make migration something people do by choice.
O’Keefe, of Catholic Relief Services, urged Catholics to put themselves in the place of farmers in Africa and elsewhere who have been forced to leave their homes in order to seek a better life, like most Americans’ ancestors did when they arrived in the United States.
“Anything we can do to address those causes, where we can, of why people feel they need to flee, to prevent people from being trafficked along the way, and to put in place a system so that those movements are safe and organized and orderly; that’s what we would want us to do if we were in that situation,” O’Keefe said.
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.