U.S.-Central America-Mexico: Migrant Caravan Shaking up Relations

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas. / Pedro Pardo / AFP Photo / Creative Commons

The underlying drivers of Central American migration remain the same as always – the lack of economic opportunity and strong institutions to protect citizens from violence and other threats – but the Trump administration’s accusations and threats in reaction to the caravan of migrants heading toward the United States is moving relations into uncharted territory, just two weeks after the parties congratulated themselves for progress made at a summit in Washington.

  • Honduran, Guatemalan, and now Mexican authorities have been unable to stop the peaceful caravan of 5,000-7,000 people without violating their rights and causing ugly incidents with high political costs at home. After shows of force, Guatemalan and Mexican border guards allowed them to pass, and local businesses and churches have spontaneously provided food, water, and shelter in each town.  Mexico originally said it would allow only those with current passports and identification to apply for refugee status, but, citing obligations under international agreements and national law, relented.  The migrants are now in Chiapas.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo on October 11, leaders from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries – Honduran President Hernández, Guatemalan President Morales, and Salvadoran Vice President Ortiz – and Mexican Foreign Minister Videgaray trumpeted the progress that they had made in slowing the flow of migrants from the region to the United States since launching the Alianza para la Prosperidad in 2014.  CLALS research, other studies, and many press reports show, however, that the underlying drivers of migration remain essentially unchanged.

  • The Alianza may eventually foment economic growth and jobs, but multidimensional poverty and high underemployment continue to drive many to flee their homeland. An analysis by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) shows that about 6.2 million children, adolescents, and young adults in the Northern Triangle lack access to an educational system.  Homicide rates have declined, but the region remains one of the most violent in the world.  UN estimates show a steady increase in the number of gang members in all three countries, up to 20,000 each in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The gangs often fill voids left by government institutions that are underfunded and, often, weakened by corrupt officials’ embezzlement.  While violence has long been a driver of migration from urban areas, it is now causing new patterns of migration from rural areas as well.  Domestic violence and abuse, which UN data indicate affects up to 40 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys, is another problem some parents want children to escape.
  • President Trump has not acknowledged these drivers, and instead has portrayed the migrants in the caravan as an “onslaught” of criminals. (He also claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” are among them but later admitted “there’s no proof of anything.”)  He apparently calculates that stirring up fear helps his allies in the U.S. Congress as midterm elections approach, as well as his campaign for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  He has threatened the Northern Triangle governments and Mexico for not stopping the migrants, tweeting Monday that he will “now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to [them]” because “they did nothing for us. Nothing.”  Mexican officials, relieved that the confrontation over the NAFTA renegotiation was resolved, now fear another major disruption in bilateral relations.

The migrant caravan is testing the administration’s relations with its closest allies in Central America.  Trump’s jettisoning of the nice talk from Pence’s recent summit will not in itself harm ties; the Central Americans and Mexicans are aware of his impulsive streak and may calculate that they can weather the windstorm.  His accusations and threats to suspend aid, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying drivers of the migration, and he seems unaware that his partners have been unwilling to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to address those drivers except in minor ways that U.S. aid enables.  Trump apparently thinks his partners should use force – even the military if needed (as he’s threatened on the U.S. border) – to stop the flight of humans from the miserable conditions in which they live.  He also apparently judges that the more migrants are made to suffer, such as through the separation of family members who manage to cross the border, the less likely they are to try.  The caravan’s provocations and Trump’s reactions could blow up the game that has allowed both sides to pretend the problem will go away with token programs, intimidation, and a wall.

October 24, 2018

U.S. Immigration: Lacking Lawyers, Newcomers Join the Undocumented

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Immigration court backlog

Pending cases from the Northern Triangle in U.S. immigration courts. These cases now account for over 53% of the total backlog. / Note: FY 2018 data is through July 31. / Data source: TRAC, “Immigration Court Backlog Tool,” http://trac.syr.edu/phptools/immigration/court_backlog/.

As Central Americans swell the backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts, the tens of thousands of them who do not have lawyers are joining the ranks of the country’s undocumented population.

