“The Ultimate Expression of Freedom”: A Q&A with Dr. William Arrocha

William ArrochaDr. William Arrocha, Assistant Professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, recently shared his expertise and thoughts on compassionate migration, DACA, the upcoming presidential elections in Mexico, and what truly makes us human with Open Americas.

Can you describe your background? How did you become interested in the field of international policy and more specifically in U.S./Mexico relations, migration, and human rights?

I am an eternal migrant, born from immigrant parents in Mexico City, a place where many worlds have met, clashed and thrived for centuries. As someone born within an international and multicultural family, my reason for being will always involve more than one country or place. As the Argentina poet Facundo Cabral once said, “I’m not from here… I’m not from there.”

Being born in Mexico to an American mother and a Mexican father always placed me in the confines of U.S.-Mexico relations. Being raised in a family with parents engaged in the realms of the law, social justice, and human rights, studying in the French system during all my formative years and at my bachelors at the National Autonomous University of Mexico could not have taken me to any other path than that of an internationalist.

Which thinkers, publications, and places have inspired you the most? In what way?

The writings of Italian philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci still inform many of my views on power and politics. Although his writings, mainly written from prison at the turn of the 20th Century, were related to the rise of fascism in Italy, his writings on political theory, sociology and linguistics are timeless.  Beyond Gramsci’s work, my list of thinkers and publications is too long to quote in this space, but those who have guided my work and ethical principles are thinkers deeply grounded in humanism and a longing for social justice. I am inspired by the places, regardless of which country they may be located, where ideas of social change and social justice have been forged and battled.

I am an eternal migrant, born from immigrant parents in Mexico City, a place where many worlds have met, clashed and thrived for centuries. As someone born within an international and multicultural family, my reason for being will always involve more than one country or place.

Which projects are you currently working on? Can you explain the inspiration for these projects?

At present, I am engaged in the intersection between migration, human rights, and security. The main focus of my research is in exploring the legal and political boundaries that can ensure the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable populations that for different reasons have to leave family, friends and their country in search of a better life or a safe haven. Under this research umbrella, I am engaged in working on the limits and reaches of “sanctuary cities,” “sanctuary states” and “sanctuary networks.” These represent acts of civil disobedience and social justice as attempts to protect those individuals and communities who are in a state of vulnerability as a result of an increase in the use of forceful measures to enforce  present immigration laws that in policy have become more exclusive and punitive, particularly towards non-citizens.

Another research piece that I am engaged in is in the study of the causes and grave threats to liberal democracies and civil rights from the rise of nativism and xenophobia in the U.S. and Europe. The rise in nativism and xenophobia is clearly moving the political spectrum towards the right, further jeopardizing the fragile welfare systems of the post-world war II order and causing deep social and economic dislocations.

My present research is inspired by the pressing need to put an end to a discourse and a practice that is threatening the hard gained human and civil rights that are to be enjoyed by all humankind. Moreover, I am indebted to those who are excluded by a political and economic system that is losing its moral and ethical compass to the power of an ideology of individualism and pure self-interest.

You served as a co-editor of a book, “Compassionate Migration and Regional Policy in the Americas,” published last year. Can you describe what “compassionate migration” is? How might U.S. immigration reform make migration more compassionate?

Compassionate migration can be defined as a concept and praxis that describes how individuals, collectives and organizations express humanity towards victims of conditions that oblige them to leave behind their homes, countries, families, friends and livelihoods in search of refuge or a better life for themselves, their families and kin. As a praxis, it requires a deep empathy towards others as well as an understanding of the reasons for their often forced migration.  Practices of compassionate migration tend to be carried out at the margins of the established legal and policy frames, for many of these existing frames are based on control, punishment, rejection and repression. Compassionate migration has at its conceptual core a deep sense of humanity which through concrete actions attempts to extend and ensure fundamental human rights, including the right of movement for all individuals regardless of their nationality or immigration status.

