Migration takes top bill as Biden hosts leaders in the hemisphere

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A man carries a child past members of the Mexican National Guard, heading north on Huixtla Road in Chiapas state, Mexico, Wednesday, June 7, 2022. The group, part of a larger migrant caravan, left Tapachula Monday, tired of waiting to normalize their status in a region with little work and still a long way from their ultimate goal of reaching the United States. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

AP

Migration has taken center stage at a gathering of leaders in the Western Hemisphere, reflecting its emergence as a major foreign policy topic amid red carpet drama about who comes and who stays at home.

The “Los Angeles statement,” announced as U.S. President Joe Biden meets with his colleagues from North, Central and South America Wednesday through Friday, is expected to be a brief call to action that supporters hope will they will guide countries in hosting people fleeing violence and persecution and seeking greater economic stability.

The United States has been the most popular destination for asylum seekers since 2017, posing a challenge that has crippled Biden and his immediate predecessors, Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

But the US is far from alone. Colombia and neighboring South American countries are home to millions of people who have fled Venezuela. Mexico handled more than 130,000 asylum applications last year, many of them Haitians, a threefold increase since 2020. Many Nicaraguans are escaping to Costa Rica, while displaced Venezuelans make up about one-sixth of the population of tiny Aruba.

“Countries should already be doing this, so instead of each country trying to figure this out and figure this out for itself, we’re saying, ‘Let’s come together in a coherent way and construct a framework so that we all work together to make this situation more humane and manageable,” said Brian Nichols, US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Biden was set to arrive at the summit on Wednesday, followed by questions about how much progress he can make on migration and other issues when some of his colleagues from the region — most notably Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — boycott the event.

The controversy has undermined the start of the summit, which is being hosted by the US for the first time since the inaugural event in 1994, as China is trying to penetrate the region.

While Biden was deeply involved with Latin America when he was vice president, his focus has been largely elsewhere since taking office as president last year. He has tried to refocus US foreign policy on Asia while rallying allies to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Some concrete measures may be announced, perhaps financing for development banks. Nichols said in an interview Monday it would be premature to discuss specific initiatives, but officials have made it clear that the agreement will be largely ambitious.

There is broad agreement that aid should focus on growth and stability for entire communities in which migrants live, not just migrants.

“If you only help the migrants and not the communities around them, it’s counterproductive,” Nichols said.

According to experts who have seen early drafts, the agreement may call for more avenues to legal status, mechanisms to reunite families, more efficient and humane border controls and improved information sharing.

Leaders from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — each crucial to any regional migration strategy — skip the Summit of the Americas and symbolically deprive Biden of weight and unity amid the photo opportunities and pageantry, starting with an inaugural ceremony Wednesday.

Mexico’s López Obrador said he delegated Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard because the US has excluded Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, all countries that send large numbers of migrants to the US and neighboring countries.

On his departure for Los Angeles on Tuesday, Ebrard said Mexico’s close relationship with the United States was unchanged and noted that Lopez Obrador will visit Washington in July.

Ecuador President Guillermo Lasso said a migration deal would be an important recognition of what governments are dealing with.

“(When) you talk about problems and it becomes part of a statement, a summit as important as this one, then clearly the problem exists, the problem comes into the consciousness of those who should be part of the solution,” he said. against a group of civil society organisations. activists in Los Angeles.

The migration agreement took shape during talks by top diplomats in Colombia in October and in Panama in April. Experts consulted by governments say it is largely driven by the US and other countries that take in many migrants, such as Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru and Panama.

The strategy appears to resemble a US-only plan that Vice President Kamala Harris announced last July, calling for “secure and humane border management” and more roads to legal status.

So far, the Biden administration has shown little of it.

The meeting of regional leaders comes as several thousand migrants marched through southern Mexico on Tuesday — the largest migrant caravan of the year — with local authorities showing no signs of trying to stop them.

Mexico has tried to keep migrants south, far from the US border. But many there have become frustrated with the slow bureaucratic process to regularize their status and the lack of job opportunities to provide for their families.

US authorities are stopping migrants crossing the Mexican border, more often than at any time in about two decades. Under a pandemic rule to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many are quickly expelled from the country without the chance to apply for asylum. But Title 42 authority, which a federal judge in Louisiana has upheld, is applied unevenly by nationality.

In Eagle Pass, Texas, one of the busiest places for illegal crossings, Cubans wade freely through the Rio Grande and are released into the United States on humanitarian grounds, aided by Cuba’s refusal to take them back. On the other hand, Mexico has agreed to take back migrants expelled from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as Mexico.

Cristian Salgado, from Honduras, hoped he would be treated like Cubans he saw when he illegally crossed the road about a month ago with his wife and 5-year-old son, but US authorities sent him back to the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras without him. to plead his case. He remembers a border agent who said, “There is no asylum for Honduras.”

Associated Press writers Maria Verza in Mexico City, Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, and Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.

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