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Monday, December 09, 2019

Tag: central america

In Central America, Migration Is Not The Crisis

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Earlier this month, a Honduran court found David Castillo, a U.S.-trained former Army intelligence officer and the head of an internationally financed hydroelectric company, guilty of the 2016 murder of celebrated Indigenous activist Berta Cáceres. His company was building a dam that threatened the traditional lands and water sources of the Indigenous Lenca people. For years, Cáceres and her organization, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, had led the struggle to halt that project. It turned out, however, that Cáceres's international recognition — she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 — couldn't protect her from becoming one of the dozens of Latin American Indigenous and environmental activists killed annually.

Yet when President Joe Biden came into office with an ambitious "Plan for Security and Prosperity in Central America," he wasn't talking about changing policies that promoted big development projects against the will of local inhabitants. Rather, he was focused on a very different goal: stopping migration. His plan, he claimed, would address its "root causes." Vice President Kamala Harris was even blunter when she visited Guatemala, instructing potential migrants: "Do not come."

As it happens, more military and private development aid of the sort Biden's plan calls for (and Harris boasted about) won't either stop migration or help Central America. It's destined, however, to spark yet more crimes like Cáceres's murder. There are other things the United States could do that would aid Central America. The first might simply be to stop talking about trying to end migration.

How Can The United States Help Central America?

Biden and Harris are only recycling policy prescriptions that have been around for decades: promote foreign investment in Central America's export economy, while building up militarized "security" in the region. In truth, it's the very economic model the United States has imposed there since the nineteenth century, which has brought neither security nor prosperity to the region (though it's brought both to U.S. investors there). It's also the model that has displaced millions of Central Americans from their homes and so is the fundamental cause of what, in this country, is so often referred to as the "crisis" of immigration.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the U.S. began imposing that very model to overcome what officials regularly described as Central American "savagery" and "banditry." The pattern continued as Washington found a new enemy, communism, to battle there in the second half of the last century. Now, Biden promises that the very same policies — foreign investment and eternal support for the export economy — will end migration by attacking its "root causes": poverty, violence, and corruption. (Or call them "savagery" and "banditry," if you will.) It's true that Central America is indeed plagued by poverty, violence, and corruption, but if Biden were willing to look at the root causes of his root causes, he might notice that his aren't the solutions to such problems, but their source.

Stopping migration from Central America is no more a legitimate policy goal than was stopping savagery, banditry, or communism in the twentieth century. In fact, what Washington policymakers called savagery (Indigenous people living autonomously on their lands), banditry (the poor trying to recover what the rich had stolen from them), and communism (land reform and support for the rights of oppressed workers and peasants) were actually potential solutions to the very poverty, violence, and corruption imposed by the US-backed ruling elites in the region. And maybe migration is likewise part of Central Americans' struggle to solve these problems. After all, migrants working in this country send back more money in remittances to their families in Central America than the United States has ever given in foreign aid.

What, then, would a constructive U.S. policy towards Central America look like?

Perhaps the most fundamental baseline of foreign policy should be that classic summary of the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm. As for doing some good, before the subject can even be discussed, there needs to be an acknowledgement that so much of what we've done to Central America over the past 200 years has been nothing but harm.

The United States could begin by assuming historical responsibility for the disasters it's created there. After the counterinsurgency wars of the 1980s, the United Nations sponsored truth commissions in El Salvador and Guatemala to uncover the crimes committed against civilian populations there. Unfortunately, those commissions didn't investigate Washington's role in funding and promoting war crimes in the region.

Maybe what's now needed is a new truth commission to investigate historic U.S. crimes in Central America. In reality, the United States owes those small, poor, violent, and corrupt countries reparations for the damages it's caused over all these years. Such an investigation might begin with Washington's long history of sponsoring coups, military "aid," armed interventions, massacres, assassinations, and genocide.

The U.S. would have to focus as well on the impacts of ongoing economic aid since the 1980s, aimed at helping U.S. corporations at the expense of the Central American poor. It could similarly examine the role of debt and the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement in fostering corporate and elite interests. And don't forget the way the outsized U.S. contribution to greenhouse gas emissions — this country is, of course, the largest such emitter in history — and climate change has contributed to the destruction of livelihoods in Central America. Finally, it could investigate how our border and immigration policies directly contribute to keeping Central America poor, violent, and corrupt, in the name of stopping migration.

Constructive Options For U.S. Policy In Central America

Providing Vaccines: Even as Washington rethinks the fundamentals of this country's policies there, it could take immediate steps on one front, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been devastating the region. Central America is in desperate need of vaccines, syringes, testing materials, and personal protective equipment. A history of underfunding, debt, and privatization, often due directly or indirectly to U.S. policy, has left Central America's healthcare systems in shambles. While Latin America as a whole has been struggling to acquire the vaccines it needs, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua rank at the very bottom of doses administered. If the United States actually wanted to help Central America, the emergency provision of what those countries need to get vaccines into arms would be an obvious place to start.

Reversing economic exploitation: Addressing the structural and institutional bases of economic exploitation could also have a powerful impact. First, we could undo the harmful provisions of the 2005 Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Yes, Central American governments beholden to Washington did sign on to it, but that doesn't mean that the agreement benefited the majority of the inhabitants in the region. In reality, what CAFTA did was throw open Central American markets to U.S. agricultural exports, in the process undermining the livelihoods of small farmers there.

CAFTA also gave a boost to the maquiladora or export-processing businesses, lending an all-too-generous hand to textile, garment, pharmaceutical, electronics, and other industries that regularly scour the globe for the cheapest places to manufacture their goods. In the process, it created mainly the kind of low-quality jobs that corporations can easily move anytime in an ongoing global race to the bottom.

Central American social movements have also vehemently protested CAFTA provisions that undermine local regulations and social protections, while privilegingforeign corporations. At this point, local governments in that region can't even enforce the most basic laws they've passed to regulate such deeply exploitative foreign investors.

Another severe restriction that prevents Central American governments from pursuing economic policies in the interest of their populations is government debt. Private banks lavished loans on dictatorial governments in the 1970s, then pumped up interest rates in the 1980s, causing those debts to balloon. The International Monetary Fund stepped in to bail out the banks, imposing debt restructuring programs on already-impoverished countries — in other words, making the poor pay for the profligacy of the wealthy.

For real economic development, governments need the resources to fund health, education, and welfare. Unsustainable and unpayable debt (compounded by ever-growing interest) make it impossible for such governments to dedicate resources where they're truly needed. A debt jubilee would be a crucial step towards restructuring the global economy and shifting the stream of global resources that currently flows so strongly from the poorest to the richest countries.