  • The immigration court system lacks the resources to keep pace with the influx of unaccompanied children and families from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The backlog of cases has more than doubled since 2013 – from 350,000 to over 764,000 as of August – with cases involving people from these three countries now accounting for more than half of them.  The wait for a hearing is now several years, and pro bono or low-cost attorneys are overburdened.
  • Many thousands of other newcomers – lacking information and the ability to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers and fear – are not looking for legal assistance, and they remain unaware that representation is critical to their chances of legally staying in the United States. Migrants without an attorney are far less likely to appear in court, and many – nearly 40 percent (or 103,000) of all Central Americans whose cases were filed in 2013-17 and have been decided– are ordered deported “in absentia” just for failing to appear at a scheduled hearing.  Immigrants with an outstanding removal order who are apprehended are subject to expedited deportation without judicial review, meaning that – again, without a lawyer – they will be returned to their home countries without ever having the legal merit of their claims evaluated.

Nonprofit community-based organizations across the country are mobilizing resources – often in collaboration with local governments and pro bono partners – to address these people’s legal needs, but a report* by CLALS reveals that access to counsel varies widely.

  • Access remains inadequate even in large receiving destinations like the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, where robust legal service infrastructures have developed in response to decades of immigration. In less traditional destinations, like North and South Carolina, only around a quarter of juveniles are represented in immigration proceedings.  In addition to geographical disparities, newcomers face differing odds of securing an attorney depending on their nationality.  Less than half of Central American minors nationwide have an attorney.  Based on a review of decided cases initiated in 2013-17, Salvadoran juveniles were more than twice as likely to be represented than their Guatemalan and Honduran counterparts, probably a reflection of the extent their communities are organized.

President Trump is justified in claiming that the immigration courts are inefficient – cases take an average of almost two years – but his proposal (tweeted on June 24) is to restore “Law and Order” and to “immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring [migrants] back from where they came.”  His deeper dissatisfaction appears to be with a legal process that requires the impartial application of U.S. law – which for the majority of Central Americans fortunate enough to have an attorney results in a grant of legal status.  While this outcome may be unacceptable to the president, many localities across the United States have recognized the social and economic costs of destabilizing families and communities, and of depriving immigrant community members of due process.  Trump may hope that denying due process will dissuade individuals from entering or remaining in the United States, but the crisis in the U.S. immigration adjudication system is likely to remain serious, and tens or even hundreds of thousands more newcomers are likely to join the millions of immigrants already living in the shadows.

October 16, 2018

*The full report, “Newcomer Central American Immigrants’ Access to Legal Services,” is available for download here.  No registration is necessary.  The report is the first in a series generated as part of the project by CLALS in collaboration with the University of Houston, “The Impact of Central American Child and Family Migration on U.S. Communities,” led by Eric Hershberg and Jodi Berger Cardoso.

U.S.-Latin America: Return of Monroe Doctrine

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes* and Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Colombia during his Latin American tour last summer. / White House / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s revival of a vision of U.S.-Latin America relations akin to the Monroe Doctrine is advancing with little pushback from the region.  Since former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eight months ago proclaimed that the Monroe Doctrine is “as relevant today as it was the day it was written,” Washington has continued to revive it as a guiding principle that includes limiting the influence of other powers in the hemisphere as well as reserving for itself the right to intervene when it feels its interests are threatened.

  • Tillerson complained that China “is using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit” and that Russia’s “growing presence in the region is alarming as well, as it continues to sell arms and military equipment to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values.” In August, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis renewed the attack on China’s investment of billions in Latin America, claiming that “there is more than one way to lose sovereignty. … It can be with countries that come offering presents and loans.”  Last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence repeated his government’s complaint that Latin America is among the regions where China is offering large infrastructure loans that are “opaque at best, and the benefits flow overwhelmingly to Beijing.”
  • Washington has also resorted to cavalier rhetoric regarding its perceived right to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin American countries to advance its interests. At the United Nations in late September, President Trump said, “Here in the Western Hemisphere, we are committed to maintain[ing] our independence from the encroachment of expansionist foreign powers.”  President Trump argued for regime change in Venezuela and repeated that “all options are on the table, [including] the strong ones.”  In the new NAFTA agreement, Washington demanded, and achieved Mexican and Canadian concurrence on, a clause stipulating that the United States could terminate the agreement with six months’ notice if either negotiated a free trade agreement with a “non-market economy” – that is, with China.

