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For three decades, the United States has treated migration at the U.S.-Mexican border as a matter of perpetual crisis management. More often than not, the domestic conversation is overtaken by hysteria. The latest flashpoints include a politicized debate about the end of Title 42, an order issued by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration early in the COVID-19 pandemic to turn away migrants on public health grounds, and outrage stoked by conservative politicians about the U.S. government feeding migrant children in federal custody (which it is legally and morally required to do) amid a baby formula shortage. But behind such manufactured alarm lies a very real problem. Washington’s migration policy is incoherent and fails to look beyond the U.S. border, where the primary challenges—and their solutions—exist.
The United States is pouring more and more money and resources into policing its southern border. In 1992, the annual budget of U.S. Border Patrol was $326 million; by 2020, the reorganized Customs and Border Protection had become the United States’ largest federal enforcement agency with a $17.4 billion budget, roughly one-quarter of which is allocated to Border Patrol. In that time, the U.S. government constructed thousands of miles of barriers and expanded border enforcement agency personnel from fewer than 4,200 to nearly 20,000. Since the unexpected arrival of a large number of unaccompanied minors from countries in Central America in 2014, the United States has also incorporated Mexico into its enforcement efforts, supporting a significant ramping up of Mexican personnel along the border and its detention efforts, with many migrants now held in Mexico during their U.S. legal proceedings under the 2019 Migrant Protection Protocols. From 1993 to 2021, U.S. agents apprehended 26 million migrants at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexican border. But even with all the funding they have received, border agencies are incapable of providing due process to asylum seekers or processing those without asylum claims in an efficient and humane way.
It is not only the United States that is dealing with large numbers of migrants. Since 2015, more than 5.9 million Venezuelans have been forced to leave their homes, the vast majority settling in other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Colombia and Peru each host more than one million Venezuelan migrants; another half million reside in Ecuador. The United States is home to approximately 465,000 displaced Venezuelans, but many other countries that have taken in fewer people—such as Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and several small Caribbean islands—have assumed a greater burden relative to the size of their populations. Costa Rica also hosts hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans who have fled their country’s dictatorship. Nearly one million Haitians live scattered across the region. Mexico has become a destination country for asylum seekers, with more than 130,000 claims in 2021 doubling the system’s 2019 total. In terms of receiving migrants, the United States’ neighbors have been stepping up to the plate.
The movement of people throughout the Americas is not going to stop. The United States must therefore look beyond its border and embrace a new, hemisphere-wide approach to migration, combined with steps to modernize U.S. laws, policies, and border infrastructure. After the economic devastation of the pandemic and years facing historic levels of irregular migration with scant international support, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean are eager to collaborate on a comprehensive regional plan—and next week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles is an opportunity to make real progress. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, together with countries across the Americas, is already planning to introduce a new regional vision in a joint Declaration on Migration and Protection.
But breaking the cycle of failed crisis management will also require concrete action. A sustainable migration framework for the Western Hemisphere must help integrate and establish legal status for already dislocated populations, with additional protection measures for the most vulnerable among them. It must provide options for would-be migrants apart from overburdened asylum systems. And it must establish infrastructure to respond to sudden increases in irregular migration. Large numbers of people will be moving throughout the Americas for years to come. It is time the United States coordinated more closely with other countries in the region to make this a manageable trend, rather than a disruptive one.
High on Washington’s agenda should be the task of establishing policies to help populations living outside their countries of origin gain legal status and integrate into host communities. A good model already exists. In 2021, the Colombian government launched a program to provide ten-year temporary resident status to more than one million Venezuelans. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), with U.S. support, provided $800 million in financing to Colombia to help. The program has not only brought stability to the lives of a vulnerable group, it has made it possible for Venezuelans to contribute to Colombia’s economy. Countries throughout the Americas can replicate this system to support migrant populations.
To make such expansion sustainable, the United States will need to rally the region’s financial institutions. The Biden administration must begin by recapitalizing the IDB, making sure it has the resources to respond to economic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden must also push for reforms to allow the IDB and other banks to provide concessional financing to middle-income countries. Development banks should be able to assist the migration programs of all countries in Latin America, not just the poorest ones. The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, the Development Bank of Latin America, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, and the Caribbean Development Bank must all be prepared to offer preferential lending for migration programs. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the UN Development Program, and other international development agencies will also need to coordinate with their regional counterparts to avoid redundancy and maximize the effectiveness of financial support.
To reinforce a cooperative regional approach to migration management, the Biden administration must also display leadership. Resettling in the United States a substantial number of eligible refugees from countries such as Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela would go a long way toward demonstrating to partner countries that they are not alone in their efforts. Doing so would also help convince those partners, as well as their constituencies at home, to get on board with a hemisphere-wide plan.