Now, add another disastrous factor to this equation: the U.S. "drug wars" that have proven to be a key factor in the spread of violence, displacement, and corruption in Central America. The focus of the drug war on Mexico in the early 2000s spurred an orgy of gang violence there, while pushing the trade south into Central America. The results have been disastrous. As drug traffickers moved in, they brought violence, land grabs, and capital for new cattle and palm-oil industries, drawing in corrupt politicians and investors. Pouring arms and aid into the drug wars that have exploded in Central America has only made trafficking even more corrupt, violent, and profitable.

Reversing climate change: In recent years, ever more extreme weather in Central America's "dry corridor," running from Guatemala through El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, has destroyed homes, farms, and livelihoods, and this climate-change-induced trend is only worsening by the year. While the news largely tends to present ongoing drought, punctuated by ever more frequent and violent hurricanes and tropical storms, as well as increasingly disastrous flooding, as so many individual occurrences, their heightened frequency is certainly a result of climate change. And about a third of Central America's migrants directly cite extreme weather as the reason they were forced to leave their homes. Climate change is, in fact, just what the U.S. Department of Defense all-too-correctly termed a "threat multiplier" that contributes to food and water scarcity, land conflicts, unemployment, violence, and other causes of migration.

The United States has, of course, played and continues to play an outsized role in contributing to climate change. And, in fact, we continue to emit far more CO2 per person than any other large country. We also produce and export large amounts of fossil fuels — the U.S., in fact, is one of the world's largest exporters as well as one of the largest consumers. And we continue to fund and promote fossil-fuel-dependent development at home and abroad. One of the best ways the United States could help Central America would be to focus time, energy, and money on stopping the burning of fossil fuels.

Migration As A Problem Solver

Isn't it finally time that the officials and citizens of the United States recognized the role migration plays in Central American economies? Where U.S. economic development recipes have failed so disastrously, migration has been the response to these failures and, for many Central Americans, the only available way to survive.

One in four Guatemalan families relies on remittances from relatives working in the United States and such monies account for about half of their income. President Biden may have promised Central America $4 billion in aid over four years, but Guatemala alone receives $9 billion a year in such remittances. And unlike government aid, much of which ends up in the pockets of U.S. corporations, local entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats of various sorts, remittances go directly to meet the needs of ordinary households.

At present, migration is a concrete way that Central Americans are trying to solve their all-too-desperate problems. Since the nineteenth century, Indigenous and peasant communities have repeatedly sought self-sufficiency and autonomy, only to be displaced by U.S. plantations in the name of progress. They've tried organizing peasant and labor movements to fight for land reform and workers' rights, only to be crushed by U.S.-trained and sponsored militaries in the name of anti-communism. With other alternatives foreclosed, migration has proven to be a twenty-first-century form of resistance and survival.

If migration can be a path to overcome economic crises, then instead of framing Washington's Central American policy as a way to stop it, the United States could reverse course and look for ways to enhance migration's ability to solve problems.

Jason DeParle aptly titled his recent book on migrant workers from the Philippines A Good Provider is One Who Leaves. "Good providers should not have to leave," responded the World Bank's Dilip Ratha, "but they should have the option." As Ratha explains,

"Migrants benefit their destination countries. They provide essential skills that may be missing and fill jobs that native-born people may not want to perform. Migrants pay taxes and are statistically less prone to commit crimes than native-born people… Migration benefits the migrant and their extended family and offers the potential to break the cycle of poverty. For women, migration elevates their standing in the family and the society. For children, it provides access to healthcare, education, and a higher standard of living. And for many countries of origin, remittances provide a lifeline in terms of external, counter-cyclical financing."

Migration can also have terrible costs. Families are separated, while many migrants face perilous conditions, including violence, detention, and potentially death on their journeys, not to speak of inadequate legal protection, housing, and working conditions once they reach their destination. This country could do a lot to mitigate such costs, many of which are under its direct control. The United States could open its borders to migrant workers and their families, grant them full legal rights and protections, and raise the minimum wage.

Would such policies lead to a large upsurge in migration from Central America? In the short run, they might, given the current state of that region under conditions created and exacerbated by Washington's policies over the past 40 years. In the longer run, however, easing the costs of migration actually could end up easing the structural conditions that cause it in the first place.

Improving the safety, rights, and working conditions of migrants would help Central America far more than any of the policies Biden and Harris are proposing. More security and higher wages would enable migrants to provide greater support for families back home. As a result, some would return home sooner. Smuggling and human trafficking rings, which take advantage of illegal migration, would wither from disuse. The enormous resources currently aimed at policing the border could be shifted to immigrant services. If migrants could come and go freely, many would go back to some version of the circular migration pattern that prevailed among Mexicans before the militarization of the border began to undercut that option in the 1990s. Long-term family separation would be reduced. Greater access to jobs, education, and opportunity has been shown to be one of the most effective anti-gang strategies.

In other words, there's plenty the United States could do to develop more constructive policies towards Central America and its inhabitants. That, however, would require thinking far more deeply about the "root causes" of the present catastrophe than Biden, Harris, and crew seem willing to do. In truth, the policies of this country bear an overwhelming responsibility for creating the very structural conditions that cause the stream of migrants that both Democrats and Republicans have decried, turning the act of simple survival into an eternal "crisis" for those very migrants and their families. A change in course is long overdue.

Aviva Chomsky, a TomDispatch regular, is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts. Her new book, Central America's Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, will be published in April.

The Beltway’s ‘Gotcha’ Media Comes For Kamala Harris

Reprinted with permission from Press Run

Stepping into the role of theater critic, CNN this week panned Vice President Kamala Harris' first foreign trip, as she traveled to Guatemala and Mexico. The negative review wasn't based on the substance of Harris' diplomatic excursion, instead the network deducted points for style, following the direction set by Republicans who were dead set on giving the trip a negative slant.

Leaning heavily on Republican talking points, CNN declared the Central American visit had been marred "by her seemingly flippant answer" given during an interview with NBC News. "Republicans are using this moment to ramp up their attacks on Harris" the network announced, as if that somehow determines Harris' fate.

CNN's coverage was relentlessly negative, attacking her "defensive" behavior, questioning her "political agility," stressing her "political missteps," mocking her "clumsy" and "tone deaf" media performance; her "shaky handling of the politics" surrounding immigration.

Over and over, the CNN report stressed that because Republicans and conservatives didn't like Harris' trip, it must be considered a failure — it was a "bad week" for the VP. And all because of a single back-and-forth she had with NBC's Lester Holt, who pushed a favorite GOP talking point, repeatedly demanding to know why Harris hasn't visited the U.S. southern border — the one that the press and the GOP insist represents a "crisis."

