It is useful to look upon governance as a force. A significant worsening in a country’s fragility and governance can produce a potent force – a force that neither governments nor citizens can ignore. The force acts both ways – in strongly governed countries, it works by retaining their deeply vested citizens while in poorly governed countries, that same force tends to uproot families in search of a better life elsewhere.
Human migration takes place when the force of governance pushes people from poorly governed countries to strongly governed ones.
The world is witness to the fact that when poor governance slides into anarchy, the force is enough to devolve emigration into an exodus. History is replete with sporadic episodes of mass migration and exodus. In fact, the widely dispersed Indian diaspora of today had itself been compelled into migration and exodus in the not too distant past. I can take a page from my own childhood.
Like many thousands of Indians in the 1960s, my parents saw compelling reasons to leave Burma and emigrate to India just before the military junta seized power from a democratically elected government. The junta expropriated the assets of all non-Burmese, who were mainly Indians, declaring that Burma is for the Burmese. Thousands of Indians who had cultivated deep roots in Burma over decades, were forced to uproot their families and leave the country. Later, such insular, nationalistic policies also led to the emigration of many Indians from Uganda.
The force of governance continues to act today. As in the past, the present humanitarian crisis is due to the abject failures of governance in the countries of origin of the refugees. Thus, the unprecedented influx of refugees from the Middle East to Europe or from Mexico and other Latin American countries to the US can be understood as a force compelling people to escape poor governance in search of better economic opportunities and greater personal security. The specific cause of these exoduses may be different but the force is the same – poor governance.
Border walls can perhaps temporarily deter illegal cross-border migration but they cannot stop the flow of illegals into a country. Because the force of governance acts both ways, we do not see an outflow of refugees from the US into Mexico or from India into Bangladesh. The present Trump administration seems oblivious to these basic forces and propensities at work. Fundamentally, Trump’s trade policy is at odds with its immigration policy. But no one seems to have pointed this out to him. Not that Trump would care. In fact, I don’t think either Trump or his millions of supporters care. But the truth never goes away just because we don’t care about it! The truth comes in layers.
First, presidencies have limited terms. Even if Trump wins in 2020, his time as president would be up in another four years. That’s not even a drop in the bucket, considering the lives of nations. The United States will continue to exist as a beacon of hope for all the despairing Mexicans, Hondurans, Colombians and Venezuelans, to name a few. The incoming president would like to leave his or her own mark on policy – a policy that would not only be fair but also perceived as such. Such an immigration policy has a much better chance of working in the long run compared to a border wall that can be likened to a Band-Aid over a haemorrhage.
Second, any immigration policy that wants to discourage the mass migration of illegal immigrants would need to facilitate those countries’ trade with the US. The US trade deficits vis-a-vis many developing countries are a far more effective policy than aid ever was, or could be, in generating jobs and reducing poverty in those countries, thereby limiting illegal immigration into the US.
Therefore, US import restrictions and tariffs under the Trump administration is a penny wise and pound foolish policy that is choking business in those countries, further impoverishing poor people, and encouraging their illegal migration into the US. All the jingoism, brutality and downright racism backed by the best wall there is cannot stand up to the twin forces of fragility and poor governance.
That said, deterrence of illegal immigration must have an important and rightful place because there is little tolerance around the world for absorbing an exodus of refugees. Thus, the interdiction and deterrence of illegal immigration not only needs to be dovetailed with trade and aid, but there also need to be concrete efforts to improve governance in fragile states.
The time has come for strongly governed countries to turn up the heat on fragile states to seek the assistance of international organizations to improve governance. Unless economic opportunities and governance are strengthened in fragile states, the impetus of mass migration will continue regardless of any nationalistic president, wall or other deterrents. Policies of physical deterrence need to work in tandem with soft policies such as trade, aid, security collaboration, and technical assistance to improve governance.
Given that India is halfway around the world from the US, it comes as a surprise that Indians themselves are now the fastest growing new illegal immigrants to the US. Whereas the vast majority of Indians in the US are legal immigrants based on highly specialised skills in software development, computer or other engineering, medicine, and business management, the growing number of illegal immigrants from India are mostly unskilled.
According to Pew Research Center, between 2009 and 2014, some 500,000 illegal immigrants from India sneaked into the US even as the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico fell by 8 per cent to 5.85 million. Indians are now the fourth-largest group of illegal immigrants in the US after those from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.
What does all this mean? Well, it seems all the drum-beating about 8 per cent growth and 10 per cent growth was not good enough for those who felt compelled to leave. Their lives obviously failed to improve and there are countless millions who are eking out such a living in India. They would also leave if they could.
Excerpted with permission from India Still A Shackled Giant, Dev Kar, Portfolio Penguin.