WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
17 Jun 2021 | Commentary

Central America Trips Shed Light on Biden Administration’s Migration Agenda

What was accomplished and what additional steps are needed to address regional migration in an effective and rights-respecting way

A slew of recent Central America-related travel and meetings involving top-level Biden administration officials had an overarching focus on migration, although they also advanced other areas of cooperation. The trips include:

  • Vice President Kamala Harris’ visits to Guatemala and Mexico on June 7 and 8. Following the trip, Harris announced a series of bilateral agreements meant to address the root causes of migration and other commitments.
  • USAID chief Samantha Power began a five-day trip to Central America starting June 13.
  • Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas visited Mexico June 14-15.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken had previously met with his counterparts from Central America and Mexico in Costa Rica on June 1, during a Central American Integration System (SICA) summit.

The Biden administration’s long-term goal is to support Central America in becoming safer, more just and more prosperous, reducing the need for people to undertake dangerous journeys northwards. But in the short and medium term, additional actions are urgently needed to break the cycle of counterproductive border crackdowns, fully restore protections for migrants, and increase access to asylum across the region.

Below, we summarize some of the primary outcomes of recent trips to Central America and Mexico by Biden administration officials, and lay out recommendations for how the U.S. government can continue working on fully repairing the astounding damage left by the Trump administration, and implement policies that address migration in a sustainable and legal way.

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Addressing root causes of migration in Central America

“Don’t come” messaging isn’t rooted in reality

The vice president’s visit to Guatemala on June 7, intended to advance cooperation to improve conditions for would-be migrants, also came to represent the disconnect between reality and the Biden administration’s message to current migrants from the region: Harris bluntly told Central Americans “don’t come” to the United States.

This message, repeated by multiple administration officials over the past months, disregards the urgent reasons many migrants leave their home countries.  A mother migrating to save her children, for example, will not be convinced to stay in place and watch harm come to her family. Families fleeing persecution have the right to seek asylum, and destination countries have the obligation to hear their requests for protection.

(Under criticism for her words, Harris in fact later clarified that she is “committed to making sure we provide a safe haven for those seeking asylum.”)

Promising investments and support for anti-corruption efforts

While the messaging was muddled, Harris’s visit to Guatemala did culminate in a series of announced actions that could contribute to long-term improvements in living conditions in some Central American countries—if implemented in a way that takes into account the realities on the ground and the role of civil society.

These include:

  • A $40 million, three-year initiative for young, primarily Indigenous women in Guatemala.
  • A $48 million investment to support affordable housing as well as support to agribusinesses and loans to micro, small and medium businesses.

These initiatives are part of the administration’s $4 billion, multi-year regional Central America strategy. They arrive as an addition to the $310 million in humanitarian aid announced by Harris in April to provide support for refugees and help tackle food insecurity and the impacts of the pandemic and recent hurricanes.

A welcome focus of the vice president’s meetings and remarks in both the joint press conference and roundtable with a group of civil society leaders is the pressing need to root out corruption and ensure the rule of law is strengthened and respected, a message that was reinforced this week by the head of USAID during her visit to the region. As part of this effort, the administration announced the creation of an anti-corruption task force to work with the Justice, Treasury, and State Departments in investigating and prosecuting corruption cases with a nexus in the United States and the region, and help train and bolster the investigative capacity of local counterparts.

The task force can potentially help reinvigorate the fight against corruption and provide much-needed support for reformers who have increasingly become the target of attacks, including the Special Prosecutor against Impunity (FECI). However, to succeed it must be accompanied by other actions and measures to weaken the influence and resilience of corrupt networks and elites and help create an environment to advance fundamental institutional and structural reforms. It is imperative that the administration not turn a blind eye to the continued assault on judicial independence and actions to undercut civil society, including the regressive NGO Law that is due to go into effect in Guatemala on June 21.

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Collaborating with Mexico

Harris’s visit to Mexico on June 8, including a private meeting with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, likewise culminated in several bilateral agreements.

These include:

  • Plans for high-level dialogues on economic and security cooperation.
  • A $130 million investment over three years in supporting labor reforms, improving working conditions, and addressing child and forced labor.
  • A package of grants, loans, and other commitments that will help generate broad-based growth in southern Mexico, create jobs and reduce economic inequality in the region.”

Beyond the goal of economic cooperation in itself, these latter components can be seen as part of an effort to reduce the causes of migration from Mexico, which has increased dramatically in this fiscal year.  Their success in either regard will depend on guaranteeing that cooperation occurs in a sustainable and rights-respecting manner.

This is of particular importance in any proposal for infrastructure or eco-tourism projects in southern Mexico, given successive Mexican governments’ legacy of failing to respect or protect Indigenous and other communities’ rights not to have mega-development projects imposed on their land—a practice that displaces communities.

