US President Donald Trump’s new rule on immigration and nationality, published on August 12, is not different from the rules applied by Caribbean countries. It seeks to prohibit individuals from migrating to the US if they would become a charge upon the state, and it denies qualification for permanent residence status of such individuals who are in the US and who are reliant on Medicaid (government-provided health insurance), housing, food, or other forms of public assistance.
Similarly, Caricom countries deny entry to foreigners, including nationals of other Caricom countries, if immigration officers have reason to believe that they could be a charge on the state’s resources.
The reason that Trump offers for this new rule matches that proffered by Caricom governments. First, he wants immigrants to the country to be able to bring value, and second, he does not want US citizens to bear the cost of providing health, education, and other aspects of social welfare to new arrivals. The new immigration rules will take effect from October 15.
Incidentally, while the implementation of the rule is new, it has actually been a provision of the US Immigration and Nationality Act which, at Title 8—Aliens and Nationality, Chapter 12—Immigration and Nationality, sub-chapter 11—Immigration, says in general: “Any alien who, in the opinion of the consular officer at the time of application for a visa, or in the opinion of the attorney general at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible.” More specifically, it states: “In determining whether an alien is inadmissible under this paragraph, the consular officer or the attorney general shall at a minimum consider the alien’s—(i) age; (ii) health; (iii) family status; (iv) assets, resources, and financial status; and (v) education and skills.”
Consequences will arise for Caribbean countries and others from Trump’s decision to enforce this long dormant inadmissibility clause in the US Immigration and Nationality Act. For 100 years people from the Caribbean and Central America have sought and received entry to the US, qualifying for permanent residence and citizenship. The migration of such people has eased the pressure on Caribbean governments to provide direct employment and deliver goods and services to their citizens, as well as to create an environment for investment and economic growth and development.
Now, with the US being cut off for migration from October 15, except for the highly skilled and better-off, the strain on Caribbean governments will intensify, particularly as the opportunity for emigration to countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada have long since been restricted. For instance, the UK introduced its immigration law, depriving Commonwealth Caribbean citizens (except, recently, nationals of its remaining colonies) since 1962.
At times of economic decline and natural disasters in the Caribbean, people have moved to the US mainland or its Caribbean territories, the US Virgin Islands in order to work and keep themselves and their families. Some have done so legally; others not. Now, they will be judged by the same criteria—possibility of becoming a charge upon the state; assets; financial status; education and skills.
Also affected will be women who travel to the US to deliver babies who, because of their birth on US soil, would become US citizens. In some cases, some of these women have utilised state resources for medical attention associated with the delivery of their babies. They, too, will be subject to the tests that the new rule now implements.
In this connection, the flow of migrants from the Caribbean to the US will decrease to a trickle, exacerbating the difficult circumstances many Caribbean governments already confront in dealing with growing populations and insufficient economic space to provide employment and to deliver expected services.
Trump’s decision, which he is entitled to make in the interest of his country as he sees it, has come at a time when most Caribbean countries are severely challenged; many of them have high debts, the repayment of which leaves them little space for spending on social welfare. They also lack enough capital to invest in job-producing projects, and the rules of the international financial institutions and donor governments deny them access to concessional financing.
Guyana is the present exception to this generally valid description of Caricom countries. Its significant oil and gas resources, scheduled for production in early 2020, if managed properly, could transform its economic fortunes. Bloomberg reckons that, “This tiny nation on the north coast of South America is about to become the world’s newest petrostate—and potentially the richest.” Should substantial sums of the oil revenues flow into the Guyana government treasury, allowing spending on infrastructural and productive projects, not only will there be reverse migration by Guyanese, but opportunities could open for nationals of other Caricom countries.
The Guyana possibility apart, Trump’s new immigration rules should cause all Caribbean governments to consider how they cope with an increased population resulting from greatly restricted emigration. Many of the governments should review their immigration policies, adhering to a policy of employment for nationals first and limiting movement into their countries to needed skills and to financial resources that migrants bring. Even the present categories of workers that are allowed free movement within Caricom should be reviewed considering current developments.
The proposal here is not a knee-jerk reaction. Rather, it is a response to a difficult situation that has been gathering steam for some time and which is fast coming to a head. Caricom countries should collectively address the issue and determine how best they could jointly deal with it.
THE AUTHOR is Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US and the OAS