The recent federal ruling that the U.S. must keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has been celebrated by immigration advocates and criticized by the Trump administration. What’s your take?

Although in some ways DACA can be an expression of Compassionate Migration, it is only a temporary measure that does not grant a legal immigration status to those Dreamers yearning to be embraced by a nation to whom they give more than what they receive. Unfortunately, there are no plans in the Executive or in Congress for a comprehensive immigration reform that maintains and enhances the principle of family reunification. DACA is the only protection that millions of individuals and families have against being detained and deported for the mere sake of not having proper immigration documents. Eliminating DACA and using it as a political chip by the present administration betrays any sense of compassion towards those who are only asking to keep contributing to their communities and the country that they serve every day.

With presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition ahead in polls, Mexico appears to be slanting leftist-populist as the July 1st elections loom ahead. What do these elections mean for U.S./Mexico relations in regard to the North American Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA) and immigration policy?

As we know the renegotiation and modernization of NAFTA are well underway. The renegotiation has had its series of hiccups that are mainly due to president Trump’s unpredictable behavior related to what seems his approach to trade as zero-sum game in which one side must lose in order for the other to win. López Obrador has softened his views on NAFTA and is taking a very pragmatic approach: he has tapped the vision of Graciela Marquez Colin, a Harvard-trained economist and professor at El Colegio de Mexico who has expressed with no reservations the need to continue the negotiations if these are not concluded by the end of the Peña Nieto administration. López Obrador has expressed the deep flaws of NAFTA but has taken an approach where he understands that the relative gains from NAFTA could benefit the majority of Mexicans if he can implement his agenda to cut down on the bloated salaries of high-ranking public officials, take a serious blow to corruption, introduce a progressive tax code and increase state initiatives for the support of the private sector where deemed key and for pressing infrastructure projects. Where we will see a change, though it was already being discussed in the present administration, is in the phasing out of the Mérida Initiative which has not reached its goals and has actually been linked to the dramatic increase of violence in Mexico.

What is not responsible, and could negatively affect the bilateral relationship, is to compare López Obrador with Chavez or to refer to his persona and campaign as a return to the authoritarian left. If one takes a peek at his potential cabinet, it is composed of highly educated and progressive individuals with impeccable credentials, with the economic portfolio being comprised of pragmatically oriented individuals.

On the U.S.- Mexico relationship López Obrador has been very clear when he wrote in the Washington Post that “We call for a harmonious relationship between our two countries, one based on cooperation for development. When we work together, everyone wins. But in confrontation, the United States and Mexico will both lose.” He has emphasized that Mexico’s foreign affairs will be conducted with the Constitutional principles of non-intervention and international cooperation for development, among others. In that sense, one can only hope that the present administration in the U.S. can act accordingly.

If you had to communicate one central message or “big idea” to the public about migration, what would it be? Why?

Migration as the act of moving through internal and external borders, it is what makes us who we are as individuals and communities, it is the ultimate expression of freedom, and freedom is what makes us human.

Professor Arrocha teaches courses on international development, migration and human rights, as well as U.S.-Mexico relations. His latest publication is titled Compassionate Migration and Regional Policy in the Americas (Palgrave Macmillan UK). His research focuses on immigration, development, and human rights. His work has been published in The Journal of Intercultural Disciplines, The California Western Law Review, The Journal for Hate Studies, La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), The Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, North Western Journal of International Affairs, Mesoámerica, Libros de FLASCO, and Revista de Relaciones Internacionales, UNAM, México. He appears regularly on UNIVISION and has been a consultant for the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the governments of Mexico and Canada. He received a U.S. Congressional Certificate of Special Recognition for Outstanding and Invaluable Service to the Community, and a California Legislature Assembly Certificate in Recognition of the 2006 Allen Griffin Award for Post-Secondary Teaching. He is fluent in Spanish and French.

Image: Middlebury.edu