Social Impact Visas: A Radically Humanist Proposal for Global Migration

Social Impact Visas: A Radically Humanist Proposal for Global Migration January 15, 2021

This photo, by Julie Ricard (CC0 Licensing) depicts an everyday scene in a Syrian refugee camp in Greece, with three children in the background walking down a gravel road between refugee tent-housing, while in the foreground we see clothes hanging on makeshift lines outside one tent, to dry.

Let’s begin with a problem. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that global forced displacement surpassed 80 million people in mid-2020. That’s around 45.7 million internally displaced people, 26.3 million refugees, 4.2 asylum seekers, and 3.6 million Venezuelans (whose distinct nation-state crisis finds them in the latter two categories, but so precariously dispersed that their statistics bleed between tiers).

In the U.S., hostility toward migrants arriving at and passing through the Southern border has been shaped around the rhetoric of “legality” and “illegal” entry, with attendant notions of “criminality” pre-emptively ascribed to the vast majority queuing for admittance or slipping through for sanctuary. “Criminality”, mind you, has been used so loosely in this discourse as to equivocate between the act of breaking U.S. laws with respect to immigration, and the possibility (easily aligned in the minds of many citizens) of all such migrants then escalating to violent social trespass.

Likewise, in a wide range of European countries, local anxieties about immigrants, especially from North African and Middle Eastern nations sorely hit by the sorts of resource-related proxy- and civil-wars that will only increase as environmental change intensifies, are channelled through nativist claims of intrinsic “cultural” incompatibility. Overt prejudice then exacerbates these claims, in acts of viciously self-fulfilling prophecy that involve ghettoizing and dehumanizing asylum-seekers — giving few such migrants any chance of genuine integration from the outset.

And in Colombia, as in many South American countries, the struggle to integrate massive numbers of displaced Venezuelans leaves many migrants outside the system entirely: able to exist in other countries, but routinely undocumented, for want of sufficient national resources to sustain the livelihood even of pre-existing local residents.

A significant factor in all of these displacement-outcomes, then, is not the fact of displacement itself, so much as the antiquated approaches to formal immigration that still dominate our nation-state-oriented global landscape. The way that nation-states name, categorize, and establish legal pathways for their respective influxes of immigrants has a huge impact on the level of precarity that displacement pressures yield all around the world.

Despite our increasing awareness of global citizenship and its attendant responsibilities, we still tether the most secure visa-classes for immigration to smaller-tribe familial bonds: marriages and genetic kinships. We also prioritize education and work contracts for visa applications, in ways that either do not reflect an immigrant’s actual likelihood to employ advanced degrees in a local economy without further credentialization and networking, or else situate the immigrant in a position of extreme reliance on their employer for ongoing legal-status stability.

We also have terrible loopholes in our globalized network of refugee/asylum-seeking policies. For one, the very category of “refugee” or “asylum-seeker” positions the petitioning individual as a “taker”, a person viewed centrally as a new dependent on another state. As the UNHCR strives to make clear from relentless campaigns focussed on displaced-person resourcefulness and industry, this is absolutely not an accurate depiction of the refugee population as a whole. Nevertheless, individual nation-states have by and large failed to naturalize better vocabulary around their migrant communities on a basic policy level, which means that most every political discussion around immigration in affluent countries ends up tacitly reinforcing this myth of refugeeism being synonymous with social-burdenism.

Worse still, even well-intentioned global mandates around nation-state obligations to respect the rights of refugees can backfire horrifically. [X] oppressive state might well claim, for instance, that anyone who sets foot in [Y] country is an automatic traitor, deserving of imprisonment or death — which has the inevitable consequence of increasing the likelihood of displaced people from [X] intentionally heading to [Y], to improve the viability of their refugee claim under international law (and related international-community pressures).

This situation creates untenable immigrant-surges in Country [Y], the likes of which embolden local xenophobia and waves of violence and criminality (in both directions) among ill-prepared local residents. Those waves of violence in turn fan the flames of further xenophobia in other countries receiving refugees from [X], along with other countries not at all involved in the original crisis — but also not wanting to risk the outcomes that [Y] has incurred.

