The United States stepped up efforts this week to convince Central American leaders to do more to stem the flow of migration to its border, but Mexico’s president cast blame on President Joe Biden’s policies and messaging as tensions over the crisis rise.
“Expectations were created that with the government of President Biden there would be a better treatment of migrants. And this has caused Central American migrants, and also from our country, wanting to cross the border thinking that it is easier to do so,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at a news conference Tuesday.
Earlier this month, the Mexican president said Biden is seen as “the migrant president” in Central America because people believe he will let them into the U.S. The White House has tried to counter that perception, with Biden publicly urging people not to come to the border, but the message has not gotten through on the ground.
Officials project border apprehensions could hit a 20-year high this year, and the number of unaccompanied children taken into custody at the border rose 63% from January to February. There are currently more than 11,000 minors in Department of Health and Human Services custody and 5,000 more in Customs and Border Protection facilities.
Experts say many factors are driving the surge, which began last spring, including the coronavirus pandemic, worsening corruption and violence in the Northern Triangle, and two hurricanes that decimated parts of Central America. Republicans have also blamed the easing of immigration enforcement under Biden, but the reality is complicated.
“You have almost a perfect storm going on right now,” said Gladys McCormick, a historian and expert on U.S.-Mexico relations at Syracuse University.
After taking office, Biden quickly reversed many Trump-era immigration and border policies that Democrats viewed as inhumane, including a program that required asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases were processed in the U.S. The administration has kept in place a policy that ejected most adult migrants for public health reasons because of the pandemic, but it is not applying that provision to unaccompanied children.
White House officials have stressed most adults and families detained at the border are still being sent back to their home countries. However, a recent change in Mexican law has left the U.S. unable to turn away some families with young children.
“We’re in negotiations with the president of Mexico,” Biden said of migrant families at a press conference Thursday. “I think we’re going to see that change. They should all be going back.”
The sudden increase in unaccompanied children arriving at the border appears, to some degree, to be a response to Biden’s changes. However, as Biden observed, apprehensions at the border surged in 2019 despite Trump imposing the strictest policies in recent history.
"Does anyone suggest that there was 31% increase under Trump because he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the border?" Biden asked.
The White House is working to revive a program that allowed minors to apply for refugee status from their home countries, and it is scrambling to find more facilities to house the children who are already in custody until a relative or sponsor can be found. In the meantime, Biden reiterated his administration would not reject unaccompanied children who show up at the border.
The State Department has run more than 17,000 radio ads in Latin America and posted more than 500 social media ads discouraging migrants from traveling north. Numbers are continuing to rise, though, and Biden acknowledged there is “no easy answer.”
The White House announced Wednesday that Vice President Kamala Harris will oversee efforts to address the root causes of migration in Central America and a diplomatic push to slow the current flow of migrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle. That includes convincing those countries to strengthen their border protection and accept all migrants the U.S. sends back to them.
“When she speaks, she speaks for me,” Biden said. “Doesn’t have to check with me. She knows what she’s doing, and I hope we can move this along.”
The Biden administration has already restored $450 million in assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that President Trump froze. Harris vowed the administration would “chew gum and walk at the same time,” enforcing immigration laws at the border while working to prevent people from making the journey north.
“We will collaborate with Mexico and other countries throughout the Western Hemisphere,” Harris said Wednesday. “And as part of this effort, we expect that we will have collaborative relationships to accomplish the goals the president has and that we share.”
Biden played a similar role in President Barack Obama’s response to a surge of unaccompanied minors at the southern border in 2014 and 2015. He convened a multilateral meeting with the leaders of the Northern Triangle countries in 2015, but Harris has not yet laid out specific plans for how she will handle the current challenges.
The assignment presents enormous political risks for Harris, whose future presidential prospects may hinge on whether she can solve a seemingly intractable problem that has vexed the last three administrations. Still, immigrant rights groups have welcomed the Biden administration’s more diplomatic and less heavy-handed strategy.
“The policy choices are clear: we should protect kids who are fleeing for their lives rather than sending them back to the violence they fled; and we should work on a regional solution that reduces the need to migrate while taking pressure off the border with enhanced legal immigration pathways,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said in a statement.
Republicans and advocates of stricter immigration policies greeted Harris’ new role with skepticism. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., called the former California senator the “worst choice” to address the situation.
“She basically came to hearings and asked really obnoxious questions to ICE and CBP, basically accusing them of inhumanity,” Johnson told “Fox & Friends.” “That’s about all she did. She had no interest whatsoever in working with the administration to secure the border and stop the flow.”
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, noted Harris previously compared Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Ku Klux Klan and suggested the agency should be restarted from scratch. She also stated during her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination that she did not believe people who violate U.S. immigration laws should be deported.
“Until President Biden and Vice President Harris are prepared to restore the policies they blew up, the crisis will continue no matter who’s making the photo ops at the border,” Stein said.
Experts say stronger cooperation with Mexico will be a vital element of any solution, and there are some signs of progress on that front. Biden sent a delegation to Mexico earlier this week, including White House border coordinator Roberta Jacobson, for talks on developing “an effective and humane plan of action to manage migration.”
Officials were set to travel to Guatemala too, but meetings there were postponed due to volcanic activity.
Mexico implemented new restrictions at its northern and southern borders last week, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of military and National Guard troops were deployed to the southern border, ostensibly to “protect” migrant children, but critics fear tightening enforcement at entry points will lead migrants to cross into Mexico in more dangerous areas.
“In response to the crisis of refugees and migrants in the region, Mexico should demilitarize migration activities and reorient its approach to its southern border, recognizing that crackdowns exacerbate risks faced by an already vulnerable population,” the Washington Office on Latin America said in a statement earlier this week.
As Mexico announced new immigration enforcement measures, the Biden administration announced it would loan 2.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to the Mexican government. U.S. officials maintained it was not a quid pro quo arrangement, but they had been pressuring López Obrador to take more aggressive steps against migration.
“The López Obrador administration is deploying a number of soldiers and National Guard to the southern border, but they’re not yet at the levels that were present under the Trump administration,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
The badly needed assistance with vaccination represents a marked shift from President Trump’s approach to dealing with López Obrador. When he faced a migrant surge in 2019, Trump threatened to shut down the nation’s southern border and impose legally questionable tariffs on Mexican imports.
“I think it’s a polar opposite, literally 180 degrees, from what it was with Trump,” McCormick said.
Like Trump, López Obrador ran for president as a populist outsider, and he seemed to respond to Trump’s brusque and unconventional style of diplomacy. He capitulated quickly to Trump, but he has so far not offered the same level of assistance to Biden.
“Mr. Trump was loud and strident and he seemed to use, at least in regard to Mexico, the stick rather than the carrot...,” Payan said. “It worked. He did manage to get Mexico to collaborate with U.S. immigration policies.”
Experts expect Biden’s more conciliatory appeals will produce results eventually, as well, but it might take more than one shipment of vaccines to get there.
“AMLO has a brief window to push for all sorts of concessions from the Americans behind closed doors to do what he did under Trump,” McCormick said.
However, she cautioned against assuming the sort of “politically expedient theater” seen in Mexico in 2019 will solve the larger issue of Central American migration. The underlying conditions driving people out of the Northern Triangle have only gotten worse since then, and it will take a comprehensive, multilateral commitment to improve them.
“This problem is so much bigger than the U.S. and Mexico are capable of dealing with,” McCormick said.