Latin American governments’ voices have been thus far muted – perhaps because they are getting used to downplaying Trump’s rhetoric – even though the revival of the Monroe Doctrine is already shaping actual policies.  A hundred years ago, Latin American international lawyers, diplomats, and intellectuals worked hard to transform the Monroe Doctrine from a unilateral doctrine into a multilateral policy able to shape first Pan-American and later Inter-American relations.  Those efforts led to the adoption of hemispheric instruments such as the OAS Charter in 1948 and the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001, gradually defining a mutually acceptable approach that strikes a balance between shared hemispheric values and the principle of non-intervention.  After the Cold War, references to the Monroe Doctrine disappeared from public discourse – except to disparage it as the Obama administration did – until the Trump administration revived it.

Today, the forums and organizations that Latin America has used during the last decade to articulate concerns and political responses to U.S. policies are not working.  OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s recent declarations that military action to solve the crisis in Venezuela cannot be ruled out, rather than offering a riposte, echoes Trump’s stance.  The Lima Group – which gathers together a group of OAS member states committed to the defense of democracy in Venezuela – pushed back against Almagro’s statements but, importantly, not against the U.S. administration’s policy.  More formal organizations such as UNASUR are not only muted, but actually paralyzed by the inability of its members to reach consensus and solve fundamental discrepancies. 

  • To resist and speak up when confronted with rhetoric and policies with such profound implications as a revitalized Monroe Doctrine is not a matter of politics and economics, but rather a necessary condition for friendly and respectful international relations and the sort of partnership that Latin Americans of all political stripes claim to want with the United States. To articulate such a response, Latin America urgently needs its leaders to think in “regional” and not only “national” terms – to nurture a genuine Inter-American community, not just bilateral relations with Washington.  The odds for such leadership to emerge at this moment do not appear high.  The possible election of a nationalist, xenophobic, and illiberal leader in Brazil may become a further challenge for collective action in the region.

October 12, 2018

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

U.S.-Guatemala: Are Donald Trump and Jimmy Morales Brothers in Arms?

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Jimmy Morales and Donald Trump

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in February 2018. / Executive Office of the President of the United States / Wikimedia

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’ announcement last month that he would not reauthorize the joint Guatemala-United Nations anti-corruption commission to remain in the country apparently was made with confidence that President Trump would approve, or at least turn a blind eye.  Morales’ gambit followed months of public threats against the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has been investigating and prosecuting high-profile organized crime and corruption cases for over a decade.

  • His attempt to revoke CICIG’s authority and refusal to allow CICIG’s highly respected lead prosecutor, Iván Velásquez, to re-enter Guatemala after a trip to the United States are widely understood as intended to halt investigations into Morales’ own alleged illegal campaign financing during the 2015 presidential election. Even after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court – the nation’s highest judicial authority – ordered Morales to allow Velásquez entry, the president refused to budge.
  • Some U.S. politicians have joined in the international condemnation of Morales’ efforts – 23 members of the U.S. Senate and House wrote a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo asserting that he “must counter” the maneuver. But the Trump administration has remained largely silent; Pompeo in early September reiterated U.S. “support for Guatemalan sovereignty” – code for a hands-off policy – and, using words similar to those Morales has used in advocating dilution of CICIG’s mandate, announced his backing for a “reformed CICIG.”

Several explanations for Washington’s soft approach to Morales’ action have emerged.  Some pundits muse that the administration is repaying him for relocating the Guatemalan embassy in Israel to Jerusalem when the United States did.  Others opine that Trump fears pushing Guatemala into China’s arms amid reports that it will follow El Salvador’s recent decision to break relations with Taiwan.  Yet another, less strategic and more personal explanation might illuminate the equivocation – that Trump simply empathizes with Morales because they have a lot in common.

  • Both first emerged in the public eye as TV personalities. While Trump was building his brand on “reality TV,” Morales hosted a popular daytime talk show, where he became known for lowbrow comedic antics that included blackface.  In their campaigns, they fed on simmering discontent about the corruption of the political establishment, and trumpeted their lack of political experience as a prime reason to vote for them.  They both defeated the former first ladies of left-leaning presidents considered by large swaths of their electorates as corrupt.
  • More importantly, both presidents face far-reaching criminal investigations that have cast long shadows over their first years in office. Despite Trump’s vociferous denials to the contrary, the Special Counsel investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election has been a constant thorn in his side.  CICIG, whose investigations into former President Pérez Molina were pivotal to his arrest and impeachment, has represented an existential threat to the Morales administration since the day he took office in 2015.  CICIG’s work put his son and brother behind bars for fraud.  (Trump’s son and son-in-law are reportedly under investigation too.)  CICIG has doggedly pursued investigations against Morales and his supporters in Congress for illegal campaign financing, among numerous other charges.