And all of these precarities — on the individual, nation-state, and international level — are only set to worsen, as the mounting global impact of climate change affects certain regions on an immediate level (destroying arable land, flooding living spaces, and otherwise ramping up local resource-wars) that then cascades into secondary humanitarian consequences, in the form of migration crises at the borders to nearby nation-states.

We need coherent policy changes to improve our global management of migration pathways.

I propose that one of those policy changes should be the naturalization of a new visa class.

Not a refugee visa. Not an immigrant visa that tethers one’s ability to settle in a new land to moment-by-moment corporate whim. Not an immigrant visa that centres domestic and familial relationships, with all the stigmas and potential for abuse that this structure creates, within our migration model.

No: a visa that by its very nature instead rewards commitment to community, promotes contributions to far more than a specific company, and cultivates an image of immigration that foregrounds what the immigrant brings to their new home — rather than what they’re running from, or to whom they are related.

A social impact visa.

The social impact visa would realize a simple premise: that full communal integration is the ideal outcome for any act of immigration, no matter the reason for any given person’s move from one state to another.

The social impact visa would pursue this goal by sanctioning a set period of time (say, 1-3 years, depending on one’s circumstances of entry) in which an immigrant may exist in another country with the intention of demonstrating their contributive capacities to local community. These “circumstances of entry” would vary depending on the applicant’s medical and trauma issues, language comprehension level, and other conditions that might necessitate a more gradual assimilation into one’s community; and be off-set by secondary requirements pursuant to, say, participation in language-learning classes and engagement with a provided range of therapeutic or medical services.

At the end of this period, the social impact visa-holder would then be assessed for

a) renewal of this visa class for a given time-range;

b) graduation to residency status; or

c) diversion to temporary-visitor status,

based on an analysis of three bodies of citizenship intel:

1) the extent to which the visa-holder gained the endorsement of full citizens in their communities during their visa-period, as measured by applicant-selected testimonials about their qualitative and quantitative social impact;

2) the extent to which the visa-holder complied with all legal obligations up to and including full participation in local taxation — and of course, also taking into consideration any bylaw and criminal violations during their term; and

3) the extent to which full citizens in their communities, within a fair public-listing window after the visa-holder applies for legal-status advancement, report credible adverse impacts of the immigrant’s time among them (the likes of which might not be reflected solely in tax-evasion, bylaw infractions, and similarly quantifiable legal offenses).

These bodies of intel would do more than incentivize the immigrant to prioritize community integration (something that most immigrants already do as a matter of course).

They would also enable the immigrant to switch out testimonials, if necessary, rather than be beholden to any one person or organization hoping to exploit their vulnerability near visa-renewal time (as many sponsoring individuals and companies currently do). The worst that would-be exploiters could then do would be to try to make a credible claim of adverse impact, with criminal consequences if the exploiter is found to be making this claim from a place of extreme prejudice (perhaps bundled under existing hate-crime and libel legislation, depending on the nation-state).

Also, because the visa-holder would know that they aren’t beholden to one group or individual for legal status, victims of domestic or workplace abuse would be empowered to seek aid, and ideally escape, from toxicity far sooner. This in turn could have some desperately needed broader implications for the ongoing fight against human-trafficking.

Likewise, these assessment metrics would reframe the whole local culture’s approach to immigration, because they and the visa-class label itself (being stripped of all helplessness-coding) would help locals to focus less on the idea of immigrants as “takers”, and more on the many ways in which immigrants can and do enrich the world around them.

Many marriage visas already rely on qualitative components, as “proof” of a relationship within arbitrary understandings of what a meaningful relationship entails. The incorporation of qualitative components in a social impact visa’s assessment metrics (e.g., improved quality of communal living from having an extra “grandmother” or “auntie” in the building complex; or how an immigrant might end up donating time and know-how to local organizations) has a much greater purpose: changing local perceptions toward migration, by legally codifying awareness of all the ways in which a person can meaningfully contribute to their surroundings.

