Deterrence is a word the I keep hearing in response to undocumented migration at the US- Mexico border.
A new team of US diplomats has been dispatched to Mexico and Central America by the Biden Administration in an effort to get a handle on the continuing flow of migrant children and families crossing the border. The optics of kids in holding centers interferes with the success of Biden’s multifaceted first 100-day agenda. To keep new migrants from derailing the Administration’s overall goals, including immigration reform, it is asking the age-old question, how does the US deter migration and how do we get our neighbors to help?
The Biden Administration’s long-term migration strategy is significantly different than that of Trump’s. It includes a US $4 billion aid package to Central America, refugee processing from the region, and more legal pathways for migration. Deterrence, however, is a short-term goal, if not a necessity.
The Trump Administration’s whole immigration policy was deterrence based. It expanded the wall, intentionally separated children and families and dismantled the political asylum system. It also cut-off aid to Central America, got poor Central American countries to agree to take deportees from the US (who were not their own citizens), and threatened Mexican trade unless it stopped caravans of migrants crossing its territory. Even employing all of these cruel measures, the deterrence approach didn’t work.
We need to change deterrence thinking. Biden’s long-term approach does this by addressing root causes and establishing pathways to legal migration. What needs deterring are criminal organizations that exploit and harm migrants and who have turned migration into a massive illicit business.
After 9/11, as the US expanded the wall, hired more border patrol agents and invested vast sums in border security, it became harder and harder for migrants to cross. That didn’t do much to deter undocumented migration, but it did incentivize organized crime to get into the migration business. Today, there are large swaths of the border where it is impossible for migrants to cross without paying a criminal organization. There are criminals who loan desperate Central Americans money to make the journey, in exchange for taking possession of their homes. There are those who kidnap migrants and coerce their extended families in the United States into making extortion payments for their release. At its worst there are migrant massacres, like the one earlier this month in Camargo, Mexico, of Guatemalans from a poor community who were migrating to find a better life.
The trafficking and extortion of migrants is a massive criminal enterprise. Our governments know what is happening. As they say in Spanish it is “un secreto a voces.” This enterprise has resulted in countless victims. Countless because, unless there is a massacre, almost none of these crimes are reported, no less prosecuted.
As the US seeks to control migration by helping to build options and legal pathways from home, why don’t we do more to deter and dismantle criminal organizations that treat migrants as prey?
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson