Denis McDonough on the Future of Migration

Denis McDonough on the Future of Migration

On November 15, The Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University hosted an event on the subject of global refugees and migration in the twenty-first century. Following the event, GJIA sat down with Mr. Denis McDonough to discuss the politicization of migration, as well as potential individual and national solutions to some of the issues of displacement and resettlement.


GJIA: What do you see as the biggest changes to human migration and refugee patterns in the past couple of decades?

DM: I would highlight three changes. One is increased instances of what I call push factors. Those push factors are aggravated by climate, resulting not only in extreme weather, but also drought and famines. Those push factors are also exacerbated, particularly in Central America, by violence, where the greater presence of firearms and violence is pushing people to migrate from Honduras, for example, over the course of the last couple decades, but has intensified in the last decade in particular. Some of the most important push factors today are climate, as well as regional conflict and violence in places like South Sudan, Liberia, Somalia, and East Africa. The second is technology. I think the presence and ubiquity of technology and communications has made it much more possible for people in particular areas to understand that, as much as the suffering may be obvious locally, there are places farther away, where people are not suffering. Technology amplifies pull factors, which are those aspects about somewhere that are more attractive than where people currently find themselves. Number three is the idea that greater migration begets greater migration. The more people see and hear from family members, neighbors, and acquaintances who are in a new situation, the more they’re inclined to try that themselves. Those are the three factors I would highlight. 


The three main regions where the impacts of climate change are expected to displace the largest number of people are South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. What do you think the United States can do, if anything, to mitigate the impact of environmental degradation there, or is it too late?

 I don’t think it’s too late. Personally, I believe we should have remained part of the Paris Agreement, but of course the president has chosen differently. Nevertheless, it does appear that U.S. energy consumers – to include, for example, electric utilities – are continuing a push towards cleaner-burning natural gas; we’ve also seen important gains on lowering costs for cleaner sources like wind and solar. We should continue with those efforts. We’ll see what happens on the next national campaign, including whether we see a new president and administration come in which would choose to rejoin Paris both in time to save the agreement, and in time to take a look at that IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report that came out last month, which underscores the challenge of the 2 degrees of warming limit. The new administration could make a push towards lowering that threshold to 1.5 degrees, as encouraged by the IPCC report.


Given the frequent back and forth between political parties in power, is it possible for the U.S. to implement any long-term migration and environmental policies, or will those policies always be subject to such dramatic change?

I think this is one of the big underreported and underappreciated things about the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. As a general matter, it’s been United States policy going back generations that the incoming administration recognizes and maintains fidelity to an international agreement signed by the previous administration. The Trump administration’s choice was a big change in how this has traditionally been done. Before this administration, it hasn’t been so back and forth - in fact, it’s been quite the contrary – and I hope we get back to that. Moving forward, we don’t need to maintain the precedent that the current president has set.


One of the main hot-button topics for the Trump administration with regards to immigration has been migrants traveling from the Northern Triangle countries, which are Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. Many of their political asylum claims have been denied, and the narrative around this movement has been “illegal migration,” rather than protecting refugees. Given the politicization of this topic, how can the U.S. address this issue most effectively? Why do you think there’s a narrative that’s so different from the rest of the world, where these political refugees are being treated as something negative?

Traditionally, asylum claims have been adjudicated by the judiciary, and that’s the way we should maintain it. Over time, the courts have shown a willingness to make fact-based determinations rather than cater to political considerations. As a result, asylum claims have changed over time to include courts deciding that cases of gender-based violence, for example, are grounds for asylum. That’s a set of decisions that the courts have come to through jurisprudence rather than through policy. I think we should have confidence that the courts are up to this challenge, and we should make sure that the political branches, including the executive, stay out of these issues that are traditionally reserved for the courts.


How can individual citizens have a positive impact on some of these big picture political issues? 

The first thing you have to do is vote. We saw this happen in the midterms, particularly among young voters, aged 18 to 24, it looks like the number of voters is rising higher, which I consider to be a useful and good sign. So, there’s a very simple, straightforward and easy way to get involved, and that’s to vote. The second way is just continuing to argue the case publicly that the United States’ historic commitments to refugees, immigration, and asylum are sources of great strength rather than sources of weakness or threat. Anybody who has argued that they are somehow a threat has not been able to provide any data that supports their claim. Those of us who believe that immigration is a source of strength have to continue to publicly make that argument. Third, there are a number of individual places where people can get involved. Georgetown has a long history of legal clinics associated with the Law Center for asylum seekers, for a better way to ensure that asylum seekers get representation, with volunteer lawyers and others supporting them in their claims. Individuals can also work on resettling refugee families. Under this administration, we’re not doing it to the extent that we used to, but we’re still doing it. I know, for example, local parishes in and around Georgetown and elsewhere are supporting refugees when they’re resettled to the United States, and I think people should look for ways to get involved there. Those are the three ways that people very concretely can get involved.


Is there a refugee or migration crisis that you don’t think is getting the attention that it should, and that individuals, the administration, or the media should focus on?

I do think we have a tendency to just focus on the most recent crisis in every instance. For example, take South Sudan and Uganda, where, in late 2016 and early 2017 there were about a million people, principally women and children, who sought refuge from South Sudan in Uganda. Over the course of 10 months, between 850,000 and 1 million people migrated, and that’s a huge amount of movement. That movement was quickly overshadowed by the disaster in Burma and Bangladesh, where, again, nearly 900,000 people in the course of several months were forced to flee or displaced from Burma into Bangladesh. What happens is the press covers those incidents at the beginning, but as they continue to manifest over months and years after the initial displacement, the attention fades. As a result of a lack of attention in Uganda, for example, Uganda has not been able to raise enough money from the international community to ensure that Uganda is being supported by the richer countries as they take care of all these South Sudanese. The real challenge isn’t that there is a particular situation that’s not getting appropriately covered, but rather that the regularity with which we are covering new and bigger crises means that existing crises get underappreciated, even if they were covered earlier. These are crises that endure for several years, and we have to make sure that we’re keeping attention on them so that we’re providing enough resources over the long haul.


Disclaimer: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Denis McDonough served as the 26th White House Chief of Staff during President Barack Obama’s second term. He previously served as a senior foreign policy advisor to President Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, after which he was appointed as head of Strategic Communication and Chief of Staff for the National Security Council, and later as Deputy National Security Advisor. He now works as a senior principal for the Markle Foundation, where he chairs the Rework America Task Force, a national initiative to modernize the labor market. He is also a visiting senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and serves as an executive fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs.  He has written about and traveled extensively to review the global refugee crisis. He holds a B.A. from St. John’s University (MN) and an MSFS degree from Georgetown University.