The U.S. approach to migration seems to be shifting, with the Biden administration seeking to work with other governments in the region to find shared solutions to continent-wide challenges.
In the second of a two-part interview, Maureen Meyer, Vice President for Programs; and Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, reflect on this fresh approach and on what is working, and what is not.
The Northern Triangle’s migration trends have been central to U.S. policy since the Obama years. How have things changed in terms of policy and overall narrative since President Biden took office?
Maureen Meyer (MM): It’s now clear to the Biden administration that their root causes strategy, that’s focused on Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, falls far short of addressing the type of regional migration flows we’re currently seeing. The focus on just a few countries without looking at regional migration trends was a miscalculation, as was underestimating the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the deterioration of the situation in countries like Venezuela and Cuba.
The root causes strategy has several components, including one on humanitarian assistance, like urgent responses to the fallout from natural disasters in Central America. Vice President Harris announced in April 2021 $310 million in assistance to respond to acute needs in the region with the logic that if the U.S. can help keep people fed, housed, and with access to basic services, they may not migrate. A strategy focused on responding to immediate needs, coupled with a focus on job creation and economic investment, and supporting human rights, is a good one. At the same time, Vice President Harris’s Call to Action is really focused on driving private investment into Central America with dozens of U.S. based companies involved in creating jobs and economic opportunity there. And then, adding to the mix are the broader issues of security and rule of law, which is probably where the biggest challenge is because the U.S. needs to cooperate with governments that are in the middle of significant backsliding in democracy and the rule of law and continue to undermine investigations of corruption.
Is the “root causes” approach a good policy idea that has fallen short?
MM: As a focus, it makes sense. As a policy, the impact is different because you don’t necessarily have strong allies. You are working to build up strong institutions with governments that openly contradict the United States, which is the case in El Salvador, and in part in Guatemala. There you currently have a difficult relationship because the U.S. feels it needs to cooperate, particularly when it comes to immigration enforcement (Guatemala has recently increased interior checkpoints and apprehensions of migrants), but at the same time there are deep concerns, which have resulted in sanctions against several public officials.
Understanding that, the root causes strategy may look different in the three countries. Honduras is where I think the Biden administration has a lot of expectation for change, even when it is not necessarily panning out as they had wanted, and there are some concerning signs from President Xiomara Castro’s administration of how much they’re committed to a really autonomous commission to combat impunity.
There is also limited but important work to expand seasonal work visas from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras; they are trying to double the number of visas available for these countries. But in the end, the longer-term strategy is going to take a significant time to show results, so you also need these short-term options, like these labor pathways
It seems that the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles became the platform where the U.S. launched a new approach to migration. Can you walk us through what has happened since then in terms of programs and policies?
MM: Since 2021, the Biden administration has been focusing on the “root causes” strategy for Central America and then another collaborative migration management strategy which, in a sense, was more extensive and was touching on other issues including strengthening protection systems in the region and looking at other legal pathways for settlement in the region or the U.S.
What we’ve seen this year is a broader collaborative migration management strategy to cover the entire region. The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, which was signed by 21 countries at the Summit of the Americas earlier this year, was a real push from the Biden ministration to put all of these different issues on the table, and get commitments from governments in the region to work together to respond to them.
What should be the new components or ideas around this strategy?
MM: There are many components that are key. Among them are Stability and assistance in the reception communities; legal pathways of migration, which include labor, but also access to asylum; humane migration management and protection-sensitive border management, which is still a long shot as in several countries, currently including the U.S., people are unable to request asylum at ports of entry.
I think the real push by the Biden administration is that this is not a U.S issue alone. This is a regional issue. And we need to get regional commitments and cooperation. Not everyone has the United States as a destination. How do you support countries that are receiving high numbers of migrants so that the people are effectively able to stay there? Can we support receiving countries in terms of U.S. assistance, so there are better conditions for migrants and asylum seekers?
In terms of financial assistance, the Biden administration has announced over $800 million in new money in recent weeks, and it’s mostly looking at supporting Venezuelan refugees and migrants in other countries that will need humanitarian assistance. This will include emergency food assistance targeting Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru but also assistance for Venezuelans who are still in Venezuela with the idea of providing humanitarian aid so they can stay there.
I think what’s important about the Summit declaration is the idea of regional engagement. There have been two follow up meetings since Los Angeles. A meeting at the White House on September 26, which was the launch of a broader post declaration process, and then the ministerial meeting on October 6. There the foreign ministers and other regional representatives met in the context of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), in Peru. This was to announce action package committees based on 11 different components of the Los Angeles declaration focused on getting governments to commit more fully to coordinating efforts to address aspects including humanitarian assistance, the conditions of receiving communities, labor pathways, protection, and migration management.
It’s a U.S.-led effort to encourage and recognize that this is something that every country in the region, or at least those twenty-one that signed on to the declaration, should be working on together.
What are the committees agreed upon at the migration ministerial going to do?