The administration should pay particular attention to the most vulnerable among the region’s internally and internationally displaced populations—especially those most likely to migrate through irregular channels. Asylum systems in the region simply cannot keep up with the volume of people on the move, leaving many unprotected in a state of limbo.
Dealing with these vulnerable groups requires a flexible approach. They may need entry to territory, legal status, and access to social services or work, even if temporarily. Some of these programs already exist, while others will need to be improved or created from scratch. The temporary residence permits offered to Venezuelans in several South American countries, for instance, should be extended to other populations and expanded to countries in North and Central America. The Protection Transfer Arrangement, an innovative mechanism that helps people at risk in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador travel through Costa Rica on their way to resettle in a third country, should be redesigned to broaden the criteria for application, speed up the process, and include more countries. Canada’s Urgent Protection Program, which responds to requests from refugees around the world who face direct threats to their lives or well-being, can be replicated and scaled up. Relocation programs for refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons at risk in southern Mexico must be expanded as well. Further, North American countries should develop a joint emergency evacuation mechanism to provide temporary protection for people at highest risk, such as LGBTQ groups. Canada has robust infrastructure in place—and the United States is catching up—that allows private citizens to sponsor refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine. Those programs can be expanded to include refugee populations within the Western Hemisphere, such as Guatemalans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans.
To add to these efforts, the Biden administration should restore migration management tools that have proven successful in the past. The Special Cuban Migration Program, a lottery created in a 1994 bilateral agreement, and the 2007 Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program both helped avert dangerous maritime crossings from Cuba by creating pathways for orderly, slow-motion migration to the United States. Both programs were ended in 2017. As the Biden administration resuscitates them in a new hemispheric framework, it should also consider a similar system for Haitian migrants. This program could draw applicants from Haiti and other countries in the Americas with long-term Haitian populations, such as Brazil and Chile.
There are many reasons that people across the Americas are on the move. What they lack are legal avenues. For nearly all would-be migrants to the United States, the only available path is the irregular one, ending at the U.S.-Mexican border and an overburdened U.S. asylum system. A more sustainable alternative includes expanded access to destinations outside of the United States, as well as established legal processes for migrants seeking education, family reunification, and labor.
It is time the United States coordinated more closely with other countries in the region to manage migration.
The United States’ expansion of the H-2A visa program for agricultural workers in the first decade of this century, which granted access to Mexican migrants seeking job opportunities, has assisted in curbing irregular migration from Mexico. Similar schemes to admit migrants from Central American countries for temporary work could have similarly positive effects, especially if coupled with meaningful and enforceable worker protections. Not only would greater labor mobility reduce today’s chaotic irregular flow, it would also help the families of labor migrants improve their quality of life at home, reducing the need to leave. And such a system would be self-sustaining; its success would encourage other people to seek positions in the next year’s temporary labor program rather than attempt to cross borders without permission.
Legal labor migration routes to the United States are not the only ones that need improvement. Canada already accepts two to three times more temporary workers from Guatemala each year than the United States does, but it could likely accommodate more. Mexico and Guatemala have a bilateral labor migration agreement that should be expanded. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, irregular labor pathways should be formalized to optimize economic benefits, to minimize disorder and danger to migrants, and to improve working conditions throughout the region.
As traditional migratory patterns through the Americas grow more complex, the regional institutions meant to manage them have failed to keep up. Too often, the countries of the Western Hemisphere insist on both organizing their migration management efforts along old sub-regional migration patterns—keeping South and Central American operations separate—and working under the flawed assumption that migration can be deterred at borders. Their lack of meaningful communication and narrow focus leave dangerous blind spots in what should be a coordinated regional policy.
Governments must break down these barriers and establish stronger networks to share information and create new processes. The success of other ad-hoc regional coordination efforts—such as the Lima Group, created in 2017 to address the crisis in Venezuela—shows how much a dedicated international forum for migration could achieve, helping countries develop early warning systems for emerging migration trends and craft joint responses that provide relief and options for people on the move. With international financial institutions standing by to assist, governments can more effectively provide humanitarian aid when a crisis drives large numbers of people to migrate and, over the long run, support communities that send and receive migrants through programs that make it possible for people to build a life where they are. No country, including the United States, can halt the forces that are driving people to migrate and reshaping the Western Hemisphere in the process. But the region’s leaders can agree to manage the consequences and relieve the pressures pushing people to move in the first place, to the lasting benefit of all.
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