Biden’s migrant plan hinges on cooperation from allies, doesn’t address Mexican exodus

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Analysts hail administration's preemptive approach but note it will be hard for partner nations to absorb substantial number of Central American migrants

Central American migrants expelled from the United States under Title 42, are seen at the National Migration Institute station in Ciudad Juarez, State of Chihuahua, Mexico on April 5, 2021. (Photo by HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – President Joe Biden’s response to the growing migrant surge at the southern border marks a major departure on previous administrations’ approach to immigration, some analysts say.

The plan outlined Wednesday by the White House is groundbreaking in seeking to end illegal migration before it begins, rather than catch and return – or catch and release – migrants at the border and instead foster legal migration. However, it relies heavily on cooperation from international partners, including a neighbor who may not want to assume too much of the burden, analysts say.  

U.S. authorities have apprehended more than 1 million unauthorized migrants in the past nine months, many coming from the Northern Triangle of Central America where poverty, crime and natural disasters have displaced residents. The numbers are on pace to be the highest in two decades.

The plan outlined by the White House includes domestic policies such as the expedited removal of families who don’t express fear of returning to their home countries and the use of a dedicated asylum docket, often denounced by advocates as a “rocket docket” that limits the time to prepare a case.

But it also includes “collaborative migration management” with regional partners. In a call with reporters, senior White House officials said that means investment in the Northern Triangle by U.S. allies, other countries being willing to accept migrants and multinational corporations and nonprofits stepping up their activities in the region as well.

The strategy also contemplates “physical structures” where would-be migrants can get information about legal immigration to the United States in their own countries.

“We are not seeking to end migration as part of the fabric of the region,” a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity said on the call. “What we’re seeking is to change the ways in which people migrate, provide an alternative to the criminal smuggling and trafficking rings, and to give people access and protection through safe, legal channels.”

Allies stepping up their aid to the region include Japan, South Korea, and Israel. Countries being asked to take in displaced migrants from the Northern Triangle include Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica and Spain, among others.

The plan does not address the controversial Title 42 public health policy that allows border agents to swiftly expel to Mexico single migrants and families to cap the spread of COVID-19.

It also doesn’t address the causes of migration from Mexico. Data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection up to June 30, 2021, shows citizens from Mexico by far outnumber Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorians apprehended at the border.

Mexicans are, by far, the largest nationality of migrants apprehended at the Southwest border this fiscal year. (Graphic courtesy CBP)

‘If you wait to deal with migrants at the border, it’s too late’

Biden’s new migration strategy seeks to make up for mixed messages at the start of his administration that exacerbated pent-up demand for people to come to the United States, some say.

That included making good on campaign promises of rolling back the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy that forced asylum-seekers to wait south of the border and proposing an immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized migrants already in the United States.

Tony Payan

“They very quickly realized they had sent the wrong message and all of a sudden there was a huge surge of immigrants. We have seen the numbers month after month and they’re higher than 2019, which was a pretty bad year,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “But they also realized something very important – which is reflected in the plan. If they stop, detain, contain migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, it is too late, the problem is already at your doorstep.”

Payan said the goal now is not to just push people back to the other side of the fence, but to deeper into the migration chain. “That’s the push forces in Central America – security, justice, economic and employment opportunities – and spread the burden to countries that serve as transit points like Mexico and Guatemala and spread the burden of receiving these displaced people to countries like Canada, Spain (and others).”

Ariel Ruiz

That will help up to a point, he and other analysts said. Canada and Spain, for instance, might accept a few hundred migrants per year, but CBP stats show nearly 200,000 Hondurans have shown up at the U.S. border in the past nine months, as have 183,000 Guatemalans and 61,000 Salvadorans.

“It’s not going to be enough in the short term; by no means can Canada absorb the vast quantity of migrants coming from Central America nor can Mexico provide asylum to all the migrants currently there,” said Ariel Ruiz, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “They will struggle at first with capacity, but the idea is that over the long term this is not just a U.S. issue but that other countries are putting their resources because it also their responsibility.”

The Mexican conundrum

Ferocious regional drug wars are displacing Mexicans primarily from rural communities in states like Michoacan, Oaxaca and Zacatecas, as well as some urban areas like Guanajuato and the northern border states, Mexican and U.S. analysts have told Border Report.

Mexican families set up makeshift camps in Juarez near the U.S. ports of entry in late 2019 before the Mexican government told them to leave. This week, Border Report witnessed the expulsion of a large number of Mexican males at the Paso del Norte port of entry.

CBP figures show 449,000 Mexican unauthorized migrants have been apprehended at the Southwest border in the past nine months – 41.73% of all “encounters” this fiscal year. Neither the Biden plan nor Vice President Harris during her trip to Mexico addressed the root causes of Mexican migration to the United States.

“Right now, the blueprint is tailored to and focused on Central America. It includes Mexico as a partner in asylum protection for other partners and not necessarily migrants (from Mexico) themselves,” Ruiz said. “While they’re not a specific target, there is a way to think how systems can overlap and provide some avenue of protection for (Mexican) migrants.”

Payan said Mexico poses more than one challenge for the United States.

President Donald Trump was able to strong-arm that country’s government into accepting the return of tens of thousands of non-Mexican migrants and deploying troops to the border with Guatemala. Payan said President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador complied under the impression that if he yielded on immigration, Trump would leave him alone on other matters.

“That’s gone now. The Biden administration has a much wider portfolio when it comes to Mexico,” Payan said. “I think (Lopez Obrador) resents the pushback by Biden on issues like corruption and democracy and human rights. He sees the U.S. has an agenda that he can no longer control […] That’s going to be a political problem for Biden because the number one country of transit for migrants is Mexico and if they cannot get their full cooperation, the plan may fail.”

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