This article is part of WOLA’s series looking at some of the most significant human rights trends and events of the 2010s.
See the full series here.
One of the primary lessons of the past decade was that aggressive migration enforcement has no impact on migration trends over the long term. Crackdowns bring the numbers down for a few months, but they recover since the root causes of migration remain unaddressed.
What’s more, these hardline policies come with devastating humanitarian costs, as seen from experiences at the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere in Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, and other countries in South America. Migrants were made more vulnerable to abuses by authorities, by criminal groups, and while in detention; those with credible asylum claims were often deported back to danger, due process protections were weakened, and children and families suffered irreparable harm.
An early example of how stepped-up enforcement can severely impact migrants’ human rights came in the mid-2010s, when—in response to increasing numbers of unaccompanied Central American minors and families arriving at the U.S. southern border in 2014—the Obama administration pressured Mexico into cracking down on migration.
Under its Southern Border Plan, Mexico dramatically increased detentions and deportations of Central American migrants, a practice that raised significant humanitarian concerns, as many were deported without being adequately screened for asylum. Mexico’s increased enforcement actions were accompanied by other abuses, including raids on migrant shelters, while widespread crimes against migrants—including kidnappings, robbery, and rape—went almost completely unpunished. These early efforts did not deter migrants from making the difficult, dangerous journey northwards in the long term.
The United States saw a more acute version of this story repeat in 2018, when the southern border experienced an even more dramatic spike in migration, and as the Trump administration resorted to ever-more cruel and extreme measures to deter asylum seekers and migrants. Tariff threats on Mexico again resulted in a crackdown on migrants in the country while, after cutting off up to $800 million in assistance to their countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were cajoled into signing safe third country agreements to place asylum seekers in conditions that no serious observer considers safe. Policies such as “zero tolerance,” family separation, “Remain in Mexico”, and the transit asylum ban all leave a dark legacy as this decade comes to a close.
As the Trump administration continues efforts to dismantle the right to asylum and enforce other cruel policies of deterrence, there are many options for a more humane, effective approach. Countries across the Americas should recognize the need for increased regional mechanisms to support and protest asylum seekers. The U.S. government should adopt policies that aim to address the root causes of migration from Central America, while expanding, not limiting, access to protection in the United States (see more in-depth suggestions for a viable path forward here). Support for democratic governance, efforts to strengthen rule of law, and anti-corruption initiatives in Central America need to be top priorities.
Elsewhere, South America also has had to grapple with the question of how to best respond to an unprecedented wave of migration, as millions of Venezuelans flee the political, social, and economic crisis in their home country. Countries including Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru have adopted a range of responses to this phenomenon—some rooted in humanitarian principles, others less so. Indeed, some countries have made moves towards trying to curb migration altogether—a response that will do little to discourage Venezuelans fleeing desperate conditions, and risks placing them in situations of harm and danger.
The challenge facing nations across the hemisphere involves recognizing and responding appropriately to the unique needs of the Venezuelan migrant population. Across the region, the response must emphasize long-term solutions. While we have seen some important progress on addressing the immediate needs of fleeing Venezuelans, they continue to face widespread obstacles to regular status and essential services. Governments of receiving countries need to recognize that it is in their fundamental interest to integrate this population into their societies.