The two presidents’ efforts to resist and deride the investigations into their activities expose perhaps the most striking (and disturbing) of their shared affinities.  To protect themselves, they appear willing to tarnish and undermine public institutions integral to democracy and law and order.  Trump attacks the free press and the FBI as “deep state” conspirators.  Morales has aligned with members of the Guatemalan Congress to give immunity from prosecution to politicians in office accused of a laundry list of crimes, contravening a fight against powerful criminal organizations embedded in government.  By violating decrees by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, Morales has placed his administration on a collision course with the nation’s constitutional order.

  •  The potential long-term damage to democratic institutions suggests that the “democratic wave” that swept across the Americas in the second half of the 20th century has crested. Under the Trump administration, the United States now risks becoming a beacon for anti-democratic politicians like Morales across the hemisphere, giving political cover and guidance to those who would hasten democracy’s demise for the sake of power.  The rule of law in liberal democracies is predicated on transparency and accountability – and is threatened by executive intimidation of institutional checks and balances.

October 2, 2018

*Anthony W. Fontes is an Assistant Professor in the School of International Service at American University.

U.S. Politics: Ted Cruz’s Spanish Problem

By Chip Gerfen*

Beto O'Rourke and Ted Cruz

Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso (left), is challenging Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. / Marjorie Kamys Cotera: O’Rourke/ Bob Daemmrich: Cruz

In the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Texas, a non-Latino challenger is gaining on an incumbent widely hailed as the Senate’s first Hispanic member by mischievously challenging his bond with Latino voters.  Last Friday evening in Dallas, Democrat Beto O’Rourke and Republican Ted Cruz held the first of three planned face-to-face debates in what now appears to be a toss-up race for the Senate seat Cruz has held since 2013.  The Texas Republican Party misjudged O’Rourke’s appeal, ineptly miscalculating that his punk rock past, ability to skateboard, and occasional use of obscenities would swing sentiment away from rather than towards him.  O’Rourke is a three-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from his hometown of El Paso.

  • Extraordinarily, the race pits a fourth-generation Irish-American, Robert Francis O’Rourke, with the Spanish nickname “Beto,” against a first-generation Cuban-American, Rafael Edward Cruz, who goes by “Ted” – and it is impossible to miss the irony in the fact that the Irish-American has challenged the Cuban-American to hold two debates in Spanish.

Cruz’s Spanish language bona-fides have come up in an electoral context before.  As I wrote during the 2016 presidential primaries, Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, also a Cuban-American, sparred openly on national television, with Cruz accusing Rubio of using Spanish to send different messages to different constituencies.  Rubio ridiculed Cruz’s lack of fluency in the language, suggesting a major positive shift in attitudes towards the value of Spanish in the public, political sphere.

  • Cruz’s traditional homogenizing view of immigrant language and identity was already clearly visible in his prior description of English as the language of the people of Texas, while Spanish was foreign and appropriate for use in the public and political discourse of places such as Cuba or Mexico. Rubio, by contrast, viewed his fluency in Spanish as a useful tool for connecting with Hispanic voters without incurring costs with non-Hispanic voters.  By openly disparaging Cruz’s Spanish in a nationally broadcast debate, Rubio sought to undermine the man’s cultural and ethnic authenticity, especially when contrasted with his own demonstrable bilingualism and cultural pluralism.

The current race in Texas is more than an incumbent defending his seat in a statewide election.  It is one with national consequences being played out on a big stage – at a time when the tsunami of Trump’s political victory and subsequent discourse and policies may seem to have changed the political calculus regarding linguistic and ethnic identity away from Rubio’s embrace of linguistic pluralism in the public square.  Nevertheless, not only are Cruz’s Spanish bona-fides being called into question again; the challenge arises from a political competitor named O’Rourke who has no ethnic connection to the Latino communities of Texas.  O’Rourke and Cruz are, in fact, polar opposites.  Cruz, son of a Cuban immigrant father, is a paradigm of traditional assimilation.  Like the children of many immigrants, he lost the language of his father, embraced English as a marker of his American identity, and chose an English nickname, Ted, over his given name, Rafael.  O’Rourke, by contrast, was raised in the bilingual border city of El Paso, grew up with a Spanish nickname, and learned to speak fluently the Spanish language of the generally economically less privileged citizens of his home.

