Is a vote for Ken Isaacs to head the International Organization for Migration a vote of support for US President Donald Trump’s migration policy?
That is the question countries should ask themselves as they gather next week in Geneva to elect the next director general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
I know Isaacs and have worked closely with him: we both served as director of Foreign Disaster Assistance for the US government, he under George W. Bush and I under Barack Obama. There is a strong bond and sense of a shared humanitarian mission amongst those who have served in that role. I believe that Isaacs shares that sense of mission, but that belief is hard to reconcile with statements – posted on his now-shuttered social media accounts – like “Muslims fast, they also blast”, and suggestions that European countries build a wall to keep out refugees.
Isaacs is the White House nominee to head IOM, which has traditionally been led by an American. But as the Trump administration makes anti-migrant and anti-refugee views a defining theme of its domestic and foreign policy, it’s time to ask the question: if elected, will Isaacs represent the values of the UN system or those of the president that nominated him?
Normally, those value systems might not be in such stark opposition. But these are not normal times. Overseas, President Trump has withdrawn from the (non-binding!) Global Compact on Migration process. He has reportedly clashed with fellow heads of state over migration and refugee matters, and made inflammatory remarks about migrants to other G7 leaders in Canada earlier this month. And this week he attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her progressive migration policy, not so subtly urging that she be deposed by her own governing coalition.
At home, things have been no better. The president has attacked refugee resettlement – which was IOM’s founding mission – dropping refugee admissions to the lowest level since immediately after 9/11 and reducing the admission of Muslim refugees to negligible levels. His attorney general has altered longstanding US policy to newly exclude domestic violence as a basis for asylum claims. And his administration has systematically separated migrant children from their parents, including those seeking asylum, as a migration deterrent.
Numerous UN leaders – including UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the heads of UNICEF (a Trump nominee), UNHCR, and the UN human rights agency – have broken their silence this week and come out against Trump’s family separation policy. But, notably, IOM has remained quiet as it awaits the outcome of its leadership election on 29 June. While Trump has now signed an executive order that he says will end the practice, in reality the matter looks far from resolved. Trump’s order faces looming legal hurdles, and in any case simply converts family separation into family detention while doing nothing to reunite families that have already been separated.
This naturally raises the question – would Isaacs, if elected, join his UN peers in condemning Trump’s family separation policy? Against the backdrop of the migration policies of the administration that nominated him, his position on this cuts to the core of his credibility as the potential leader of IOM. Unlike most past IOM chiefs, Isaacs is a dust-on-his-boots relief operator rather than a diplomat or migration expert – so there is little indication of his migration policy views beyond his inflammatory social media statements. And while he kicked off his campaign with a quasi-apology after reports of those social media posts emerged, he has never fully repudiated his attacks on Muslims, descriptions of refugees as security threats, and mockery of climate science. For the proposed head of an organisation whose roles include coordinating global migration policy, supporting refugee resettlement, and mitigating potential climate disasters, these stances create more than a bit of awkwardness.
So, should member states be voting a hard "no" on Isaacs next week? It depends on two things: their read of him personally, and their read of what his nomination would signal for global migration policy.
On the first point, Isaacs should do far more to address, head-on, his past comments. A pro forma brush-off issued via the State Department is not nearly enough of an apology. He should clearly disavow the views that his social media posts appeared to express. He should do so publicly and at length, and he should reopen his social media accounts (which he set to private after his comments were reported) to let IOM member states see and evaluate what he has said in the past. And, on those same accounts, he should make clear what he sincerely believes – about Muslims, about migration, about refugees, about climate change.
But Isaacs’ personal beliefs are not the only salient factor here. Member states must also consider whether his election would signal a broader acquiescence to the Trump administration's inflammatory immigration policies. Isaacs’s past statements reflect a pattern in this administration; the White House’s pick for the top refugee and migration role at the State Department (which manages US funding to IOM) also has a long background of anti-immigrant rhetoric. So if IOM member states accept Isaacs’ candidacy without obtaining a clearer repudiation of his past comments, it will hobble IOM’s credibility as a source of independent expertise on migration policy.
Rejecting his candidacy would be a high-risk move, but potentially a very powerful one. It would signal clearly a repudiation of the White House's migration demagoguery. And it would establish limits on the anachronistic system for selecting heads of major global institutions – demonstrating that deference to traditional national preference is not infinite, and can be waived when candidates are unsuitable.
IOM member states are reportedly reluctant to go against Isaacs for fear that the US would retaliate by slashing funding. But, in a political moment where the US is retrenching from global leadership, bashing the multilateral system, and attacking refugees and migrants, should Isaacs get a pass just because the United States writes the biggest cheques?
There may be an elegant way out of this dilemma. Isaacs could volunteer – or IOM members states could publicly ask him – whether he joins his potential UN peers in condemning the Trump administration’s policy of family separation and detention. If he will not do so directly and publicly, it would make clear that he lacks the necessary independence to universally apply and defend UN values. And if he does do so – along with a fuller repudiation of his past statements – it would go a long way toward demonstrating the values and independence he would need to credibly lead IOM.