Doubling as the Gaffe Police, CNN uniformly announced that her brief response to the border question had "overshadowed" her entire trip. But who decided it "overshadowed"? News outlets like CNN, which were busy singing off the GOP chorus, and noting how Republicans had "pounced" and "piled on" the kerfuffle. CNN insisted Harris' trip had produced "poor reviews," but CNN and Republicans were the ones producing them.

The lack of context was also telling, coming after four years of Trump and his team ransacking the norms. In light of his dangerous tenure, the Harris controversy this week about a single border question and whether she was too casual in her response, seems quaint and rather absurd. The last time Trump's vice president made news was because he was in danger of being killed in the halls of Congress by a roaming, insurrectionist mob unleashed by his boss. By contrast, Harris got hit with days of bad news coverage for possibly mishandling a policy question during a television interview. (By the way, CNN.com published a Mike Pence valentine this week.)

Would Harris likely answer Holt's question differently if given a second chance? It's possible. But the idea that her 30-second border response "overshadowed" her entire Central American trip is absurd.

Harris' foreign visit coverage was part of a larger media push recently to try to trip up the VP with Beltway gotcha coverage — her Memorial Weekend tweet was all wrong! She's hiding her Asian heritage!

This kind of eagerly negative coverage springs from a media yearning for conflict. Frustrated by the No Drama Biden era, which has been completely absent of backstage White House gossip, and the kind of daily and hourly tumult that marked the Trump years, journalists are constantly overreaching, trying to create news where none exists.

Consider this bewildering media narrative that's become commonplace in recent weeks: It's bad news for Harris that she's taking on substantive responsibilities as vice president, such as leading the administration's response to stemming the flow of migration from Central America, and organizing the Democratic fight against a slew of Republican suppression laws being passed nationwide. This bad-news VP meme has been relentless ("Is Kamala Harris Being Set Up to Fail?" Slate asked), and it defies logic. Instead of giving Harris credit for tackling the nation's tough problems, the press is preemptively dinging her for possible failures. "Harris can't win," New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently announced.

As for the role Harris has played in the administration's stunning Covid-19 vaccination success story, that mostly gets buried in the coverage of her tenure to date, as the press scrambles for missteps to highlight.

Note that a recent Atlantic profile of Harris was dripping with condescending commentary, calling her "uninteresting," "having a hard time making her mark on anything," and stressing that, "she continues to retreat behind talking points and platitudes in public, and declines many interview requests and opportunities to speak for herself." Of course, the piece was loaded with quotes from Republicans demeaning her, which appears to be the basis for most Harris coverage these days.

Last year, when Biden announced Harris as his running mate, the conservative media machine set off allegorical bomb blasts all around her, frantically trying to depict Harris as radical and dangerous, not a mainstream U.S. senator from the largest state in the union.

"In style and policy, Harris epitomizes an authoritarian," the National Review gasped. The far-right Federalist warned panicked readers that Harris, a former prosecutor, represents a "radical threat to America." And Fox News' Sean Hannity announced the Biden-Harris duo was "the most radical ticket of a political party in our lifetime by far."

The right wing loves to vilify Harris. The mainstream media fails when it treats those attacks as news.

Trump Is Playing Dangerous Military Gambit In Central America

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

There has been a flurry of Trump administration activity around Central America recently. Most prominently, several cabinet members and Vice President Pence traveled to Miami last month for the administration’s “Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America” that the United States cohosted with Mexico.

The signals so far are not encouraging. In the Trump White House’s proposed 2018 budget, we can see a shift toward trying to spur private sector investment in Central America, while increasing “defense” spending to more than half the overall budget. State Department and USAID programs for Central America are cut by over 30 percent, while additional security assistance is expected to come from the Pentagon budget. The new official emphasis, as reiterated by US officials throughout the Miami conference, is to encourage Central American, Mexican, and Colombian leadership on Central America.

While the USAID programs are themselves controversial, and their effectiveness in reducing crime and increasing social inclusion is often debatable, the emphasis on military solutions to complex problems of poverty, violence, crime, and outward migration is even more troubling.

A lot of what we’re seeing is rebranding of old initiatives and Obama administration policies that continue under Trump. The antidrug and anticrime part of the strategy is explicitly modeled on Plan Colombia, which Secretary Kelly has described as “a miracle” in terms of its impact. The Trump administration is also doubling down on Plan Frontera Sur, which critics have described as the “outsourcing” of apprehending and deporting Central Americans, fleeing violence, back to their home countries. The economic components of the approach rely on the Obama-era Plan for Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle and continuing Bush-era plans for massive infrastructure, energy, and communications development (originally known as Plan Puebla Panama, later folded into Proyecto Mesoamérica).

These projects now have a greater focus on the Central American governments’ role, while international financial institutions (IFIs) are expected to play a big part, via Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank loans and grants and the setting up of other avenues to push through policy changes. Just as the military component of the Central America strategy was symbolically presented by holding day two of the conference at the US Southern Command, the IFI role was made clear by a preconference event in Coral Gables where corporations interested in investing in the Northern Triangle were in attendance.

In short, the Trump administration is continuing to push a grand neoliberal project in the region. Infrastructure development, regional energy, transportation networks, and telecommunications to encourage foreign investment are all big components of this, and the various high-level government officials speaking at the Miami conference mentioned them again and again.

Then there is the “War on Drugs.” Among the key US priorities for Central America that Pence outlined were “destroy[ing] gangs and criminal networks,” and stopping illegal drugs from coming into the US. To these ends, there are plans for greater information sharing among governments, including of biometric data, files, information on migration “flows,” and “early warning protocols.” The administration plans to continue militarization and US training and funding of security forces in the region. As under Obama, there is a strong emphasis on reducing “illegal” immigration to the US.

Ostensibly, the Central America policy of both the Trump and the Obama administrations is driven in large part by concerns over a surge of people fleeing the Northern Triangle region and heading north, toward the US-Mexico border. Yet we can see how various aspects of these plans will exacerbate, not reduce, the migration push factors in Central America.

We are likely to see more displacement of communities as infrastructure and other projects move forward (there was much talk in Miami of a coming massive migration to urban areas). There is little indication that jobs will be created that offer people more lucrative options than what they can find in criminal networks. Gangs, and “wars” on crime are migration push factors, with both criminal networks and security forces perpetrating violence that forces people to flee their communities, as Colombia’s recent history so clearly demonstrates. More people have been displaced internally in Colombia than anywhere else in the world — even Syria ― with internal displacement estimated at about 300,000 people each year from 2000 to 2013.