By challenging Cruz to debate in Spanish, O’Rourke is advancing a vision of political and societal inclusion that does not demand linguistic assimilation.  Like Rubio in 2016, he is leveraging his own knowledge of Spanish to connect with a specific constituency and espouse an inclusive vision.  At the same time, by forcing Cruz to admit his inability to speak Spanish, O’Rourke, like Rubio before him, implicitly identifies Cruz as an outsider to the linguistic community to which he should, by birthright, feel some affinity.  While language itself does not define the ethnicity of either candidate, O’Rourke is adeptly challenging Cruz’s authenticity as a Latino, while at the same time signaling his own solidarity with constituents who speak Spanish or are descended from Hispanic families in ways that Cruz cannot.  Simply put, by taking the Spanish out of Cruz, O’Rourke leaves Cruz with little choice but to continue betting on the political value of the traditional, and increasingly challenged, narrative of assimilation in a demographically changing political landscape.

September 25, 2018

* Chip Gerfen is Professor of Linguistics and Spanish at American University.

Trump on NAFTA: An Offer Canada Can’t Refuse?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

Chrystia Freeland meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in July 2018. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat last week to abrogate free trade with Canada while signing a new bilateral agreement with Mexico alone has led many to think that NAFTA – which will be 25 years old on January 1, 2019 – has no future.  But the likeliest outcome remains just a set of fairly modest changes to the agreement.  Much of Trump’s bluster on NAFTA does not reflect the facts in U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade, though Canadian officials will still have to take his threats seriously.  Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose government sat out the United States’ renegotiation of NAFTA with Mexico this summer, rushed to Washington after the bilateral accord was announced, launching new talks with U.S. counterparts.  While Trump has said he will make no concessions, Freeland has continued seeking common ground, and looks ready to compromise on at least some issues.

  • The best econometric studies suggest that North American free trade has had disappointingly modest benefits – nowhere near advocates’ earlier projections. But the transition costs of moving to a world without free trade would still be enormously costly for Canada.  The economic and political risk of the highly unlikely, but not completely inconceivable, scenario of losing NAFTA entirely are just too great for the Canadian government to bear.

Canada, which in past negotiations stood up for Mexico on some key issues, now finds itself in the ironic position of looking to Mexico for support.  The two countries are often in a position to benefit from working together, but Trump’s wrath has tempted each to throw the other under the bus – a classic prisoner’s dilemma.

  • In the last few weeks, Mexico decided to give the U.S. what it wanted: most importantly, protectionist rules of origin for autos and textiles, and some enhanced intellectual property rights. Mexico calculated that, compared to Trump’s threats not long ago to kill NAFTA in its entirety, these concessions were a modest price to pay to keep the agreement alive.  Also importantly, Mexican leaders appear to have avoided a national humiliation of epic proportions – putting an end to Trump’s dream of getting Mexico to pay for the wall he wants to build on the border.
  • Looking for a much-needed “win,” Trump has now made an offer he thinks Canada can’t refuse. His wish list covers things Canada specifically fought hard for in the original free trade talks back in the 1980s and 90s, including protections for Canada’s cultural industries and agricultural supply management programs, and what Canada’s trade minister said in 1992 were “the vitally important dispute settlement provisions” of Chapter 19.  Now, just as Canadian opponents of free trade forewarned in the 1980s, Canada’s economy has become so enmeshed with that of its much larger neighbor that the government cannot say no to the demands of an aggressive administration in Washington.

Yet the situation does not spell disaster for U.S.-Canada trade or for Canada itself.  Trump’s claims notwithstanding, the U.S. Congress has final say over U.S. trade policy, and most of its members (with business lobbyists whispering in their ears) recognize that severing the many economic ties built up between Canada and the United States over the last quarter-century would be unnecessarily disruptive and costly.  Freeland and her negotiators will know that Trump’s threat to kill free trade is not really credible.

  •  Even caving on all of Trump’s demands would not be catastrophic for Canada. Contrary to Trump’s zero-sum perspective on trade (like on everything else) as an international battleground, most of the important conflicts with respect to trade are actually within countries.  Canada’s supply management system favors the country’s producers at the expense of consumers, for example, just as do strict rules of origin for U.S. textiles manufacturers.  So while the transition costs of dismantling free trade in North America would be substantial, the impacts of the changes Trump is proposing would be tolerable to all three countries – even if some make no sense (the sunset clause); are just giveaways to specific industries (stricter patents for pharmaceuticals); or favor some industries at the expense of others (U.S. lumber producers and U.S. home builders, respectively, as regards the possible elimination of Chapter 19).  For Canada’s government, the heaviest costs of compromise will be political: Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will have to choose which bitter pill to swallow, as any concessions will lead to angry recriminations from one domestic constituency or another.