The U.S. government can partner with Central American countries to ensure orderly, safe migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Join the Beyond the Wall campaign to learn more. 

Key cooperation on Mexico’s disappearances and forensic crises

Particularly encouraging is the announcement of a partnership to resolve disappearance cases in Mexico with the participation of the State Department, USAID, and the Justice Department.

The Mexican government currently recognizes over 88,700 disappeared and missing people and faces a forensic crisis of roughly 37,000 unidentified bodies. The vast majority of disappearance cases, including thousands of disappeared migrants,  go unpunished, with families leading search efforts and carrying out their own investigations, oftentimes at great personal risk.

The United States, through USAID and the State Department’s Bureaus for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement and Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, has already been providing support to bolster in-country capacity to search for the disappeared, identify human remains, and integrate relevant databases, among other activities. Harris’s announcement elevates this collaboration to a partnership that aims “to help solve” disappearance cases, “potentially bringing closure to tens of thousands of families and ending impunity for offenders.”

This focus on solving cases and punishing perpetrators is welcome, given that bringing justice to disappearance cases is a necessary step to end Mexico’s disappearance crisis.

Creating economic opportunities in Central America

As for the United States’ collaboration with Mexico to address migration from Central America, Harris announced a memorandum of understanding “to address the lack of economic opportunities in northern Central America.” Rather than launching specific new programs, the memorandum envisions evaluation and coordination between assistance provided by USAID and Mexico’s foreign aid agency, AMEXCID.

Specific areas mentioned are “agriculture and youth workforce assistance.” Mexico Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard stated that plans include expanding Mexico’s “Planting Life” (tree-planting) and “Youth Building the Future” (internship) social programs in the Northern Triangle. Mexico already implements these programs in Honduras and El Salvador, but their reach has been limited, due in part to delays provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a Mexican media investigation, as of February 2021 only 2,739 people in Central America were receiving support through the programs, although thousands more were registered. Last year it was also reported that funds originally meant for development assistance to Central America had been spent instead on transporting migrants and asylum seekers to Mexico’s southern border and improving conditions within Mexico’s migrant detention centers.

Law enforcement cooperation must target violent crimes against migrants

Beyond aid to Central America, the other announcement explicitly tied to migration is greater law enforcement cooperation to disable “human trafficking and human smuggling organizations.” This focus is exemplified by the announcement of Joint Task Force Alpha, a joint initiative between the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to “address the threats posed by both corruption and by transnational human smuggling and trafficking networks,” as well as by the related Operation Sentinel, an anti-smuggling initiative announced in past weeks by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

For law enforcement initiatives to have a positive impact, they should target violent crimes committed against migrants and be complemented by actions to open legal pathways to protection for people fleeing their homes.

Improved collaboration against human trafficking (in which perpetrators seek to exploit victims through force, fraud, or coercion) could be instrumental in protecting lives and disabling networks of violence that prey on marginalized populations. Human smuggling is a different crime: it refers to transporting migrants who seek to cross borders without legal permission. As U.S. authorities have put it, “Human smuggling… is a crime against a border while human trafficking is a crime against a person.”

Smuggling can entail violent abuses against migrants and/or transportation in dangerous or even life-threatening conditions. However, smuggling’s causes and effects are different from those of trafficking.

In particular, the human smuggling industry south of the U.S. border is driven not only by migrants’ lack of legal pathways to enter their country of destination, but also by their search for protection from the extreme risks of violence they face in Mexican territory—including kidnappings, massacres, disappearances, sexual violence, and extortion, crimes that generally go unpunished and in which state agents have been repeatedly implicated.

Migrants seeking to lower these risks began to form caravans in recent years to travel with strength in numbers, in a departure from clandestine migration. However, regional governments have used force to break up recent caravans, putting into doubt their future use as a way to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. As authorities target smuggling and trafficking networks, they should also investigate kidnapping, extortion, rape, killings, and other crimes against migrants, which are often transnational in nature. Given the numerous allegations of violence and corruption by authorities (such as police and migration agents), preventing serious abuses by state agents against migrants should also be a priority component in this area.

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What’s needed in developing a rights-respecting approach to migration

If the United States and governments in the region are to address migration in an effective and rights-respecting way, their actions must go beyond the agreements outlined above, particularly in the short and medium term.

In this respect, DHS outlined the need for a comprehensive approach following Secretary Mayorkas’ visit to Mexico in past days, including not only addressing root causes of migration but also expanding pathways for legal migration, broadening regional countries’ response to asylum seekers, and reforming border and asylum processing at the U.S. border.

Increasing access to protection and other lawful immigration pathways in the United States and elsewhere in the region is a central point in the administration’s Collaborative Migration Management Strategy, called for in one of Biden’s executive orders. Notably, in FY2020 the United States provided an estimated $42 million in support for the UN’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR, to improve the capacity of Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, and other assistance to asylum seekers in the country.

