Opinion: The U.S. should be more accepting of migrants


McCorkle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of education at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and lives in Charleston.

I work extensively with asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border in the Mexican cities of Reynosa and Matamoros. In contrast to the political rhetoric, we have anything but an open border. It is very closed and highly militarized. As part of my research this summer, I was able to go to Colombia to see some of the immigration realities. Though there is of course a level of nuance, the level of acceptance in Colombia to Venezuelans migrants and asylum seekers is quite impressive.

I was able to travel to the city of Cucuta on the border with Venezuela. Over half of the city’s residents are migrants. While I was there, I was able to interview some of these migrants as well as aid workers. One aspect that especially impacted me was a small school that was part of a church called Iglesia de la Frontera, or Church of the Border. Though it was in Colombia, it had only Venezuelan children. The pastor said many of them actually crossed the river from Venezuela to come to the school every day.

This year, on Jan. 1, the government of Colombia under President Gustavo Petro completely opened the border to Venezuelans. They do not need to show a passport, which are often difficult for Venezuelans to obtain. Though I personally could not actually enter Venezuela, I was able to walk on the bridge between the two countries. When we walked back into Colombia, there was no check at all. It was almost like walking between two states of the same country. One of the aid workers said that the policy has strongly benefited the local Colombian economy. It has also helped sections of the Venezuelan economy as more goods come into the country. One hope could be that this will help to liberalize the Venezuelan society and economy, even if only slightly. This new policy has also allowed many Venezuelan migrants to visit their families. I talked to one migrant who told me that he was going to return to Venezuela that week to bring his daughter back to Colombia. This is in strong contrast to the situation in the U.S., where undocumented immigrants are often permanently separated from their families.

Even before this current, more left-leaning government in Colombia, the right-leaning government under former President Iván Duque Márquez gave Venezuelans an opportunity to normalize their status in the country due to the understanding of the humanitarian crisis that they faced. I did witness some pushback to the open policies from Colombians, but it is seemed to be far less than what would occur in the United States if this same proportion of immigrants were coming in record numbers.

One theme that became clear was that there was a broader feeling in the Colombian society that people had the right to immigrate. It was almost the opposite of the mindset in the U.S. or other wealthier nations where the onus is placed on the migrants about why they should be allowed to migrate. Another aspect that was different in Colombia was that many Colombians in the 1980s and 1990s had actually migrated to Venezuela in the midst of social and political unrest. They too had once been migrants (and maybe one day they will need to be again). This is something that we have not often considered in the U.S. context. For many, their own immigration history seems distant, or they are just prone to quickly forget.

I realize there are different realities at the U.S.-Mexico border in the San Diego-Tijuana region. For one, I do think there should be security checks to make sure criminal elements at least have to be screened. However, it is quite amazing to me how countries like Colombia can be more open to immigrant populations even though they do not have near the infrastructure, space or wealth that we do. We still have a great labor shortage, especially in more working-class jobs that many immigrants would initially take. We have some of the lowest population density in the world and are by far the wealthiest nation. With all their imperfections, countries like Colombia put the U.S. to shame with their stance on welcoming migrants. We need to embrace the truth: Migration is not just something we should bestow upon a highly selective and privileged few, but rather it is something that is essential to basic human rights — the opportunity for people to leave their place of birth and find safety and a better life for their families.


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