Trump administration officials such as Tillerson and Kelly touted officially lower homicide statistics in the Northern Triangle countries. Yet these (sometimes questionable) rates are still 81 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in El Salvador, 58 in Honduras, and 27 in Guatemala (compared to just 7 in Nicaragua), according to data compiled by Insight Crime. Doctors Without Borders reports estimates that 500,000 people flee the Northern Triangle every year.

Will the “tax reform” discussed in Miami shift more of the burden onto the wealthiest? It’s doubtful, certainly, that taxes will be increased on corporations, and especially on foreign investors, so governments will still face revenue-generating challenges. The loans that governments take to make their countries “business friendly” must be paid back, so governments (i.e., working people’s tax dollars) end up subsidizing private sector profit.

Will deregulation benefit working people? Lowered safety standards and increased environmental pollution and harm are also not likely to keep people in-country.

In Miami, there was the usual lip-service paid to cracking down on corruption, but no serious attempts to curb corruption in Honduras have taken place yet, with an OAS-backed Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity having produced slim results since its creation over a year ago. Similar to the notoriously compromised police and military in Mexico (which the Trump administration nevertheless is pushing to take more leadership on Central America), criminality in Honduran security forces goes to the top. A DEA informant recently testified in a US court that Honduras’ security minister, Julian Pacheco Tinoco, is linked to drug trafficking, along with the son of the post-coup president, Pepe Lobo.

Nor was there any indication of concern for human rights. Secretary Tillerson heaped praise on Honduras for creating a new human rights ministry, but this will be the second one since Honduras’ 2009 military coup, and no more likely to do anything than the first.

Or consider Guatemala, where the government has just won a CAFTA labor dispute case filed by the AFL-CIO and six Guatemalan labor unions claiming that Guatemala violates labor rights, including freedom of association, the right to bargain collectively, and to have acceptable working conditions. How will the Trump administration respond? Does anyone expect it to weigh in on the side of the workers? Assuming they don’t, what kind of precedent does this set? Consider also that Honduras is still working to set up “model cities” where labor rights would not apply.

There was little attention to how women, in particular, are affected by economic inequality and by violence, even though women and children were the media face of the Central American migration “crisis” three years ago. Women continue to take the risk of traveling to the US, even though one-third reported being sexually abused on the journey, according to Doctors Without Borders.

It seems likely that US officials know that migration is likely to increase. So part of the strategy involves Plan Frontera Sur ― Mexican authorities’ apprehension of Central American and other migrants before they can reach the US-Mexican border. A new SOUTHCOM operation in Petén, Guatemala is planned “to coordinate Mexican and Guatemalan military forces along the border.”

What can we do?

First, we should push members of Congress to cosponsor the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act. Congressional and activist pressure to end impunity by the Honduran security forces and to show support for communities and rights defenders is important to demonstrate that these projects cannot just be rammed through. The US-Central America strategy is likely to make conditions worse for many people in the region, and we need policymakers to propose alternatives. We must work, in solidarity with people on the ground, to prevent the US government from continuing disastrous neoliberal and military projects.

The Berta Cáceres Act would support these goals by suspending funding for Honduran security forces until there is accountability for human rights crimes they are involved in ― such as Berta Cáceres’ assassination, the investigation of which is still being stonewalled and the higher-ups responsible for the crime allowed to escape justice.

To encourage accountability in Honduras, the US can start by modeling it at home. To that end, we also need to push for CARSI transparency. Much of the US funding for Central America falls under the opaque Central America Regional Security Initiative, where Honduras funds are bundled together with those for other countries.

Specifically, Congress should demand a detailed description of each program carried out under CARSI to date, including the program’s geographical location and the amounts committed, obligated, and disbursed for each program. US taxpayers also have a right to know the US foreign assistance account source for each program’s funding and the program implementing partners, at both the prime and subprime levels (so that project funds are not obscured when the original project grantee turns around subcontracts with someone else). Congress should also require that each program’s goals and benchmarks are clearly defined, and that there is a description of monitoring and evaluation efforts being used to measure each program’s impact.

The unaccountable Honduran security forces rely on US funds for much of what they do. It’s time we made them accountable.

Dan Beeton is International Communications Director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net) in Washington, DC.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Former ‘Border Czar’ Gives Real Facts About Immigration

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

It’s hard to find anyone in Washington who knows border issues better than Alan Bersin. His unique perspective combines years of frontline law enforcement experience with academic knowledge and intellectual interest in the historical, economic, and social forces that are at work at the borders of the United States, especially the U.S.-Mexico line.

Bersin became U.S. attorney in San Diego in 1993 and subsequently spent almost five years as President Clinton’s “border czar,” overseeing a border-wide crackdown on illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

During the Obama administration, he served in several key posts in the Department of Homeland Security, including as acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the force of 58,000 employees that includes the U.S. Border Patrol as well as CBP officers guarding air, land, and sea ports of entry. He later served as assistant secretary for international affairs and chief diplomatic officer at DHS, a job he left last month.

ProPublica sat down to talk with him about the history, politics, rhetoric, and reality surrounding the border issues that are driving a fierce national debate during the first weeks of the Trump administration.

ProPublica: In the presidential campaign last year and in political discourse in general, the U.S.-Mexico border has consistently been depicted as out of control. How does that compare to the turf you have come to know during the past 25 years?

Bersin: When I began as U.S. attorney in San Diego during the Clinton administration in 1993, the border was in fact out of control. Illegal immigration was rampant. The federal government’s reaction, and the efforts of three administrations, gradually changed that. Over that period, the government was spending up to $18 billion a year geared to strengthening the border. We went from 3,000 Border Patrol agents to 22,000 agents today, more than 18,000 of them on the southwest border. There were massive investments in technology, air reconnaissance, sensors. This completely altered the border.

In 1993 and 1994, the Justice Department launched two operations: Hold the Line in El Paso and Gatekeeper in San Diego, the areas where almost all of the illegal crossing was concentrated because it was so easy to cross. The Border Patrol was able to get control of those flows. The strategy had two goals: putting more agents on the line to apprehend people and create a deterrent to crossing, and spreading the traffic out. A critical dimension was the construction of fences and barriers and walls along 700 miles of the 1,900 miles of the border. The type of barrier depended on the terrain. There is triple fencing in San Diego, and significant barriers in places like Nogales and Yuma, Arizona and El Paso and Brownsville, Texas. The idea was to restore the rule of law, to bring order to a chaotic situation. The results became more and more apparent. Crime rates went down in the border region. Today, the number of migrants crossing is at a 30-year low. That’s because of years of bipartisan work on this issue. Has it achieved a complete sealing of the border? No. But it has achieved equilibrium and more effective management. During the last 10 years we have also seen the beginning of joint border management with Mexico. In the course of 25 years, we have developed a constructive relationship with Mexico that was nonexistent before. During the last eight to 10 years there have been continued efforts which have resulted in a strategic alliance with the Mexicans and improved safety and security at the border.

