The same day that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told Central Americans “don’t come” during a speech in Guatemala, thousands of them crossed the Mexican border with the United States illegally. The problem is that the United States is sending two contradictory messages at the same time: don’t come, and do come. And the migrants are only hearing one.
This is the typical case of paying attention not to what politicians say but what they do.
During her recent visit to Guatemala, Harris was blunt. Twice she said “don’t come” to Central Americans who are thinking of leaving their countries to come to the United States. Those words were criticized for coming from the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, and for contradicting what she had said during the electoral campaign.
“I disagree with any policy that would turn America’s back on people who are fleeing harm,” Harris said in March of 2019, when she was a candidate for the White House. “I frankly believe that it is contrary to everything that we have symbolically and actually said we stand for. And so I would not enforce a law that would reject people and turn them away without giving them a fair and due process to determine if we should give them asylum and refuge.”
Today, as vice president, Harris must defend the interests of the government she represents, not her own point of view. And that’s why her words hit so hard. What would have happened if a U.S. politician had told Harris’ Indian mother or her Jamaican father not to come to the United States to study?
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas later defended the vice president’s words in an interview. Her declaration “was a statement of humanity,” he told Yahoo!News. “Do not come. It is dangerous … The border is not open.”
Those words are also striking, coming from an immigrant like Mayorkas, who was born in Havana, the son of Cuban parents and descendant of European ancestors who fled the Nazis. What would have happened if someone had told the Mayorkas family the border was not open?
The fact is that the families of Harris and Mayorkas were able to legally enter the United States. And by doing so they changed the history of this country. She is the first woman and African American to serve as vice president, and he is the first Latino in his job. Many Central American children can legitimately ask themselves, if they did it, why not me? It’s that mantra, so American – that anyone can achieve anything if they work hard – that clashes with the immigration policies along the border.
Central American immigrants are clearly not listening to the words of Harris or Mayorkas. What they see is that many children and families from Central America are crossing the border illegally and not being deported. On the contrary, they are being considered for asylum and receiving temporary refuge.
Those immigrants – who are the true experts on U.S. Immigration laws and spend weeks and months planning their entry – know that the cruelty toward foreigners that characterized the Trump administration has ended. And that’s why they are crossing in such large numbers.
In May, 180,034 immigrants were detained after crossing the southern U.S. border, according to the Border Patrol. That’s an average of more than 6,000 per day. Many of them (62 percent) were immediately returned to Mexico under a health emergency law. But others stayed.
The new Biden administration policy is to not deport the minors who cross the border alone. In May, 10,765 did so, and 13,940 did it in April. That is a radical change from the policies of Donald Trump, who deported thousands of children and separated many others from their parents. Some families have also remained.
And that’s what the Central Americans who are thinking of heading north now perceive. Not what the U.S. politicians say, but what they see in the news and social networks and what they hear from relatives and friends who have already crossed.
The attitude of many immigrants seems to be that Trump is not here any more, so let’s try to cross with Biden. Even if it’s dangerous. Even if it’s illegal. Of course, the ideal would be an effective and secure bureaucratic process for applying for a U.S. visa from your home country, avoiding coyotes, muggings and rapes. But that option does not exist.
The reality is that for many Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, it is much more risky to stay at home than to cross Mexico and then the Rio Bravo. I understand that the official message of the new government is “don’t come.” But the U.S. history of protecting and giving hope to those who come fleeing violence, gangs, repression, hunger and climate change is much more powerful.
When I wanted to leave Mexico for the United States, no one told me “don’t come.” On the contrary. Several U.S. friends helped me. That is my mini-story. At the beginning of the 1980s, Mexico was a deeply authoritarian and repressive government. There was no democracy, the president was all but appointed, not elected, and there was direct censorship. As a novice and young journalist, I had only two options: Stay and fight for space – like many did so valiantly – or leave. I left. For many reasons.
The United States opened its doors to me when I most needed it. And here I am. That’s why I don’t dare say “don’t come” to the ones coming behind me.