By Gonzalo Mercado, Director of Transnational Programs at NDLON
Yesterday, the Biden Administration announced several steps to regulate immigration from Mexico, Central America and South America, including setting up processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala, and promising to eventually open some in other countries, where prospective migrants can apply for legal entry into the United States.
The White House is promising more refugee admissions, more visas for families to reunite, more ways to cross the border without making the deadly trip north. It says these steps will reduce the chaos at the southern border and help people avoid using criminal cartels in the smuggling business.
But there will be a steep price. The Administration says it will also be getting tough on migrants who don’t follow the new rules. It intends to make it essentially impossible for migrants to claim asylum at the border. It says those who do show up there will be quickly kicked out and barred from returning for five years. There will be new consequences. More federal agents. More transnational enforcement.
Can an immigration policy be both harsh and humane? Is it morally responsible for the Administration to help some migrants seeking asylum by foreclosing options for others? The administration is expected to gut asylum as we know it next week. Is this the only option for President Biden as barbaric xenophobes hold Congress hostage?
Those are open questions. We have many others.
The White House has made plain that its main priority is to get out of a political jam — to neutralize Republican demagoguing of immigration by reducing the number of migrants arriving at the border.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said as much at the beginning of his remarks today: “We will reduce the number of migrants who reach our southern border.”
Mr. Mayorkas insisted that the new rules will make migration “safe, orderly and humane.”
But will it? We will do our part to help a policy that allows migrants — especially children — to seek refuge and work in the United States without having to make the deadly trip north.
But will the Administration meet its legal obligations under asylum law when it encounters migrants at the border who didn’t get the memo? Those who don’t have the app? What about indigenous migrants who don’t speak Spanish or English? Should we be concerned at the prospect of credible-fear interviews conducted by demonstrably rogue Border Patrol officers, with migrants quickly, summarily and unjustly being expelled and criminalized?
When will these processing centers open in Guatemala and Colombia and when in the additional countries? What is the holdup? Why are people from Central American countries being deprived of equal rights? Why don’t they get the same protections as Europeans of yesteryear, or the Ukrainians of yesterday?
How many migrants will these centers handle? Will there be enough American consular staff to process the applications? Will there be cooperation with civil society? What about countries where NGOs are coming under attack?
Some migrants apparently will be allowed to relocate to Canada and Spain. What are the details here? Who? How many? How?
Can returned guest workers bring labor violation complaints to these centers in order to facilitate their return to the United States to vindicate their right?
What are the details on the promises to “secure” the Darien passage with Colombia and Panama? What does that entail?
What are the details of the new investments, job-creating initiatives, and metrics that will supposedly allow more potential migrants in Central America to safely stay and thrive at home?
Is the administration engaging with the governments of Peru and Chile (2 signatories of the Los Angeles Declaration) to address the situation at the borders of both countries?
Now that the United States has made clear its intention to solve its domestic political crisis by relying on international cooperation, what will Mexico do?
It is clear that Mexican participation is now an integral aspect of US deportation policy. What happens if they don’t go along as planned?
Secretary Mayorkas demurred when asked about this today. But we are two weeks away from May 11. Why isn’t it clear what Mexico will and will not do?
And finally, will the Administration acknowledge the ongoing dangerous realities in Central America when dealing with migrants seeking to enter the United States — and undocumented migrants already here? New reports from sociologist Cecilia Menjivar and economist William Pleites have highlighted the continuing dangers of living in El Salvador and Honduras. They cite the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, economic instability and social conditions in Honduras and El Salvador — and argue that migration from these nations will continue to affect the region as conditions fail to improve.
Throughout American history, the only constant in an otherwise evolving immigration policy is that new legal pathways for some migrants correspond with criminalization of other migrants. In groups are winners. Our groups are losers. The details matter. Balance matters.
In the days and weeks ahead, NDLON and our transnational partners will evaluate the Biden policy based on facts on the ground, not based on fact sheets and press conferences.