Migrants are human beings.

That’s the self-evident idea being lost in America’s current political climate, according to the participants of an ICWA panel discussion in Washington on June 8 hosted by the Institute of Current World Affairs.

Moderator Joel Millman—spokesman for the International Organization for Migration and an ICWA trustee—opened the discussion asking the audience about the two main things he said people around the world want from migrants: “Get here as fast as you can to fill jobs, then please leave.”

Migration was a natural part of human development for centuries, he said—until the last hundred years, when a new practice arose of treating prosperity and opportunity as a luxury available only for some.

Today, the arrival of migrants prompts fear among Americans about the growth of a multi-ethnic society that would change the national character, said Manuel Orozco, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue. “The 2016 election was about what it means to be an American,” he said.

Calling for comprehensive immigration reform instead of “Band-Aid solutions,” Daniella Burgi-Palomino—Latin America Working Group (LAWG) senior associate—presented a long list of injustices against migrants today, including indiscriminate arrests and deportations, impunity among officials, and hundreds of children separated from their parents at the Mexican border under the new zero-tolerance policy. The White House “has sought to criminalize and dehumanize all migrants, but in particular Latin American migrants,” she said.


Working as a journalist on the Mexican border, panelist Kristian Hernandez said, he found the body of a missing migrant after the authorities did virtually nothing to locate her. “I smelled her from the road and that’s how I found her,” he said. “You don’t forget that smell,” he said. For every migrant found dead, he added, five remain missing.

Orozco reminded the audience that Americans are complicit in driving immigration from Latin America. The US war on drugs, particularly the cocaine used by two million people in this country, has helped create a cycle of drug violence and corruption in Latin American countries prompting families to flee.

But despite the staggering injustice against migrants, influencing the debate in our digital age of fake news presents a major challenge, the panelists agreed. Burgi-Palomino sees hope mainly in people-to-people contacts: “Americans who meet Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status recipients are more likely to be sympathetic to immigrants and immigration reform.”