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Amy Pope, new head of the IOM, wants to change the conversation about migrants

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An American is about to take charge of the International Organization for Migration. The many nations that are part of it voted for President Biden's choice, Amy Pope. When we spoke, Pope began listing events that prompt people to move from African drought to South Asian floods, to the war in Ukraine.

AMY POPE: We're seeing the drivers of migration grow around the world and become increasingly complex. And so that's what I'll be taking on. That's what the organization is facing.

INSKEEP: The IOM counts about 105 million people displaced on this planet, pushed aside by wars or disasters. Hundreds of millions more migrate for work, arriving anywhere from California to Dubai. The IOM aims to help people move safely and smoothly. It may provide supplies or help with paperwork. It may work with governments to refine their policies or give them research. It takes the view that migration is often good in a world where many people presume it is not.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best.

INSKEEP: Donald Trump won the presidency on a pledge to stop illegal immigration. And it's not only a right-wing concern. This month, the Biden administration lifted pandemic-era immigration rules. And some Democrats warned about possible chaos. Among them, Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, who spoke on this program.

HENRY CUELLAR: Looking for a better life, trying to get away from crime are not reasons to stay. And I'm sorry, but that's what the law says.

INSKEEP: As Amy Pope knows, democratically elected governments around the world have had to reckon with the anxieties that migration brings.

POPE: It's a huge challenge. And I think one of the things that IOM needs to do as we move forward is to help frame the conversation differently. I mean, we know as Americans that migration has actually led to tremendous benefits in our own country. We know even recent evidence shows that migration has revitalized communities that have been dying, in fact.

INSKEEP: When you talk about revitalizing communities, we did some reporting last year in Akron, Ohio, which had lost a lot of population and has encouraged migration from a number of countries in Asia. Is that the kind of thing you're talking about?

POPE: That's exactly what I'm thinking of. I was born in Cleveland, grew up part of my life in Akron then in Pittsburgh. All of those cities have benefited from migration.

INSKEEP: When you have conversations with officials in Europe or, for that matter, from the United States, do you run into people who say, I agree with your concerns, I want to be helpful, but there are political limits to what I can do?

POPE: Yes and no. I mean, I think everybody recognizes the political constraints. And so people are looking for where we can demonstrate success that doesn't raise the same issues.

INSKEEP: How do you assess the situation at the U.S. border right now?

POPE: Well, the United States has been struggling for the last several years with the situation across Latin America, where people have found it more difficult to make a life for themselves, to live safely. For me, that's a reason why we need to be looking at migration much more comprehensively. My view is that if you wait until people have already left home, crossed many different countries, spent their life's savings to get there and then try to deal with the migration issues at the border, we've missed a lot of opportunities to engage and come up with better policies.

INSKEEP: When you say comprehensive, do you mean reaching out to the countries from which people are coming to try to figure out ways to stabilize the situation?

POPE: Yes. I mean, most people we know don't choose to leave under such circumstances, right? And our goal at IOM is to enable the choice to migrate as opposed to people who are migrating out of desperation or lack of other choice. And so it's engaging the countries where people live. It's building policies and programs there to provide more stability, to provide opportunity. We have to approach it from all angles.

INSKEEP: Amy Pope, thanks very much for the time.

POPE: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: She's the newly elected director general of the International Organization for Migration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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