Simple Solutions are the Wrong Solutions

Outsourcing immigration enforcement allows extremism to thrive, leaving us with complicated solutions.

From initially blocking asylum seekers to then extending humanitarian relief to ultimately hardening and militarizing borders, the European Union’s 2015 response to the Syrian refugee crisis was dizzying for policy experts, much less the migrants who sought protection. Their blunt force approach to migration rippled around the world.

In 2016, Jennifer Podkul of Kids in Need of Defense, worked with colleagues to issue a report examining how the U.S., Australia, and Europe were leaning on nations beyond their borders to clamp down on immigration. They found that developed countries were externalizing their borders so migrants would never reach their borders.

Podkul and her co-authors wrote, “In addition to being associated with increased enforcement practices (and detention of migrants), externalization can implicate asylum rights and prohibitions against refoulement.” Which was an understatement.

It turns out that in 2017, Italy signed a financial agreement with Libya so the Libyan Coast Guard would detain and push back migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Rather than addressing the root causes of migration from northern Africa, much less establishing an updated asylum system within the EU, Italy had turned to Libya, a failed state, to keep migrants on the other side of the sea.

Which, as Ian Urbina recently reported in The New Yorker, has led to the horrific treatment of migrants. In a deeply reported piece, his team found that the agreement laid the foundation for the disappearance and killing of migrants in unofficial Libyan detention camps.

Urbina wrote:

In the past six years, the European Union, weary of the financial and political costs of receiving migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, has created a shadow immigration system that stops them before they reach Europe. It has equipped and trained the Libyan Coast Guard, a quasi-military organization linked to militias in the country, to patrol the Mediterranean, sabotaging humanitarian rescue operations and capturing migrants. The migrants are then detained indefinitely in a network of profit-making prisons run by the militias.

This happens when powerful nations whose policymakers don’t worry about the human consequences of their decisions outsource migration management to militias and cartels. In addition to the human pain and suffering these policies cause, they play into the hands of extremists who tap into fears of migration.

Just before Thanksgiving, to the tune of $25 million, a jury held the white supremacists who organized the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally liable for the violence that took place that day. But their movement not only lives on, but lives larger.

The New York Times’ Alan Feuer wrote, “Four years after the event, the same ideas that made ‘Unite the Right’ a lightning rod for hate groups are increasingly being echoed … Chief among them is the great replacement theory.”

Since 2013, the Alt-Right has morphed into nationalism, white extremism, and then Christian nationalism. Along the way, the movement migrated from the fringes of society to the country’s most-watched cable news station, Fox News. Which is where Tucker Carlson freely and loudly makes the claim that immigrants are being allowed into the U.S. to “to change the racial mix of the country” and “reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here.”

“The fact that Tucker is making this sort of argument is a breakthrough,” Mike Peinovich, a white nationalist podcast host and a defendant in the suit who was ultimately dropped from the case, wrote on social media, according to Feuer.

The fact is our politics have become one massive war over culture and identity. Where, as John Halpin wrote for The Liberal Patriot, “The main question emerging in contemporary politics is ominously: ‘Who poses the bigger threat to society: the cultural left or the far right?’”

Addressing the insidious spread of white nationalism requires multiple steps.

First, we all need to learn more about the past, present and future of hateful ideologies such as Great Replacement Theory. My colleagues at the National Immigration Forum posted a helpful in-depth explainer on the issue that you can read here.

Second, as my friend Alan Cross told me in the most recent episode of Only in America, healing begins with conversations. Our friends, neighbors and families are influenced by these messages that prey upon people’s fears. We can’t “run to either pole,” Alan told me. To help communities navigate these destructive tensions, we need “to recognize that people are complex.”

Too often, we treat conflicts as simple situations that can be addressed with simple solutions. Which is incorrect.

In her newest book, High Conflict, Amanda Ripley wrote, “In high conflict there is almost always false simplicity lingering somewhere in the narrative. And in that simplicity, no one hears what they don’t want to hear. In those cases, complicating the narrative can spark curiosity, where there was none. And curiosity leads to growth.”

Which brings me to my third point: when it comes to migration policy, we need curious lawmakers.

The current approach by so many nations to lock down borders — because of migration or pandemics — is, at best, self-defeating. At worst, deadly.

If policymakers are not curious about the complexity of the problems that drive migration, they will devise simple solutions (walls or bans) that never address root causes.

And since those simple solutions never solve the actual problem, they become weapons in our increasingly ugly debate about culture and identity. Whether it was the August 2019 El Paso massacre, the way we see nations who first reported the Omicron variant, Urbina’s reporting above, the consequences of simple solutions can be deadly.

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President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.