WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

19 Oct 2016 | Commentary

Key Issues in the Americas Ahead of the U.S. Presidential Election

By any measure, this has been a turbulent U.S. election year. Yet even amid deep polarization and friction, the electoral season has at times touched on important issues in the hemisphere, from migrant rights to community policing, U.S.-Cuba policy to human rights and foreign policy. These are among the biggest human rights issues facing the United States today, and whether or not they are mentioned in the election cycle, they should be major priorities for the next U.S. president.

Immigration and Migrant Rights

The issue of immigration has been a recurring theme in this debate cycle. The expression of xenophobia and calls for the mistreatment of migrants that have come up during this the election season are viewed throughout the Americas with alarm and anger. This kind of rhetoric only alienates the United States from our partners in the hemisphere, and complicates efforts to encourage multilateral engagement.

It is also based on entirely unfounded premises. As WOLA Senior Associates Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer have highlighted, there is no need to build additional sections of the border wall. There is already a barrier that covers 630 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border. The areas that have no wall are remote or because of their geography building a physical barrier would be difficult. At the same time, apart from marijuana, the vast majority of drugs—meth, heroin, and cocaine—are smuggled through the ports of entry and not through the desert. Building more of a wall would do little to stem their flow into the country. In addition, the number of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped to mid-1970s levels. What’s different is who is migrating. Mexican migration has dropped significantly in the past decade.

Despite this record drop, the biggest increase in apprehensions at the border is of Central Americans, especially families, women, and unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. When it comes to the border, the candidates should be debating how to respond to the needs of those fleeing for their lives and seeking protection, as well as the root causes of migration: violence, poverty, corruption, and a lack of economic opportunity and strong democratic institutions. WOLA Senior Associate Adriana Beltrán is dedicated to documenting these issues and making sure that U.S. aid to Central America goes towards addressing them, not to failed militarized approaches.

Colombia’s Peace Process

Among the most important human rights issues that the next president will have to address is the peace process in Colombia, where voters recently rejected an accord with rebels by a razor-thin margin.  As WOLA Senior Associate Gimena Sánchez has noted, the areas most affected by the violence largely voted in favor of the peace deal. Since the vote, Sánchez has been working with representatives of many of these communities to make sure their voices are included in renewed negotiations. There is reason for hope. As WOLA Senior Associate Adam Isacson has pointed out, all sides in Colombia remain committed to dialogue over returning to war, and are moving determinedly towards a revised accord.

U.S.-Cuba Policy

Another issue the next president is sure to address is relations with Cuba, and how best to support the gradual but important process of reform underway on the island. Engagement with Cuba holds far more promise than the failed 56 year-old embargo, and has clear benefits for both countries. It is also widely supported in the United States. Even in today’s often partisan environment, polling shows that Democrats, Republicans, and Cuban-Americans all approve of the administration’s recent actions on Cuba. Support for ending the embargo is growing among lawmakers, and as WOLA Program Director Geoff Thale has remarked in light of recent regulatory changes: “we might see the end of the embargo in the next Congress.”

Drug Policy

The next U.S. president will also have to address the changes underway in the global drug policy paradigm. WOLA Senior Associate John Walsh and Senior Fellow Coletta Youngers have been closely following this shift, and are leading advocates for reducing the harms caused by both the drug trade and by drug policies themselves.

U.S. Foreign Policy as a Tool for Good

Finally, whoever wins the election on November 8 will find themselves bearing a major responsibility: the opportunity to use U.S. foreign policy as a tool for good in the world. Rather than an instrument for intervention or regime change, the United States should act as a steady voice that sees a real U.S. interest in promoting social inclusion, peaceful resolution of conflicts, political opening and democratic participation, and respect for human rights.

This is especially important in the Americas today, where the United States must take care to favor building more just societies rather than pursuing narrow interests. Whether it entails documenting the human rights situation in Mexico, or the need for multilateral dialogue in Venezuela, WOLA is dedicated to making this a reality. Together with our partners in the region, we will stay committed to building a future where public policies protect human rights and recognize human dignity, and where justice overcomes violence.