President Trump’s plan to release immigrant detainees on the streets of American sanctuary cities as a form of retaliation against his political enemies was reportedly the brainchild of White House adviser Stephen Miller. The logic behind it would also have made complete sense to Muammar Qaddafi.
Libya has for years been a departure point for African migrants seeking to reach Europe, a fact that the country’s late strongman leader was more than willing to exploit. During a 2010 visit to Italy, Qaddafi demanded the EU pay Libya $6.3 billion a year to stop African migrants from reaching Europe. Otherwise, he said, he would turn Europe “black.” In remarks perfectly pitched to capitalize on European anxieties over immigration, he added: “We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.”
Qaddafi wasn’t the only leader to play this game. Six years later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “open the gates” and allow the roughly 3 million refugees then living in his country to enter Europe. That came soon after the EU parliament voted to suspend talks on Turkey joining the EU. The EU had agreed to pay Turkeys billions of euros to prevent immigrants from entering the continent, but didn’t come through on other aspects of the agreement, including membership talks and visa-free travel for Turks in Europe, prompting Erdogan to accuse the Europeans of breaking their word.
Now it is Trump who is trying to use migrant populations as leverage. On Tuesday, he tweeted, “Those Illegal Immigrants who can no longer be legally held (Congress must fix the laws and loopholes) will be, subject to Homeland Security, given to Sanctuary Cities and States!” White House officials have denied that this is a form of political retribution, but Trump has made it pretty clear that the intention is to “trigger the libs,” tweeting earlier, “The Radical Left always seems to have an Open Borders, Open Arms policy – so this should make them very happy!” The Washington Post has reported that “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district in San Francisco was among those the White House wanted to target” and that the White House also considered “releasing detainees in other Democratic strongholds.”
Even if it was Miller’s idea, this ploy probably makes sense to Trump, as he seems to believe it’s already what’s being done to the U.S. He famously claimed, early in his presidential run, that “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.”
What’s striking here is not only the assumption that migration can only be a danger or a burden for the receiving country. It’s also that migrants and refugees in this view are not individuals, making decisions for the well-being or safety of themselves or their families. Instead, in this view, they are a collective quantity that governments “give,” “send,” or “release,” to each other. (It should be noted that even sympathetic advocates sometimes have a tendency to view global migration as a disembodied force or “human flow” to take the title of Ai Weiwei’s recent documentary.)
Rather than addressing the political, economic, or environmental causes of migration, or crafting policies that would benefit both migrants and the communities that absorb them, leaders are opting instead to view immigration policy as a spigot to be turned on or off. These leaders sound less like they’re crafting social policy and more like they’re diverting a river to punish a town downstream. The spread of this kind of rhetoric doesn’t bode well for how governments will respond to a global population increasingly on the move.
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