Migration looms above top despite White House skittishness

As planning got underway for this week’s Summit of the Americas — the first to be held in the US in nearly three decades — the Biden administration circulated an agenda encompassing key themes: improving healthcare, tackling climate change , strengthening democracy and expanding access to technology .

Civil society members and supporters planning to participate in the Los Angeles summit noted a glaring omission for a hemisphere in crisis: migration.

The politically charged and regionally complex issue, which has plagued the US and Latin America since the summit’s inception, has played a major role in this week’s conference. Though the summit was dogged by regional divisions over who was invited, proponents and some involved in the planning say a reluctance to publicize migration has undermined US leadership on the issue. It has also limited the chances the Biden administration can build a coalition to tackle the problem, they said.

“Not to focus on” [migration] and then not putting it in the spotlight and actually seizing this opportunity to engage the leaders in what is driving people out of their countries is a wasted opportunity,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. “It is not elevated to the level that reality demands.”

The result, she said, is that migration has become “the elephant in the room.”

The US left to tackle the migration issue until Friday, the last day of the five-day conference. That’s when President Biden plans to sign a joint statement requiring more countries to share the burden of hosting migrants by creating more visa routes to travel legally or to allow migrants to receive humanitarian protection. . However, it is not at all clear which countries will sign the agreement.

The leaders of several countries crucial to tackling the issue have skipped the summit in protest at the Biden administration’s decision to exclude leaders from several countries it considers anti-democratic. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who led the objections over the guest list and is arguably the most important US partner in the region, stayed home and instead sent his Secretary of State, Marcelo Ebrard.

Leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras also decided not to attend. Mexico and those three countries produce the most migrants who want to cross the border into the US.

The boycott has led some to question whether the statement will be purely symbolic, though White House officials have expressed confidence that several countries will step forward, including Mexico. US officials said tackling migration at the end of the conference would give them time to convince countries to support the agreement. They also pointed out that Biden addressed the issue in his major speech at the summit, telling attendees that “secure and orderly migration is good for all of our economies, including the United States.” But he added: “Illegal migration is not acceptable.”

Still, some proponents expressed frustration that relegating migration to the last day has only made it harder to reach an agreement by highlighting the US’s apparent reluctance to tackle the issue seriously.

“I think it was a missed opportunity not to have had more dialogue with civil society and feedback on things the government should consider and prioritize when looking at protection issues,” said Maureen Meyer, vice president of programs for the Washington Office on Latin America.

Economic devastation, environmental disasters, corruption and political instability have turned migration patterns across the region upside down. The crisis in Venezuela has disproportionately catapulted millions of migrants into countries such as Chile, Colombia and Peru.

Physical and political earthquakes in Haiti have moved migrants to South America, as northern Central Americans cross Mexico into the US at a historic rate. Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica to escape their country’s dictatorship.

“Migration is a challenging issue for many reasons, for many of these countries, and they have dealt with it in different ways,” said Theresa Brown, a former Department of Homeland Security official and now director of immigration. and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“I think there are some things that can be done together, if the will is there. But many of these leaders have not met before…that may have been part of the challenge.”

According to Gaspar Rivera Salgado, project director of the UCLA Labor Center, the Biden administration has encountered difficulties in trying to convince some countries to tackle migration aggressively, for a variety of reasons mainly related to conflicting political objectives.

“It would force countries that are the sources of these diverse migratory flows to recognize that their domestic policies around security and economic opportunity are not working,” he said. “It would also force countries hosting these migrants, such as the United States and Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile, to recognize the problem as a humanitarian crisis. That would mean they have a moral obligation to help rather than turn to deterrence.”

“It illustrates the failed promises and the limits of multilateralism, because multilateralism only goes as far as nationalism.”

In the US, the Biden administration was confronted with tough immigration policies. Republicans have seized on the issue to portray Biden as weak on border security ahead of the November midterm elections. And he frustrated progressive supporters who claim he has been slow to implement the immigration reform he campaigned for and lift border restrictions, including a pandemic-era health order that gave authorities the power to deport migrants without legal process. . (A federal judge blocked the administration in May from lifting the injunction known as Title 42.)

Analysts say the unrelenting criticism and political toxicity of immigration has left some in the White House hesitant to focus on migration at this year’s summit.

“For the hosts of the US summit, the ugly domestic politics of immigration is undermining US leadership in this area,” said Benjamin Gedan, acting director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American program.

Vice President Kamala Harris, for example, has faced serious domestic backlash over a lack of progress on her most high-profile assignment — leading the government’s efforts to tackle the so-called root causes of migration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Republicans have hammered her about the lack of progress in containing the influx of migrants, and immigration lawyers have expressed concern that she seems ambivalent on the issue.

Government officials objected that Harris is taking the matter seriously. Earlier this week, she announced nearly $2 billion in new private investment in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, bringing the total company commitments to investment in the region to $3.2 billion since she started the initiative last year. She also launched a women’s empowerment program to educate young women and girls with vocational skills and a $50 million “Central America Service Corps” to provide young people with paying jobs for the community.

However, when the government formally kicked off the summit on Wednesday, the vice president did not even mention migration in her opening address, despite shaking off a list of other issues facing the region, including the “climate crisis, food insecurity, economic inequality, corruption and gender-based violence.”

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