This foregrounding of qualitative contributions also stands to improve mental wellness throughout the community, for everyone, by lessening the general cultural tether between one’s economic output and overall worth. The change would also yield significant improvements in disability rights for locals, who are currently underserved by cultures that shape welfare policy around the idea that one is either a completely self-sufficient socioeconomic boon to one’s community, or a burden who must abide by specific limitations on their contributive capacities to receive any aid at all.

To attain a social impact visa, the applicant must prove either:

a) a personal savings / income level permitting them to sustain themselves for the duration of their visa (including for any added asks necessitated by the circumstances of entry), and/or

b) sponsorship by an individual or group that has committed to making available (without placing further conditions upon the applicant) equivalent funds for the full duration of the visa term; and that can guarantee its commitment with relevant documentation.

Almost all other options, unfortunately, create too many opportunities for exploitation.

Yes, in nation-states already acclimatized to providing everyone with access to government funding, a basic stipend — absent work- or volunteer-commitment conditions — could possibly provide a meaningful third option, for applicants who cannot meet the requirements of a) or b). However, in nation-states still bound by anxieties about “government handouts” and similar tribalist rhetoric against someone else getting a “free ride”, any such option “c)” would only undermine the overall potential for cultural reframing of immigration offered by this visa-class.

(We might consider option “c)” a stretch goal for this visa, then, to be added to government policy when some of the social impact visa’s central work, in changing perceptions of human worth, has been achieved.)

Likewise, work- or volunteer-commitment conditions for applicants lacking clear financial backing would create more opportunities for exploitation by specific organizations and individuals (even and especially the state itself), while lessening vital time for the visa-holder to establish themself in their chosen communities.

Here, then, is where this proposed immigration policy has to rely in part on something beyond itself: the qualitative ripple effects that invariably follow the implementation of any government mandate. Absolutely, there is a possibility that the social impact visa would only create a new cultural bottleneck, a pressure point fixed on the applicant’s ability to perform sufficient “worthiness” for unconditional sponsorship at the outset of this process, if personal fundraising or financial status is not sufficient to meet condition “a)”.

However, we don’t need to stretch our imaginations to include, in this “hypothetical” world of potentially exploitative visa sponsorship, the rise of sponsoring bodies expressly focussed on resisting such “merit” tests, by fundraising instead for unconditional social-impact-visa support on a first-come, first-serve basis (or similar).

We don’t need to imagine such groups, that is, because they already exist in the wide range of international non-profits that fundraise broadly to answer on-the-spot migration needs — and do so absent elaborate, arbitrary merit-testing.

The UNHCR currently works in tandem with around 900 NGOs to achieve such goals, while a wide range of other NGOs similarly co-ordinate on a global scale to answer local precarity pressures before they tip into war, famine, persecution, and disease.

What these organizations all need is a nation-state system ready to follow suit, by rebooting its immigration policies and underlying social theory for 21st-century needs.

Because it is absolutely insufficient to continue to allow refugees/asylum-seekers to be treated solely as dependents, an association embedded in the current language for immigrant visa-types.

And it is beyond draconian to continue to prioritize means of migration that place individuals at the mercy of domestic/genetic and corporate relationships for the capacity to build a home somewhere new.

We require, instead, nation-states mature enough to embrace the benefits of global citizenship on a local level, by codifying fuller and more comprehensive notions of community integration within immigration policy.

What we need is policy that allows local culture to be seen as an active, growth-oriented practice — and to restore hyper-regional pride by valuing social contribution in ways that will benefit immigrants and locals alike.

A social impact visa might just be the way to achieve this.

Or maybe this proposal is merely a stepping stone to something better.

No matter what, though, we owe it to ourselves as humanists to have the conversation — because increased waves of global migration are coming either way. How will we greet them, when they do?

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