People marching across the Brooklyn Bridge in support of immigrants. New York City, New York, 2017.
In New York City, site of this 2017 demonstration in support of immigrants, nearly 40 percent of residents are foreign-born. Stephen Yang/Reuters

The Global Compact for Migration Needs to Hear From Cities

In the U.S., more than 90 percent of immigrants live in urban areas; around the world, that proportion is even higher. City leaders should have more of a say in this week’s UN negotiations.

This week, national governments are convening in New York for the final round of negotiations toward a Global Compact for Migration (GCM). The gathering has an ambitious goal: to develop a comprehensive approach to the subject at a time when record numbers of people are on the move and attendant politics are extraordinarily fraught. Yet an essential voice will be missing from the conversation: the voice of local governments.

That is regrettable, since cities like New York are home to many millions of migrants. In the United States, more than 90 percent of immigrants live in urban areas. Elsewhere around the world, that percentage is even higher.  In New York City, nearly 40 percent of residents are foreign-born.

Cities like New York are responsible for providing access to essential public services, including health and education, for all of their residents. They have enormous experience implementing policies that address the needs of both newcomers and longtime residents. New York City’s government offers programs like IDNYC, a municipal ID card, and ActionNYC, which provides high-quality immigration legal services. These are powerful examples of good practice.

New York City is not alone in its efforts. Recognizing the essential role civic participation plays in full integration, the Brazilian city of São Paulo established a Municipal Council of Immigrants that provides a mechanism for immigrant residents to participate in the formulation, implementation, and monitoring of the city’s policies. In Barcelona, Spain, the city’s Service Center for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees offers information and free advice on immigration, asylum, emigration, and voluntary return to all residents, regardless of status.

Yet despite the enormous contribution cities make to migration governance, they are not able to participate in the formal negotiations unless invited to do so by their national government. For American cities, that prospect is a nonstarter—the Trump administration has withdrawn from the process entirely.

But these institutional barriers are not stopping cities from raising their voices. Late last year, a dozen U.S. cities and more than 130 international ones sent a letter to the co-facilitators of the Global Compact process, committing to contributing to the process. Since then, they have taken it upon themselves to provide feedback on the evolving draft. Last month, New York City, which has a unique role as host to the United Nations, submitted detailed comments on behalf of an informal coalition of more than 40 global cities, and the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs addressed the co-facilitators in an informal session.

The cities’ submission to the GCM outlines several things cities want to see in the final agreement:

First, cities want to be recognized as partners in developing policies, not just implementing them. Urban leaders have specialized knowledge on issues of social cohesion. It would be a missed opportunity for national governments, humanitarian actors, and UN agencies not to draw from their expertise.

Second, cities want a clearly defined role in implementation and follow-up of the GCM. Cities will have very real operational responsibilities as attention shifts from designing the GCM to implementing it. They will need outlets to express concerns and provide updates on developments unfolding within their jurisdictions.

Third, cities want to separate references to local authorities from references to other local actors. Municipalities (governments) are distinct from local actors (NGOs). They have very different legal responsibilities and mandates. The most recent draft of the GCM clarifies this point by denoting that the “whole-of-government” approach should include all levels of government. It should reinforce the distinction in the sections on implementation and follow up.  

National governments may resist efforts to codify a clear role for municipalities in international migration governance. That is partly out of concern for protecting their sovereign right to set policy on issues surrounding visas and borders. Yet none of the changes cities are requesting constitute a challenge to that authority. The reluctance of national governments may also reflect discomfort with the rise of city diplomacy across a range of global issues, of which migration is only one. This is unfortunate, since there is little reason to think that the space for international engagement is finite and influence is zero-sum.

Cities want more of a voice in migration governance for a very practical reason: They are doing the work of providing safety and dignity to both newcomers and longtime residents, and they need support to do it. Ultimately, the success of these efforts is in the interest of member states, which benefit when their constituent communities are cohesive and well-functioning. New York City’s diversity is a strength: Immigrants own 52 percent of New York City’s businesses. Last year, they contributed an estimated $195 billion to the national GDP.

The compact will be finalized at the end of this week, and formally adopted in December. During these next six months, New York City will seek opportunities to meet with member states to discuss how it can contribute to implementing the policies under consideration and to achieving the compact’s goals. We encourage other cities to engage their national governments and share relevant practical lessons from their experiences.

If GCM implementation successfully engages city stakeholders, it could serve as model for globally negotiated agreements on a range of issues including sustainable development and climate change. Achieving progress in these domains depends significantly on the commitment of local governments to reaching agreed benchmarks.

Today, the international community would not launch a major, multi-year global governance process on migration, or nearly any other topic, without engaging a broad range of civil society actors. Three decades ago, that might not have been the case. Likewise, few discussions on such challenges would take place without thought to private sector engagement. Just one decade ago, that wasn’t so. Our hope is that a decade from now, local authorities will similarly be viewed as essential partners in global problem solving, in particular when it comes to migration. Cities are at the center of some of our era’s greatest challenges and will be indispensable to solving them. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “The future of humanity lies in cities.”

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