MM: Their overall role is to develop shared lines of policy action. There are eleven committees that are meant to have a country lead each to move forward specific commitments from governments in areas like temporary protection, regularization, integration, refugee resettlement, visa regimes, labor pathways. There is also one on xenophobia, which is interesting, because I think as you look at the region, it is important to really recognize these are populations that oftentimes don’t have a long experience of receiving high numbers of migrants from other countries and where you do need to counter that feeling of otherness and xenophobia that can be present.
Who is leading on different issues is very interesting. Mexico is clearly taking the lead on labor mobility because they have the experience of long-term standing temporary work visa programs with the United States. The programs certainly need to be improved, including respect for labor rights, but it means the country does have that background on the different legal options for migrants to work temporarily.
Also of note is that the United States is leading the group on countering human smuggling and trafficking, which really shows how much the Biden administration is focused on trying to deter people from coming to the U.S. If you look at the announcements made in the context of the ministerial meeting, beyond the expansion of cooperation one of the most relevant ones from the U.S. is that they’ve arrested over 5,000 people suspected of crimes related to human smuggling since April 2022. But that announcement also raises questions: if you’re doing so much to dismantle smuggling networks, why are so many people still making it to the U.S.-México border? The idea that you can somehow stop migration by disrupting the networks may produce short term results, but really misses the point in the longer run.
What’s the role of civil society in these committees?
MM: What has been missing from these discussions is a really robust civil society participation. WOLA with some colleague organizations have been in talks with U.S. officials about the process. We feel it’s important that at least there was a very small space open for civil society observation at the last ministerial meeting, but in general, there has not been a clear pathway to ensure that civil society, including migrant-led organizations, migrant shelters, those who are on the receiving end of a lot of the migration flow, have a seat at the table.
What is the U.S. doing on the regional security front and how does that play in the context of U.S. assistance to allies?
Adam Isacson (AI): The United States sends personnel, mostly from Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol, offering assistance and training to the border and migration forces of countries around the region.
If you look at the Twitter accounts of U.S. embassies in those countries, you will often see photos and little blurbs about this assistance. Some of them are quite innocuous, in things like human rights or institutional development or problem solving. Some of it, though, is on crowd control and how to use non-lethal force or how to go after smuggling networks, which is perhaps good, but it’s not clear how they’re conveying it. We have two concerns about these programs. One is the trainers, our Border Patrol agents or CBP officers, who here in the United States are federal law enforcement agencies with some of the worst human rights records, and one of the largest probabilities of impunity for violating human rights. What kind of culture are we transferring? You look at every statement their union makes, they are hugely anti-immigrant. What is their attitude toward asylum seekers? Very openly, union leaders say that asylum seekers are scammers, using language that connotes that they are an enemy. How does that messaging translate into mistreatment of migrants trying to travel to these countries?
Is the other concern related to how these U.S. officials measure success?
AI: Yes. Take those 5,000 people arrested who are linked to smuggling operations that the U.S. mentioned. Who are these people? Are they people that are just helping asylum seekers? Are any of them key nodes on the network? Right now, to go from Central America to the U.S-Mexico border a migrant has to pay between $6,000 and $10,000, which is more than double what it was a few years ago. The smugglers are not pocketing that extra amount, they have to spread that money around to corrupt officials at every checkpoint and give some to organized crime networks in order to get through the Mexican northern border.
The Department of Justice is not issuing extradition requests for members of Mexico’s migration authority, or other corrupt officials who are clearly benefiting from the smuggling fees and waving people through checkpoints. I haven’t seen a single press release about anything like that. That’s a huge empty spot. We’re not going after the institutions who, with impunity, are giving oxygen to the smugglers.
Could the U.S. also be enabling these corrupt officials?
AI: We saw this most classically during the Trump administration, but the dynamic continues. Honduras’ Juan Orlando Hernández cooperated on migration and the Trump administration went completely silent about corruption and human rights concerns. Even Nayib Bukele agreeing to collaborate on migration, with the “Safe Third Country” agreements during the Trump administration, got away with a lot of official U.S. silence when he behaved in an authoritarian way.
MM: Overall, it’s important that the Biden administration has taken a significant shift in how it approaches migration. Having a regional approach and really trying to get all the governments to buy into addressing it regionally, with commitments, and also investing financially, is important. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that we have a much more integral approach to migration now in terms of supporting host communities, looking at how you address the root causes of migration, and how to expand legal pathways, including access protection.
On the flip side, we have a two-tiered asylum system in the United States where the decision on who enters is basically based on where the person is coming from, abusive forces at the border that impacts the citizens of all these countries, and recent actions by the Biden administration to expand Title 42 to Venezuelans while offering a very limited number access to humanitarian parole, which suggest that enforcement and deterrence will continue to be a driving force in the administration’s approach to migration. It has been difficult for the Biden administration to thread the needle between protection and other legal pathways and enforcement and deterrence because there’s also domestic politics at play, and the U.S. does want to keep the numbers down. That often means passing a blind eye to what regional governments are doing or failing to do to respect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, while failing to fulfill campaign promises to reopen the U.S. border to all asylum seekers.