Central American migrants traveling in a group make their way to Pijijiapan, Mexico, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

The Exodus story, which Jews will be celebrating this week with the Passover holiday, starts with the “hardened heart” of Pharaoh, who refuses to allow the Hebrew slaves to leave. Tyrants’ refusals to allow oppressed people to flee is a theme of history that continued into the Cold War era of the late 20th century and beyond. The cry of “Let my people go,” has resonated universally as a clarion call for freedom. 

President Trump’s decision to cut foreign assistance to the “northern triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras because they “were not able to do the job of stopping people from leaving their country and coming illegally to the U.S.,” addresses this issue once again. His position demonstrates a myopic failure to see that the foreign assistance is intended precisely to alleviate the conditions of poverty, poor governance, and disrespect for human rights that cause displacement. It also ignores  a fundamental human right that has been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Rights and binding human rights treaties:  the right to leave.

Throughout history and around the world, the right to leave has been the last resort and the last hope of people facing suffering, violence and persecution. As articulated under the core human rights treaty on civil and political rights that the US itself has ratified, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own.”

“Are they willing to stop people from leaving the country?” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked of the Northern Triangle governments in an interview with Fox Business News. “We have not yet seen enough demonstration of their commitment for actually preventing these folks from crossing into Mexico.” Now, the State Department says that it is reviewing current funding to the three Northern Triangle countries and “planning to redirect” 2018 funding, “potentially up to $450 million,” to other priorities.

Can one imagine the reaction if the US president and his secretary of state had called on North Korea, China, or Russia to stop their nationals from leaving?  Or if anyone had the temerity to tell the United States not to let its citizens go?

In fact, the United States, perhaps more than any other country, has championed the right to leave. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy famously stood near the Berlin Wall and declared, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.”

Nearly a quarter century later, President Ronald Reagan standing near the same spot, called on the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to let East Germans go: “Come here, to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” For President Trump, keeping Central Americans out of the US or keeping them in their own countries is all the same; If he could get away with building his wall on Mexico’s narrow southern border, he probably would. 

It is true that there is an asymmetry between the right to leave and the absence of a right of entry. But the right to seek asylum represents a human rights exception to the right of sovereign states to control their borders. It is appropriate for Americans to debate how best to respond to people seeking asylum at the US border. But for the US president and secretary of state to tell other countries to stop their citizens from leaving is completely out of bounds and demonstrates utter disregard for the human right of last resort.