WASHINGTON – Behind the promises, the smiles, the pronouncements and the good intentions of the so-called Three Amigos – Presidents Joe Biden and Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – there is a terrible reality: Their plan to stop and deter Central American migration to the United States does not work. And it will not work.
Let’s start with the positive. The first meeting of the North American leaders in five years was a success just by itself. It shows that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, that the three countries get along well and that there are many things they can work on together, from the environment and the new trade agreement to sharing vaccines and the fight against drug cartels. But the key issue in US-Mexican relations – undocumented migration – does not have a short-term solution.
That is the truth. More migrants than ever are crossing illegally into the United States, and there will be many more.
The official figures for 2021 are extraordinary. Overwhelming. The Border Patrol says 1,662,167 undocumented migrants were detained this fiscal year while trying to enter the United States. That number is higher than in any other recorded year. It’s far more, for example, than the 405,000 detained in 2020.
What changed? Donald Trump and the pandemic.
The basic principle of migration is that there’s always something that drives you out of your country and something that attracts you to another. That’s known as the “push and pull factors.” And right now, the “pull factor” attracting migrants to the United States is very strong.
To start with, the anti-immigrant Donald Trump is no longer president. And that has sent a message south of the border that the time of US cruelty against foreigners has ended. Trump, who in a racist rant called Mexican immigrants “criminals and rapists,”was responsible for the separation of thousands of children from their parents, insisted on building a wall along the border with Mexico, restricted legal immigration and forced asylum applicants to wait in Mexico for a decision.
Trump is gone. The new president, Joe Biden, is not Trump. Immigrants know that. And the river that separates Mexico and the United States is not so Grande or so Bravo.
Even though US officials insist that the border is closed to undocumented migrants, the fact is that more than one million people managed to cross it illegally in 2021. And even though it’s true that thousands have been deported or returned to Mexico (because of health issues under the so-called Title 42 and the Remain in Mexico Program), unaccompanied minors and families with children are sometimes allowed to remain in the United States.
Trump is gone and the pandemic is coming under control. That last part has unleashed vigorous economic growth in the United States, specially in the service, agricultural and construction sectors. And those are the sectors where many recent arrivals work. Central Americans and Mexicans who used to earn $5 or less per day in the United States can now earn the same amount in half an hour.
And the Covid vaccines, so scarce in poor countries, are literally given away in any street-corner pharmacy. That alone – vaccinate the children and avoid the risk of dying from Coronavirus – is enough of an enticement to come, aside from schools, work and safety.
The pandemic has set back progress in Latin America for many years. A return to the levels of growth of 2019 is extremely difficult for economies that stopped dead on their tracks because of the virus, and which increasingly depend on the Internet and expensive technology.
Biden promised during the electoral campaign to invest $4 billion in Central America. And López Obrador has energetically promoted his Sembrando Vida program. Both efforts are designed to attack the causes and origins of emigration, generating local opportunities and jobs. The new program, which would join both proposals, will be called Sembrando Oportunidades. The problem is that it is a long-term project with questionable effectiveness. Biden himself, when he was vice president in 2015, asked Congress for $1 billion for Central America. Today, it is clear that money did not hold back the new wave of emigration to the north.
It’s not just a question of money, but of the shortage of allies in the region. The United States, for now, has only Mexico and Guatemala. Vice President Kamala Harris visited only those countries during a visit in June. Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador appear to be outside the US area of influence. Or at least moving away. The Biden administration just announced sanctions on officials in the Nicaraguan dictatorship after the electoral farce of Nov. 7. “Tony” Hernandez, brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, was convicted of drug trafficking in New York and bilateral relations have cooled. And the State Department condemned the recent decision by the Supreme Court in El Salvador allowing the reelection of President Nayib Bukele, who is continuing to accumulate power and threatening his country’s fragile democracy. No matter how much money the United States wants to invest in the region, it’s not easy to find someone who will receive and use it in a safe and effective way.
While all of that takes place in the high levels of policy, the “push factor” is continuing to drive thousands of Central Americans out of their countries – poverty, gangs, crime and climate change.
How can we condemn a family that walks to the United States from San Pedro Zula, Soyapango or San Miguel Petapa and wants to be vaccinated and send their children to universities, to keep them from falling into the hands of gangs. How can we tell them, “Don’t Come!”
Because of all of the above, the plan by the two friends – Biden and AMLO – will not help to significantly drop the number of migrants crossing Mexican territory to reach the United States. Instead of rejecting them and blaming them for cooperating with coyotes, we have to prepare to receive them and protect them during their trek through Mexico. What’s more, the United States today needs a lot immigrants.
But that’s not what I heard here in Washington. I heard pretty speeches and grandiose plans. At the same time that two caravans full of children and other migrants are getting ready to cross the river or the desert. Their thinking is logical: If more than 1 million did it this year, why can’t I?