Towards An American Union
"It is time that the international community embraces a new human rights agreement on migration, borders, and right to free movement."
Hello! Today's newsletter is a little different. It features an essay from Vanessa Johnson exploring a Pan-American approach to migration. Johnson has a master's in Latin American and border studies. She works as a musician and writer today.
We met Vanessa in El Paso, where she grew up and still lives, about 5 years ago. She's the sort of person so integrated into her community it makes you feel like you know nothing about your own. Hanging out with her always leaves you with a lesson on perspective — whose to value, whose to question, and how you can find your own.
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Towards An American Union
Migration is one of the great moral problems of my lifetime, and likely of my children’s lifetimes. Tens of millions are currently displaced – both internally and in refugee camps – and millions more are on the move or considering moving from their homes, due to poverty, hunger, climate change, and political or gang violence, to name just a few “push” factors. More than 10 million people, over half of them children, are considered “stateless”. These numbers are expected to rise to the hundreds of millions within a decade.
Article 13 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) enshrines the right to mobility as a fundamental human right. It gives one the right to move within one’s country of origin, as well as the right to exit one’s country. There is the obvious problem of reciprocity; if no country will permit entry to a person, then that person has effectively lost the right to exit. Many have argued that this article does not go far enough, and that universal entry, or a breakdown of borders and barriers to travel, should be added as a fundamental right.
The UDHR was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, in the wake of World War II, and is considered a foundational document in human rights. Historically, marginalized groups such as women, minors, slaves, and ethnic minorities have had their mobility curtailed. In today’s world of hardening borders with nations erecting medieval walls at a rapid pace, we must ask, what are our fundamental fears? Why are countries around the world turning away increasingly desperate peoples in an age of unprecedented wealth?
In the spirit of the European Union and specifically the Schengen Agreement, I propose that the Americas enter into a similar union that enshrines the right to mobility on a hemispheric level. I propose a Pan-American response that allows for full participation in society. People may live, work, go to school, and travel freely. I propose this as a form of reparative justice, for wrongs committed to peoples across the Americas, as a way of rectifying historical moral injustices.
A brief list of these injustices includes:
Colonialism by Western European powers, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 55 million people from disease and war, or nearly 10% of the human population on Earth at that time;
Imperialism by the United States, from the Monroe Doctrine that placed Latin America firmly in the United States’ sphere of influence, to the rejection of the Good Neighbor Policy;
Corporatocracy and the creation of Banana Republics, a term that derived from United Fruit Company in Honduras in the early 20th century, and enriched local predatory elites;
The Cold War, which was quite hot in Latin America, where hundreds of thousands died in various genocides and many more were internally displaced;
The Drug War, now going on sixty years, which has exacerbated human rights abuses by funneling large forms of aid to paramilitaries, and created higher prices through prohibition, thus strengthening trans-criminal organizations.
Racism in countries throughout the region towards people of color and the indigenous.
Enshrining the freedom of mobility and a breaking down of punitive borders would serve as not only a form of reparative justice, but it would address other societal problems that plague late-stage capitalism in the region, including growing inequality, anti-democratic movements, lack of educational opportunity, and climate crises due to drought and more intense weather events.
With broad regional and bilateral free trade agreements, there is already freedom of goods and freedom of capital, so it is fundamentally unfair to not allow the people who are most affected by this to also move. If we are exporting Arkansas rice to Haiti or dumping Iowan corn in Mexico, we can’t then with a straight face believe that we have no obligation to the farmers being undercut or displaced by trade. Elites worldwide have the ability to travel and cross borders. It is time this right is extended to all human beings, eliminating the categories of “desirable” immigrants (farmworkers, Dreamers, tech moguls) and “undesirable” ones (the poor, the indigenous, those with darker skin).
Just as climate change necessitates a global response, it is also time that the international community embraces a new human rights agreement on migration, borders, and right to free movement. While these documents are clearly aspirational and not perfect, so are our laws – they represent an ideal towards which we should constantly be striving. Research has shown that these symbolic frameworks set up the ability to shame even the most authoritarian states, spurring them to improve practices. To dismiss ideas as not practical means we satisfy ourselves and tacitly approve of the horrors that we mostly don’t have to witness. We don’t have to see our families be indefinitely detained on islands or in prisons far from legal help, denied adequate food and even shelter. We don’t have to trudge days through the desert or cross a river with children who can’t swim. For too long we have treated migration as a problem that can be dealt with through charity. We need to shift this view and treat it as part of the human condition, making it safe and hospitable for all travelers. This hospitality toward the traveler is at the root of almost all moral systems and religions.
The idea of a nation state is a powerful illusion. I am aware that the nation state is a framework that would be difficult to dismantle; Hannah Arendt’s argument about the right to have rights means that you have to first be seen as a “citizen” to have basic human rights conferred. Those of us who have studied state violence, and witnessed the misuse of national power rightly fear the expansion of nationalism. Yet the nation state remains meaningful in the EU – people are European but still Irish, or European and also Polish. People still seek second citizenships even if the rights are already conferred.
I propose that the adjective American be returned to its true place; once again a hemispheric source of pride, where we celebrate a multilingual, multiethnic world, treating each other with dignity and respect, leaving behind the horrors of immigration detention and the billions spent on the enrichment of criminal cartels. From my home in the heart of the largest binational community in the world, I have witnessed the gradual constriction of movement and the severing of its two sides by a wall over the past 30 years. It has been personally painful to watch. Yet I have also seen many examples of people who work towards breaking down barriers – linguistic, cultural, and economic. These are the people who lead the richest lives and whose world is so much bigger than that of those who dwell on fear and nationalism. We need to find a way to work towards that larger, brighter, and more peaceful world. An American Union would be a start.