A major contribution has come from the changing nature of migration. People should remember that Mexican migration is now at a net negative. More Mexicans are leaving through deportation, and voluntary return, than are entering the United States legally and illegally.

In part, that’s a result of our efforts on border enforcement. But it’s also because Mexico now has the 13th largest economy in the world. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts it will have a larger economy than Germany by 2042.

The Mexican people are increasingly middle class, and Mexico has substantially become a middle-class society. This is true despite the significant poverty, and the class and geographic inequality that have deep historical roots. Part of this process of change, as was the case in our own country, involves a difficult battle against organized crime. Nonetheless, Mexico has become a robust democracy with a robust press and an active legislature. It has gone from being a sending country for migrants to a transit country, and increasingly a receiving country for migrants in its own right.

Not only are the numbers of migrants entering the U.S. at the lowest levels in a generation, but they are now largely Central American. Four out of five border-crossers detained in South Texas are Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran. They are driven by violence and poverty in their home countries and the desire for family reunification.

Indeed, many of the illegal crossers who have entered the country in the last two years after being detained have actually been either unaccompanied minors or families who request political asylum. The ability of the smugglers to attract large numbers of families and unaccompanied minors is a function of the inability of our immigration court system to process asylum claims in a timely fashion.

So the key to responding to the increase in Central American minors and families is less at the border than in the immigration bureaucracy?

Yes. The difficulty is twofold. First, the law change during the Bush administration gave the Department of Health and Human Services a central role in relocating Central American minors in the United States. (HHS has an Office of Refugee Resettlement that is responsible for sheltering and processing migrant children and teenagers.) HHS has implemented this law by reuniting children with their families, many of whom had entered illegally. This has unintentionally made HHS the last link in the smuggling chain from Central America and created a legal incentive for the continued illegal migration of minors.

The second issue is the longtime lack of funding and resources for the immigration court system. Migrants come up and no longer seek to evade the Border Patrol, but are actually left at the border by their smugglers. And they seek out Border Patrol agents or Customs and Border Protection officials to surrender to them and request political asylum. That’s the way in which they get entry into a system that will eventually release them into the country.

Not because the system was designed that way, but because that is the practical result of an immigration court system that was never resourced by Congress. Notwithstanding the requests of the Obama administration, it was still not funded by Congress to be able to provide timely hearings and adjudication of immigration benefits.

If there were a rapid method of adjudicating claims, we wouldn’t see what has occurred on the scale on which it has — people paroled into the country with hearings set for two, three, four years in the future. Often, they don’t show up for their hearings. And often, during the time they are in the country waiting for the immigration hearing, they are having children and developing community ties. They generate real reasons to claim a right to remain, even though they’ve never been given a legal status. The bipartisan failure to build an effective immigration court system capable continues. It’s part and parcel of the general observation that the immigration system is broken.

The opening salvo in President Trump’s campaign last year, one that came to define this presidency in many ways, was a promise to build a wall on the border and make Mexico pay for it. What do you think of that idea?

I think there’s no question that the barriers, the fences, and in certain urban areas, the walls, have had an important effect in terms of increasing the manageability and the security of the border. But in fact as [Secretary of Homeland Security] General [John] Kelly acknowledged at his confirmation hearing, walls and barriers alone are insufficient to insure security.

As [former Homeland Security] Secretary [Janet] Napolitano pointed out, if you build a 50-foot wall, you’ll soon be confronted with a 51-foot ladder. You need a strategy that involves layered defense: deployed patrols, sophisticated sensor equipment, and surveillance from the air. That is what has had a positive impact over the last generation.

The judgment we have to make is whether a physical wall costing billions of dollars, or a further investment in Border Patrol agents costing hundreds of millions of dollars, will achieve the result we seek. And is the objective worth the costs?

Most people who live at the border or are familiar with the border know that a Berlin-like wall stretching from San Diego to Brownsville is not necessary. And the costs would be prohibitive. And there are places on the border, such as the Arizona desert or the open terrain around the Big Bend in South Texas, where Mother Nature has created her own barrier that is not easily passable. Or if you do pass through it, you are easily detected. All of this will be debated over the next few years, since I believe DHS has acknowledged that it will take at least two years to work through the details of any wall with Congress. During that period many more facts will be brought to bear on that decision.

This is not to say that there aren’t places where you could actually strengthen the barrier dimension of the layered defense. But the image and the costs of a Berlin-like wall or a Great Wall of China is something that the American people have not accepted to date.

To the extent that President Trump means strengthened border security, I am fully in favor of the idea that the rule of the law, secure borders, and public safety should prevail. Drugs should not enter illegally. Migration should take place in accordance with lawful norms and secure and safe procedures. And in fact we should be working more with the Mexicans to prevent the flow of guns going south into Mexico that have fueled so much of the violence there, and the smuggling of cash and the money laundering that transnational criminal organizations have instituted in North America, including in the United States.

The symbolic issue of the wall cuts two ways. To the extent that it is interpreted as an insult to Mexico, especially the demand for reimbursement, it could do irrevocable harm to cooperation with Mexico that dates from the Merida accords during the Bush administration in 2006.

Over the years you’ve developed strong professional and personal relationships with Mexican security officials and diplomats. Are you concerned about the U.S.-Mexico relationship as the result of tensions with the Trump administration?

In the last generation we’ve moved past a U.S.-Mexico relationship that while friendly on the surface, and demilitarized for the most part, really was not a genuinely cooperative relationship. As a result of the U.S.-Mexico War in the 19th century, and the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, half of what was Mexico was severed and became much of the western part of the United States. To add insult to injury, most Americans never knew that, and most Mexicans have never forgotten it.

The nationalism and the protectionism that was built into the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and that characterized the Mexican attitude to the United States for much of the 20th century were difficult to overcome. But that actually has occurred. And the cooperation and the trust and the confidence that have been built is not something that should be abandoned without great consideration for the potentially grave consequences to the United States.

The relationship is much stronger than people think. But it takes a great deal of care and cultivation. For example: The work the Mexicans are doing in terms of migration control on Mexico’s southern border is crucial to our own border security. Mexican enforcement efforts have become critical to moderating and mitigating the flow of Central American migrants at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. In the last two years, the Mexicans have detained nearly 400,000 migrants whose intent was to come to the United States. The Mexicans return the detained Central American migrants by bus or by air to the countries they come from.

