Another Brick in the Wall: Three Potential Regime Shifts Triggered by Trump’s Immigration Controls

UPDATE (Feb. 7):

If you are a reader in Canada, one way to show solidarity with the Muslim community, in light of the travel ban and Quebec mosque shooting, is to affirm the values of human rights and dignity by adding your and your organization’s name to the National Council of Canadian Muslims’ “Charter for Inclusive Communities”:

The Story


Iraqi refugee Hameed Khalid Darweesh addresses the press after a New York judge issued a partial stay on President Trump’s immigration ban. Source: CBS News.

In his first week in office, U.S. President Donald Trump signed two executive orders that would radically alter America’s immigration policy: an order to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexican border, and a 90-day ban on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries (including Iran, Iraq, and Syria) from entering the country – even if they already possess a visa or green card to reside in the United States. Additionally, this ban includes a blanket ban on refugees from all countries for 120 days.

The initial stories of Iranian PhD students unable to return to their universities, Iraqi translators who worked side-by-side with U.S. forces denied the refuge they were promised, and refugees from other countries literally pulled off of flights just before they were to reach safety are heartbreaking. So is the thought of hundreds of thousands of Latin American families who might be split up or forced to return to gang violence through tighter controls at the U.S.-Mexico border.

While airlines and other national immigration agencies scrambled to make sense of the decree, a new round of protests swelled against the immigration ban, particularly at JFK Airport, where two Iraqi refugees were detained as a result of the order. As of the evening of January 28, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained a partial stay of the immigration ban on their behalf, preventing the men from being deported, but still keeping them in limbo with regards to their status in the United States.



Central American refugee applicants awaiting processing. Source: USA Today.

The immediate effects of Trump’s immigration restrictions are unfolding in real time, and the reports of individual lives being upended are devastating. And, while it’s important to understand the very tangible effects of these actions in the here and now, it’s also worth keeping an eye on the changes they might trigger in the coming months and years. The migration of people across national borders is an integral part of our world: the United Nations estimates that there are 244 million people living outside their country of birth as of 2015, a 41 percent increase since 2000. And, because migration is linked to so many other global systems – including the economy, politics, war and peace, human rights and international norms – a drastic shock to immigration patterns is likely to have several ripple effects. If for no other reason, this long-term view can help us anticipate possible shifts before it’s too late, and equip us to better shape the future we want when it comes to these issues.

With that in mind, here are three potential systemic shifts that might result from this week’s immigration restrictions:

  1. Devolution of Power to Sub-National Governments 

    For several years now, many of America’s largest cities and institutions (e.g. universities and places of worship) have declared themselves “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants facing potential deportation. In response, President Trump has threatened to cut off U.S. government funding to cities that continue to practice this policy.


California Governor Jerry Brown. (Source: Politico)

This week’s restrictions are likely to spur some sub-national entities to further challenge federal immigration policy, out of concern for basic human rights, the economic impact of undocumented migrants in America, or both. Indeed, on January 28, the state of California filed a lawsuit against the President’s immigration ban, claiming that he should have consulted Congress before issuing such a blanket action. Meanwhile several companies, particularly in the tech industry, have already criticized this order (Google alone had to immediately recall over 100 employees travelling abroad because they faced a potential ban from re-entering the United States). Combined with the promise of sub-national action on climate change in the face of presidential inaction, there will likely be several policy spheres in which the actions of states and cities contradict those of the federal administration. These conflicts could trigger a series of legal challenges that have the potential to significantly re-define the balance of power between federal and sub-national jurisdictions in governing these complex issues.

2. Instability in Central America 

While Mexico has been in President Trump’s crosshairs since the beginning of his campaign, an increasing number of migrants to the United States and Mexico come from three Central American countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Gang violence in this region of the world (dubbed the “Northern Triangle”) has flared up in the past five years, leading to exorbitantly high murder rates and threats to personal security. In 2016, an estimated 80,000 people from the Northern Triangle – many of them unaccompanied children – applied for asylum, a 658 percent increase from 2011.