Given this focus, references to reopening and expanding protection for people who have already been forced to leave their homes—or who will do so in the foreseeable future—were notably absent from the announcements after Harris’s trip. In the multiple meetings in Mexico held between Secretary Mayorkas and Mexican officials, representatives from COMAR were also absent.

Addressing current and future migration requires, at a minimum, changes in the following areas, where current policies increase risks to migrants without effectively or sustainably addressing regional patterns of movement:

1.) End the militarized externalization of immigration control south of the U.S. border. 

Mexico’s deployment of thousands of military and National Guard troops as well as other enforcement officials to its southern border in March 2021—against the backdrop of the Biden administration asking Mexico to do more to stem migration—repeats a cycle that places people who migrate at risk of human rights violations and that drives them to seek more remote and dangerous routes.

Mexico should demilitarize migration activities and reorient its approach to its southern border, and the United States should stop supporting border militarization, recognizing that crackdowns do not stop migration but rather exacerbate the risks faced by an already vulnerable population of migrants and asylum seekers.

2.) Ensure access to asylum in Mexico. 

Asylum seekers face significant obstacles to accessing protection in Mexico. Civil society organizations have recently documented families of asylum seekers being turned away without the chance to seek protection at Mexico’s southern border.

Beyond the urgent need to end these practices, certain basic administrative actions would greatly facilitate asylum seekers’ ability to make claims in Mexico, such as stationing members of COMAR at the points of entry along Mexico’s southern border. Currently, asylum seekers who present themselves at this border will generally be detained, and many detained people are not adequately informed of their right to seek protection by Mexican migration agents. Those who attempt to reach a COMAR office in a southern border city are often subject to crimes, including robbery, assault, and kidnappings, along the way.

Mexico’s asylum system also requires more resources to serve the asylum-seeking population: more than 41,000 people have requested protection in Mexico in the first five months of 2021—considerably more than the total from 2013-2017 combined. UNHCR has expanded its presence in Mexico and provides important technical and infrastructure support to COMAR, largely with U.S. funding, but additional budget and staffing increases by the Mexican government are needed to enable COMAR to respond to current levels of asylum requests.

The U.S. government can work with Mexico to ensure the rights and safety of people who migrate and asylum seekers. Join the Beyond the Wall campaign to learn more. 

3.) Ensure access to asylum in the United States. 

As WOLA has indicated, the Biden administration has taken several positive steps to suspend and begin to reverse harmful Trump-era policies that effectively closed the United States’ asylum system.

For instance, over 11,000 asylum seekers who had been forced to “Remain in Mexico” have been brought into the United States to pursue their claims, with DHS officially ending the Remain in Mexico program on June 1. However, tens of thousands have not yet been allowed to pursue their claims on U.S. soil. On June 15, the administration also announced a significant expansion to the Central American Minors Program, broadening the categories of individuals who are able to petition to be reunited with children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and enabling them to apply for refugee protection or parole from their home country and avoid taking the dangerous journey to the border.

Meanwhile, one of the chief policies enacted under Trump to close access to asylum at the U.S. border—summary expulsions through misuse of “Title 42” public health authority—continues today, although with exceptions for certain unaccompanied minors, families, and vulnerable individuals. In May 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees called on the United States “to swiftly lift” the Title 42 policy “and to restore access to asylum for the people whose lives depend on it, in line with international legal and human rights obligations.”

Until access to asylum is restored at the southern border, asylum seekers wishing to access protection in the U.S. will be forced either to wait in Mexico and face the dangers mentioned above, or to seek clandestine entry, rather than being able to simply present themselves at a port of entry and know that their claims will be processed.

To ensure the rights and safety of people who migrate and asylum seekers, the United States must fix its broken asylum system. Join the Beyond the Wall campaign to learn more. 

4.) Ensure sustained commitment to addressing drivers of migration. 

Addressing the root causes of migration to ensure that leaving one’s country is a choice—not the only available survival strategy—is the right focus.

Improving living conditions and reining in systemic corruption are deep-seated challenges that will take years to help address and thus require a long-term, sustainable commitment on the part of the U.S. government. This long-term plan should address economic inequality and insecurity, but must prioritize supporting the rule of law, governance, and human rights.

At the same time, to be effective, assistance to the region must include rigorous oversight mechanisms, concrete benchmarks to measure progress, and close collaboration and coordination among U.S. agencies and with other donors working in the region.

But in the short and medium term, families and individuals will unfortunately continue to be forced to flee life-threatening violence and living conditions. They require protection and legal paths to seek it—an obligation of both Mexico and the United States within their respective territories. Investment in addressing root causes cannot substitute guaranteeing access to asylum and respecting migrants’ rights in the United States and Mexico.