A specific example: the notorious train known as La Bestia (The Beast). It was a great risk to many Central American migrants, but a primary migratory route. They rode on top of freight trains across Mexico, literally to the U.S.-Mexico border region, where they would get off and seek to be smuggled into the United States. Migration aboard those trains, which was a feature of the U.S.-Mexican smuggling landscape for many years, has been for all intents and purposes been stopped by Mexican authorities. They prevent migrants from getting on the trains and riding illegally. This kind of cooperation was unthinkable ten years ago and not even feasible five years ago.

A further example is the information sharing that takes place routinely between Mexico and the United States. Every air traveler entering Mexico is vetted against U.S. databases. The air passenger screening system Mexico has in place involves these checks against U.S. national security and criminal data bases. There are plainclothes U.S. officers stationed at airports in Mexico working with Mexican immigration officials to protect the United States. This joint security program has been in place for at least six years and is a huge asset.

As much as your focus has been border enforcement and fighting crime, you are enthusiastic about North American integration. Why?

Six million jobs in the U.S. depend on trade with Mexico. Ten border states — six in Mexico and four in the United States — combined have the third or fourth largest economy in the world. Twenty-nine U.S. states depend on Mexico as their primary export market. All of this is a function of the vibrant cross-border economic links that now exist between our two countries. We do nearly $700 billion a year in trade. Research by the University of California indicates that, absent this trading level between the two countries, the United States would have lost more jobs during the 2008 recession than it did.

We need to realize that the economic situation between Mexico and the United States is not just one in which we trade with one another. We make things together. We have shared production platforms. Cross-border trade is part of a single production process, and while apparently the Trump administration will seek to re-examine elements of that production platform, it is what it is and won’t be easily dismantled.

It’s not just a Mexican phenomenon, it’s also a Canadian phenomenon. You have auto parts being manufactured in Ottawa or in Detroit that are assembled in plants in Guanajuato or Queretaro. This is the way in which “Made in North America” operates today.

The cry of “Make America Great Again” reflects accurately that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the sole superpower status of the United States is coming to an end. For the first time since the second World War, we are not the sole dominant economy in the world. In large part this is because of the success of policies followed by the U.S. to create an environment, a peaceful period in history in which economies could grow and countries could benefit.

While some in China and Europe and in this country think this embodies the decline of America, in fact that is not the case. The potential of Mexico, Canada and the United States is enormous. We have a combined population of half a billion people; peaceful trade-friendly borders that are the envy of the world; the prospect of energy independence is within reach and will change the geopolitical situation of United States; we do a trillion dollars in trade among the three countries; more than 18,000 American companies are involved in foreign direct investment in Mexico and Canada; an increasing number of Mexican companies are creating jobs in the United States.

If we continue in this direction, we would see a North America emerge that will be highly competitive worldwide both as an economic unit, but also in terms of security. Our security in a global world must be looked at on a continental basis.

That is not to say that President Trump hasn’t identified the losers in those propositions: People in our so-called Rust Belt have lost out and politics and society have not been responsive either in providing the kind of additional support they need or to retrain them for jobs that are being created in the new economy.

But we must recognize that this massive economic bloc that’s emerging in North America cannot be accomplished unilaterally. It must be accomplished in partnership with Mexico and Canada. And we have to work together to secure the continent in order to keep dangerous people and dangerous things out and strengthen perimeter security on a continental basis.

Let’s talk about other aspects of border enforcement. The big question: What do you think of the recent presidential executive order and travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries and the impact it could have?

The stated reason for the suspension, it’s not a ban, has been to provide an opportunity to do a review of the vetting and screening procedures to be sure that the full resources — intelligence-wise and data-wise — have been employed to prevent dangerous people from coming into the country.

I think this administration will come to appreciate that there have been enormous advances since 9/11 to build a very robust set of targeting procedures and watch lists to screen travelers coming to the United States. The National Targeting Center in Virginia run by Customs and Border Protection checks the background of every traveler who seeks to enter the country.

It works with airlines and foreign governments to stop high-risk persons from traveling to the United States. It uses data that has been gathered by our intelligence services and military all over the world, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as from foreign governments. While no one can argue with strengthening these systems, this will always be a work in progress, they are already quite effective. Presumably our colleagues in the new Trump administration will find that to be the case.

With respect to the so-called travel ban, we have an order that appears to have been drafted at the White House without the weeks of advance review that would ordinarily exist in government agencies. We can already see the checks and balances asserting themselves: The first was Secretary Kelly reversing the directive that barred green-card holders from entering the United States. That was rolled back. But the prior review by career professionals, which is a basic check against both error and malice, did not occur here.

In fact, the speed with which the order was imposed suggested there was an imminent danger and an urgent need to do something drastic. Do you see a basis in reality for that?

I think the record is to the contrary. The comparison to what’s going on in Europe is instructive in terms of the ability of the Islamic State to put organized, trained and equipped terrorists to operate within the Schengen region of Europe. That contrasts to the situation here in the United States, where ISIS has had little success in doing the same. We have seen self-radicalized individuals doing terrible things to be sure, but that’s a different phenomenon.

As for refugees, the record is also clear in terms of the 18 to 24 months that are required to qualify a refugee for entry into the United States. There are a very stringent set of protocols and procedures administered by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees as well as the U.S. government. The notion that this was a wide-open gap in our security, and this executive order was necessary to close it, is just contrary to the facts.

Are you concerned about the repercussions of the images of babies and old women and interpreters who’ve worked for the U.S. military being turned away at our borders? What is the potential impact this debate could have at home and abroad?

There’s no question that there’s a risk. The efforts that are being made to counter violent extremism in our country require intensive work with Muslim communities in order to develop trust and confidence. I’m worried about the impact on these efforts of today’s political rhetoric, whether or not it gets translated into actual policy by the administration. These relationships depend on what happens long term, over months and months and the years to come.

And there’s a larger point here. Homeland security is inherently transnational today. There’s hardly anything adverse that happens in our homeland that doesn’t have a cause or effect that’s generated abroad. Increasingly, we must rely on our allies and foreign governments to share information and data to secure our country. The extent to which we cooperate with foreign governments is essential to the vetting that we’ve talked about. One of the dimensions the executive order requires is an assessment of that information sharing, and that is a positive development. I think the administration will find a considerable amount of information is already shared, although there is room for much improvement with many countries. We have to remember that information sharing is restricted by legal barriers and cultural barriers and by the notion that information is power and therefore should be hoarded so if you share information you can extract something in exchange. In today’s digital online world, those who don’t share information will be isolated and left behind. We need the data of other countries to connect the dots.