Homicide rates of the three “Northern Triangle” countries, compared to neighbouring Nicaragua, and the United States. (Source: American Immigration Council)

The United States already began to restrict access to asylum for these migrants prior to Trump’s inauguration, claiming that they do not fit the traditional definition of a refugee (see below). However, the order to build a wall covering the entire U.S.-Mexican border will likely further restrict their access, and may also trigger a shift in Mexican public perceptions on their country’s responsibility to harbour refugees. After all, if Mexicans are walled off from the United States (and told they have to pay for it), how would they be convinced to deal with the flow of refugees on behalf of the entire continent? Such a shift could prove disastrous for the stability of the entire region. If people with the means to escape a desperate situation are no longer able to, one of the few remaining choices is to take out their desperation on their home governments. While the desire for accountability is admirable, a full-out political or civil conflict in one or more of these fragile states could feed into a much larger regional refugee crisis that would demand U.S. attention.

3. Re-Definition of “Refugee” Status 

The modern concept of a “refugee” derives from the Second World War and the mass displacement of people from both Allied and Axis countries. The rights of refugees, and the responsibilities of governments to protect them, were codified into international law by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which established the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Reflecting the events that triggered its adoption, the Convention specifically refers to people who are being persecuted because of their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Once someone is established as a refugee, the Convention specifies that no government can expel or return a refugee against his or her will to a country where they feel a threat to their life.


While UNHCR has registered more than 21 million refugees around the world, it estimates that there are at least three times as many people who have been forcibly removed from their homes. Source (UNHCR)

While the Convention covers the rights of over 21 million registered refugees today, the UNHCR estimates that there are more than 65 million displaced people around the world. In short, the Convention’s definition of a “refugee” does not adequately cover many of the 21st century conditions that cause people to leave their homes against their will – civil conflict, gang violence (as with many Northern Triangle refugees), famine, economic hardship, natural disasters, and increasingly, the long-term effects of climate change. This too has been a problem long before Donald  Trump became President, but his crackdown on migrants from specific regions, and explicit ban on all refugees, force the questions of defining a refugee for the 21st century, and the responsibilities of nation-states towards them. Despite the odiousness of his ban, these questions do not have a simple answer – the refugee crisis in Europe serves as one illustration of these complexities. Are the world’s migration and political systems ready to manage the free flow of 65 million+ people across borders? If not, what rights do these people have, and how can we respect those rights?  Expect more debate on this in international forums – though conveniently, funding for these agencies appear to be next on President Trump’s chopping list.

Recommendations For Further Reading/Listening

  • Understanding the Central American Refugee Crisis“, by Jonathan T. Hiskey et al. (American Immigration Council). This very informative report presents research on the factors pushing residents of Central America’s “Northern Triangle” to leave their homes, and the impact of U.S. immigration controls on their decision to leave.
  • The Revolution Starts at Noon“, podcast episode from This American Life. Last week’s TAL episode relates stories of people from all sides of the political divide in America, on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. In particular, there are two interesting stories on immigration – one on a brother-sister duo who live in the United States through the DACA program and weigh the possibility of having to return to El Salvador, and an interview with a border patrol agent with mixed feelings about Trump’s immigration plans.
  • Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our Worldby Paul Collier (Oxford University Press). This book by Sir Robert Collier, a noted Oxford development economist, provides a rigorous framework for understanding the impacts of migration on our world, and the policy levers available to countries to regulate migration flows. We previously reviewed this book in a blog post here.
  • The Return of HistoryConflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the 21st Century, by Jennifer Welsh (House of Anansi Press). Jennifer Welsh, an international relations scholar and historian, delivered the 2016 CBC Massey Lectures, an annual Canadian lecture series in which one public intellectual travels the country to discuss a topic of their choice. This book compiles Welsh’s five lectures, which place the events of the last three years (the rise of barbarism, migration crises, populism, and geopolitics) in their proper historical context. One chapter includes an illuminating discussion on how the concept of “refugees” has evolved since the Second World War.

As always, I invite you to share your thoughts on this subject, including any additional articles, books, or audio/visual clips you have found useful, in the comments below.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s