No easy way out for Biden administration on migrant surge, experts say

Immigration

Vice President Harris' trip to the region won't bring overnight solutions, but analysts favor administration's regional cooperation approach

Pedro Mercado, 27, of El Salvador walks with one of his two daughters at an intake area after turning themselves in upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in La Joya, Texas. Mercado uses a crutch after his leg was injured in a machete attack in El Salvador. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) Vice President Harris is back home after asking help from the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico to bring the migrant surge under control. Now comes the hard part – getting it done, experts on immigration say.

“As you get closer to the true causes of migration, which is a system that views (migrants) as commodities, disrupting that isn’t going to be easy,” said Dan Restrepo, senior fellow for the Center for American Progress and former special assistant for Western Hemisphere Affairs for the Obama administration. “I think (the Biden administration) recognizes that … the need to talk about things that need to happen to disrupt the status quo at the heart of migratory patterns we’ve seen in the past 15 years.”

That includes putting pressure on “the corrupt and their enablers,” who are people in government and the private sector in Central America benefiting from migrant trafficking.

Dan Restrepo

“It is a crucial element of the path forward,” Restrepo said.

Another is surgically increasing aid to the region from where most of the unauthorized migrants are coming from now.

According to figures released Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security, most “encounters” or apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied children involved citizens of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. U.S. immigration agents took custody of 180,034 migrants in May, an increase over the 178,854 encountered in April. Including March, more than half a million people have crossed the border illeally in three months.

“The food assistance has been ramped up significantly in response to the storms that hit (Central America) late last year. (It was) $42 million during Trump, now it’s $300 million and we will continue to see expansion due to need to address the root causes” of migration, Restrepo said.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington, D.C., migrant advocacy nonprofit, agrees that making migration a more orderly process will be difficult. But he welcomes the administration’s regional approach.

“It takes some time to put all the elements in place, but it’s aimed at achieving durable solutions. It’s not as easy as putting palatable, short-term (measures) but it’s more useful in terms of what we want to achieve in the long term,” he said.

Sharry said migrant surges from Central America are cyclical, and so is the response from Washington: The numbers go up, America turns its eyes to the border, enforcement ramps up, the numbers go down and eventually go up again.

“The idea of repressing migration in a cruel fashion is something that has been done by administrations from both parties for decades — but was turbo-charged, weaponized by Trump in a particularly cynical and cruel way – has proven that it doesn’t work,” Sharry said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have immigration enforcement or an orderly process at the border. […] We are glad this administration is saying, ‘let’s deal with the root causes.’”

The advocate admits there will be no overnight solution to the ongoing migrant challenge. “If we partner with the right people, if we make the right investments, it seems to me we can make some progress over time. It’s not about solving this once and for all, it’s about making progress,” Sharry said.

A pair of Central American analysts also said not to expect immediate results from the vice president’s trip or from any short-term U.S. measures.

Celina de Sola, cofounder and president of Glasswing International, said any solution must include giving young people in Central America alternatives to migration. That means funding jobs programs and education to help develop practical life skills.

Civil rights lawyer and Maya Jorge Morales Toj said Indigenous rural populations also must be included in the talks and in the aid.

“There is no vaccine against migration,” he said. Impoverished rural communities “must be part of the process to address the structural causes of migration.”

Morales says corruption in Guatemala goes beyond the government; it includes Big Business that is displacing rural indigenous populations through projects that also pilfer natural resources.

He said U.S. aid needs to reach farming cooperatives because, in the past, U.S. aid has mostly ended up in the hands of government officials and Big Business. Little has reached the people who end up migrating to America.

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