As a result of this reality, DHS has the third largest number of people stationed abroad among U.S. civilian agencies. We can’t defend the country by looking at the borderline as the first line of defense rather than as the last line of defense. We have to secure the flow of goods and people by engaging with foreign entities. We assure our security by securing the flows as early as we can before they arrive and as far away from our borders as we can. To do that, we have officials of CBP, the Secret Service, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Homeland Security Investigations, TSA, and the U.S. Coast Guard stationed all over the world working with their foreign counterparts. These relationships are primarily matters of trust and confidence. Classically, what goes around comes around. We should be wary, particularly with our closest friends and allies, of breaking down the trust and confidence that lie at the foundation of these relationships.

IMAGE: REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Cuban Migrants Get Unfair Advantage Over Other Latinos

The Cold War is over, but it still deeply distorts U.S. immigration policy.

Consider the bizarre situation at our southern border. A wave of migrants is expected to appear there, hoping for safe passage into the U.S. and an expedited path to legal status and eventually full citizenship. They will get it.

These lucky migrants won’t be Mexicans fleeing drug cartels. They won’t be Hondurans, who must endure the world’s highest murder rate. And they won’t be citizens of El Salvador, where the Peace Corps just suspended operations due to the increasing violence.

No, we deport those people.

They will be Cubans. In recent months, increasing numbers of Cubans have been leaving their island country, flying to Ecuador first and then traveling northward through Central America. They wish to migrate to the U.S., fearful that thawing diplomatic relations will end the special treatment that Cubans who leave the island have long received.

That special treatment needs to end.

The hypocrisy that is embedded in U.S. immigration law will be on full display as the Cubans begin arriving, which could happen within the next few weeks.

Since 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act has given Cuban people an extraordinary advantage over other migrants wishing to enter the U.S. The law was originally intended as a political and humanitarian reply to communism and the oppression of Fidel Castro. No proof that a person has suffered persecution. Where he or she arrives from is enough.

When people attempt to arrive through the Florida Straits, the policy that developed was dubbed “wet foot, dry foot.” If a Cuban can get one foot on dry U.S. soil, they can stay and are offered permanent legal status in a year and many other benefits of welfare and help to restart their lives.

The benevolence of the law made sense in decades past. But a good argument can be made that many of the migrating Cubans are fleeing not persecution but economic turmoil. And in doing so, they are not any more desperate, perhaps even less so, than those fleeing the violence and poverty of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Thousands of Central Americans arrived and asked for asylum in the summer of 2014. But those people are the wrong type of Latino for our policies. Many of them are indigenous, poor and have little formal schooling. So they were held for months in detention camps at the border. Many were eventually released, free to stay the U.S. at least until their pleas for asylum status or legal residency can be assessed by an immigration judge. Raids and deportations of undocumented immigrants continue.

Meanwhile, as many as 8,000 Cubans who have been stranded in Costa Rica will soon be making their way northward through Mexico, after agreements were worked out by several Latin American governments. The Obama administration plans to open refugee screening centers in Central America, an attempt to stem the flow of non-Cuban migrants.

In this election year, especially in light of the GOP’s appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment, the migrant Cubans will present a political test.

GOP presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio, whose parents left Cuba before Castro took over, has introduced legislation to curb abuses of the American generosity toward Cubans. The Sun Sentinel of South Florida in 2015 documented cases in which Cubans claiming to be exiles were taking U.S. government benefits or committing other types of fraud, even after returning to Cuba.

How far Rubio’s legislation and the companion bill in the House will advance remains to be seen. And there is virtually no appetite in an election year to overhaul immigration for the benefit of more than just Cubans.

Amnesty is still a curse word in most GOP circles. In decades past, that didn’t matter in the case of Cubans, who could be counted on to become Republicans.

If the GOP is to have any hope of salvaging the Latino vote this presidential cycle it will have to traverse this sticky thicket, also acknowledging the needs of other Latino migrants. They have to beat back the anti-immigrant bleating of Donald Trump, as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did in her response to the State of the Union speech.

They must vow to be just. They must promise to rewrite immigration law to weigh all humans’ needs equally and fairly, with no favor based on country of origin or likely partisan affinity. And they must not bow to nativist screeds.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.) (c) 2016, THE KANSAS CITY STAR. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC

Photo: A Cuban migrant shows a U.S. flag design on the cuffs of his pants at the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua, November 18, 2015. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

Advocates Perplexed By U.S. Response To Central American Migrants

By Julia Edwards

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Refugee advocates said on Thursday the Obama administration is sending mixed signals to Central American migrants by deporting families who have fled to the United States while increasing resources in the crime-ridden region for asylum seekers.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Wednesday that the United States would work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to expand opportunities for people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to apply for refugee status before coming to the United States.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently conducted raids in the United States on Central American families who had fled the region in an effort to deter others from doing the same.

“That frankly leaves us scratching our heads and leaves us wondering how the administration could be talking about the refugee resettlement issue in such different terms,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy organization for children who enter the U.S. immigration system alone.

Young said the families were not given due process before being deported.

The question of what claim Central Americans fleeing violence have to refugee status in the United States comes amid a polarized national debate about the U.S. immigration system.

Some congressional Republicans have said migrants, including refugees from Central America and the Middle East, could threaten public health and national security. More than 140 Democrats in the U.S. House wrote a letter to President Barack Obama condemning the deportation raids.

Refugee and immigration advocates said the administration’s plan to deport Central Americans from the United States while increasing opportunities for them to seek asylum from their own countries wrongfully assumes that those asking for asylum at the border are a threat.

The asylum application process, which can take two years, is unfeasible for families needing to flee violence quickly, said Jen Smyers, associate director of immigration and refugee policy at Church World Service.

Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said the administration’s “border enforcement approach to this issue has been a mistake from the beginning.”

Young said the administration wanted to counter the perception that border is out of control but “I think what they’re going to find out is that the most dangerous political calculation is that the immigrant rights community … are now all unifying and speaking out in strong opposition to this new policy.”

(Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Bill Trott)

 

Watchdogs: Rise In Southwest Border Crossings Fueled By Desperation

By Warren Rojas, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Immigration watchdogs say the significant uptick in the number of unaccompanied minors and families apprehended along the Southwest border late last year underscores how dire the situation has become in Central America.

