by Mónica Trigos *
President Joe Biden may have begun to reverse Donald Trump’s most damaging immigration policies, but migrants will not feel the change in the White House anytime soon. Around the time of the Biden’s inauguration, a caravan of around 9,000 people from Honduras was blocked by the Guatemalan military from entering its territory. Meanwhile, we learned about the murder of 19 migrants in the municipality of Camargo, Tamaulipas across the border from Texas. Also in Texas, a U.S. federal judge blocked President Biden’s 100-day pause on deportations. And lets not forget that thousands of migrants are still waiting on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border for their asylum cases to be processed by U.S. authorities. None of these issues stopped Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives from visiting and praising the border wall and security enforcement in Sásabe, Arizona.
While humans are separated by borders, the impact of national migration policies is not. Decisions taken in Washington DC have a direct impact on people in faraway places like San Pedro Sula, Honduras. If we truly want to undo Trump’s legacy, we not only need time, but a new, humane, inter-governmental perspective on migration.
In his first days in office, President Biden has already made a positive change by revoking past policies regarding deportations, family separation, and the “Remain in Mexico” program. But real change doesn’t depend solely on him and his administration. Congress, the courts, and local actors all play a significant role in making this change a reality.
It’s a good start that President Biden has spoken to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, setting forth migration as a top issue in the bilateral relations. Migration not solely involves U.S. unilateral decisions but a phenomenon where cooperation is essential.
However, migration is a much larger issue not circumscribed to U.S.-Mexico bilateral dialogue. The consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic -inequality, violence, natural hazards, and climate change- have exacerbated the causes of migration, especially in Central America. In this sense, no meaningful change can be achieved without involving the governments and civil society in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Currently, there are reports of good-hearted conversations that could lead us to regional cooperation around migration. But the narratives centered around militarization and securitization have not subsided, particularly at specific border areas and transit points. For real regional cooperation to take place in Central and North America, we must take action to stop the criminalization of migrants, set aside the anti-immigration politics, and focus on people in a humane way.
With or without the Covid-19 pandemic, migration flows from Central America and Mexico to the U.S. won’t stop. The last four months have seen more than 70,000 apprehensions and arrests at the U.S. border, some of the highest numbers in the last decade. However, U.S. authorities are implementing some changes due to health concerns amid the pandemic. For example, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has released some detainees from detention facilities responding in part to efforts to maintain social distancing.
Policies across countries keep changing rapidly even if there is no consistent strategy or coordination. The Trump administration’s attempt to control the border translated into a total of 390,000 deportations along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2020. Meanwhile, last November, the Mexican Congress approved a law that prevents children and families to be held in detention centers. Hence, they have to be transferred to government shelters. This has only been implemented in some Mexican border states, and due to the lack of capacity in shelters, the government is only receiving deported single adults.
Over and over again we have seen how U.S. deterrence policies don’t work to control migration. Border walls, deportations, family separations, forced stay in Mexico to wait for asylum cases, sending in the military or National Guard — none of these will stop people from trying to survive, but they can stop people from living.
So, we might just end up where we were before Trump: a place where a “somewhat positive” narrative on migration glosses over the real mindset centered on national security. We can do much better than that.
There’s a natural tendency to overlook the impact that politics and immigration policies have on people. We debate things like legal status, nationalities, and numbers all the time. But in the end, we forget about the actual people involved.
Yes, there are the migrant caravans that are constantly in the headlines, but other migration flows are happening too. Some migrants prefer to remain unseen, and they end up as victims of abuse from criminal organizations and local authorities.
According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S. sent over 69,000 asylum seekers — including around 16,000 children and 500 infants — to some of the most dangerous Mexican border states. As of December 2020, there were at least 1,314 publicly reported cases of violence against them. But being raped, kidnapped, tortured, or extorted is not enough in the eyes of U.S. authorities for them to receive humanitarian protection.
Don’t look away. Some of these people were sent back to their deaths in Mexican territory. In January 2021, 19 bodies were found in a burnt truck in Camargo, Tamaulipas, where members of the local police were presumably involved. Thirteen of them have been identified as young Guatemalan men and women: Santa Cristina, Dora Amelia, Paola Damaris, Oscar, Edgar, Adán, Marvin Alberto, Élfego Roberto, Osmar Neftalí, Robelson Elías, Anderson Marco, Rivaldo Danilo, and Iván Gudiel. Say their names.
The journey that migrants bound for the U.S. have to go through is full of uncertainty and danger. The amount of violence they experience calls for a new perspective on human-centered migration in the region.
With this in mind, the Young Professionals Program of COMEXI (Programa de Jóvenes COMEXI) is trying to develop a new approach to migration with the creation of the Migration Working Group, that intends to go beyond securitization and militarization. We aim to take a fresh perspective and pay special attention to the complexities of migration flows and understand better those who see the need to migrate. Young professionals from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and the U.S. will get together to discuss and propose new ways to imagine migration in the entire region. We will advocate for policies focused on people and place migration at the center of the regional policy discussion.
* Mónica Trigos is a Master of Public Administration candidate at Columbia University. She is a member of the Young Professionals Program at COMEXI (the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations). The U.S.-Mexico Foundation is a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant. Twitter: @usmexicofound