“This is not regular migration. This is people who are trying to survive,” Guillermo Cantor, deputy director of research at the American Immigration Council, said of those fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The latest figures released by the Department of Homeland Security show Customs and Border Protection stopped more than double the number of unaccompanied minors in October and November of 2015 as it did during the same period in 2014. The number of families arrested for illegally crossing during the same windows nearly tripled.

That increase is dwarfed by the tens of thousands of individuals who made the hazardous journey during the summer of 2014, a mass exodus that led to the arrest of approximately 68,000 families (compared to the 21,000 detained in recent months) and 69,000 children (17,000, today) along the same international boundary.

That headline-making flood of asylum seekers poured into the country at the same time President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers remained deadlocked on how best to address the humanitarian crisis. Then-Speaker John A. Boehner attempted to advance an immigration bundle designed to incorporate law-abiding undocumented workers already living in the U.S. more fully into society, but was dogged by infighting about “pathways to citizenship” and “amnesty.”

The unexpected ouster of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his primary re-election loss a few months later knocked the wind out of the pro-reform efforts. President Barack Obama sought to relieve some of the burden via executive order, but also warned Central Americans considering making the trip that they would be sent right back.

Earlier this month, Obama authorized a crackdown on immigrants who arrived in 2014 who an immigration judge had ruled should be removed from the country, an operation that led to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials incarcerating more than 100 individuals expected to face deportation.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters on Tuesday that he spoke with DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, and he expected there would be a “pause” with respect to the deportations that have raised the ire of many Democrats.

“I think we’re moving forward to a resolution of this,” Reid said.

Later Reid’s office backed away from that assertion, a bit, saying Reid “hopes” for a pause.

Timothy Dunn, professor of sociology with the Charles R. and Martha N. Fulton School of Liberal Arts at Salisbury University and author of two books about immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border, chalked up the recent enforcement activity to reactionary politics.

“What happened to the big re-orientation of ICE to focus on ‘felons not families’? Guess that’s out now that ‘The Donald’ has stoked the public’s worst fears with complete disinformation and falsehoods about immigration,” he posited in an email, referring to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Customs and Border Protection officials say the agencies have been “closely monitoring these trends and coordinating across the whole of government to ensure an effective response to any changes in migration flows,” a spokesman said via email.

Denise Gilman, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and director of the Immigration Clinic, is highly skeptical that traditional “pull” factors (think: surplus jobs, higher wages) are playing a significant role this time around.

“Mexican migration is at incredibly low levels, which you would expect to see change if workforce gains were an important cause of changes in the flows,” she asserted. When coupled with the fact that moms and kids are leading this charge rather than seasonal job seekers, Gilman said she believes fear is driving the new arrivals.

“These demographic realities point to violence, rather than employment issues, as the main triggers for migration,” she estimated.

Cantor said the mounting challenges — including extreme poverty, endemic gang violence, political corruption and crippling joblessness — heaped upon the average Central American are powerful motivators to risk everything and try whatever luck one may have left up north. “It is very hard for people to live there,” Cantor said.

And even though both the U.S. and Mexican authorities have in recent years ramped up efforts to return migrants to their place of origin (“Mexico has been very active in removing people and sending them back to Central America,” Cantor said.), getting stateside remains an incredible draw because so many others have already blazed the same trail.

According to a Migration Policy Institute fact sheet about the evolving immigration landscape, one in five Salvadorans and one in 15 Guatemalans and Hondurans already reside in the U.S.

“The U.S. appears like a natural choice when people are trying to escape,” Cantor said.

And that’s unlikely to change — unless the hazardous conditions plaguing Central Americans are finally addressed.

“Given the large number of people in the region who have ties to relatives and communities in the United States, as well as the lengthy backlogs in the U.S. court system for deciding their asylum claims, Central American migrants will continue to try to make their way to the United States, aided by smuggling networks that nimbly adapt to enforcement efforts, both in Mexico and the United States,” Migration Policy Institute scholars Marc R. Rosenblum and Isabel Ball predicted earlier this month.

Dunn said Uncle Sam ought to dig deep, because the U.S. has plenty to atone for, pointing to the U.S.’s “cold war support for allies that killed over 200,000 people in the 1980s in those three Central American nations (and 40,000 more if we include Nicaragua)” and blaming “disruptive trade policies” such as the Central America Free Trade Agreement “that leave few opportunities for small farmers or urban poor and workers.”

As for the future of enforcement, Dunn recommended taking a page from Nicaraguan leaders.

“Nicaragua has seen little migration to the U.S. (though lots to Costa Rica) despite great poverty, but has among lowest homicide rates in hemisphere. Their police approach is more aimed at prevention and youth and family programs, and much more successful,” he shared via email. “Our approach is a failure. We could learn from them.”

(Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.)

©2016 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A group of 16 Guatemalans receive instructions from an Hidalgo County Constable after they crossed the Rio Grande near Anzalduas Park outside McAllen, Texas, Junes 12, 2014. The group, from Guatemala, spent 3 weeks crossing Mexico. (Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

 

Obama Administration Urged To Stop Deporting Central American Families

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday he expected the Obama administration to pause its new campaign to deport undocumented Central American families, a policy that has led to over 120 detentions since Jan. 1 and angered Democratic lawmakers.

Reid, who leads the minority party in the Senate, told reporters on Capitol Hill that he had spoken about the issue on Tuesday with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who “understands the concern we have.”

“I think you are going to find a pause in these deportations,” Reid said. He did not offer further details and said he did not know if President Barack Obama would announce the pause in deportations during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

U.S. authorities began preparing last year for their first large-scale effort to deport families who have entered the United States illegally since May 2014 while fleeing violence in Central America. More than 10,000 people could be subject to deportation under the DHS initiative, according to new figures from the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.

The new effort marked a shift in approach to deportations, from targeting individuals to entire undocumented families with both parents and children. U.S. authorities took 121 people into custody over the first weekend in the new year, mainly in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.

American officials are keen to avoid a repeat of the surge in unaccompanied children who entered the United States in 2014, when tens of thousands of minors traveling without adults flooded across the southern U.S. border illegally.

The stepped-up deportation effort has angered lawmakers in Congress. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives said on Tuesday they were sending a letter to Obama asking him to stop the deportations.

Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois told reporters 139 Democrats had signed the letter, about three-fourths of the Democrats in the House.

The No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, told reporters the letter would urge the administration to change its “ill-advised policy” of deporting undocumented Central American families.

“The administration needs to go in a different direction,” Hoyer said.

He said many of the families targeted for deportation had entered the United States seeking refuge from violence in their home countries and should be treated in a manner consistent with U.S. values.

 

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by Bernard Orr)