September 7, 2018

* Malcolm Fairbrother is Professor of Sociology at Umeå University and a researcher at the Institute for Futures Studies, both in Sweden.  He is originally from Vancouver, and has been a visiting researcher at multiple institutions in all three countries of North America. He has also participated in the Center’s North America Research Initiative.

U.S.-Latinx: Might Trump Prompt “Statistical Disobedience”?

By Stephan Lefebvre*

Eric Garcetti at a press conference

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti gives a press conference on the 2020 Census. Garcetti leads a coalition of over 160 U.S. mayors that oppose adding a question about citizenship on the census. / Office of Eric Garcetti / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census have set the stage for confrontation between Latino/a/x individuals and the U.S. government.  Community groups, civil rights organizations, a group of 18 U.S. states, and others are challenging the administration in court – oral arguments for the first of six legal challenges began last Friday.  Grassroots organizing around Latinx statistical disobedience is also under way, urging individuals to respond to the citizenship question randomly, without regard to their own status, to make the results unusable.

  • The legal challenges have yielded documents revealing the discriminatory intent of the citizenship question. Kris Kobach, the Secretary of State of Kansas known for his anti-immigrant views and inaccurate claims about voter fraud, wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in July 2017 advocating the citizenship question.  Kobach said – falsely – it was necessary to deal with the “problem that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”  Several months later, the U.S. Justice Department issued a “formal request” to the acting director of the Census Bureau to include the citizenship question to attain data “critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.”  Claiming the measure is necessary to prevent “vote dilution” among minority groups, it is very different from the alleged problem Kobach identified.  Representation in the U.S. Congress is based on total population, not total voting population, as confirmed in 2016 unanimously by the Supreme Court in Evenwel v. Abbott.
  • It is still not clear where the idea for a citizenship question on the 2020 Census came from, but its purpose – to weaponize the census to be used against Latina/o/x and other undocumented communities – has been clear from the start. Kobach has said that his advocacy was informed by conversations with Steve Bannon, the far-right activist and former senior advisor to President Trump.  Secretary Ross initially testified to Congress that the proposal for a citizenship question was initiated by the Justice Department, but he later issued a memo contradicting this when documents came to light showing his earlier involvement.

Census Bureau testing of the 2020 Census questionnaire indicates that there is deep concern among the undocumented and Latinx communities.  Field staff conducting interviews report many red flags.  In presentations made during a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, Census Bureau documents quote one interviewer saying, “There was a cluster of mobile homes, all Hispanic. I went to one and I left the information on the door.  I could hear them inside.  I did two more interviews, and when I came back, they were moving. … It’s because they were afraid of being deported.”  In another case, a Spanish-speaking respondent said, “The possibility that the census could give my information to [U.S. government] internal security, and immigration could come and arrest me for not having documents terrifies me.”  In response, community-engaged scholars like Angelo Falcón of the National Institute for Latino Policy are calling for “statistical disobedience,” the willful misrepresentation of one’s legal status.

If the six legal challenges to the citizenship question fail, the prospects of statistical disobedience will be high.  Falsifying responses on the census is a punishable offense, but some community leaders have argued that if the Latinx statistical disobedience is widespread, enforcement will be highly unlikely.  This is not unlike other acts of historical civil disobedience.  The grassroots campaign behind statistical disobedience not only helps prevent the citizenship question from being used to target undocumented and Latinx communities; it can also drive up participation and awareness of the 2020 Census by Latinx communities who have been historically under counted.  Community leaders want to be ready.

August 21, 2018

* Stephan Lefebvre is a Ph.D. student in Economics at American University studying stratification economics.  His forthcoming article in the journal Diálogo is titled “Bold Policies for Puerto Rico: A Blueprint for Transformative, Justice-Centered Recovery.”

Nicaragua: Might Trump See Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Donald Trump and Daniel Ortega

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right). / Flickr (edited) / Creative Commons

There is no evidence that President Trump is contemplating any sort of military action in response to the political conflict in Nicaragua, but precedents set by previous U.S. administrations frustrated with challenges at home and abroad suggest he could conceivably see opportunity in throwing the United States’ diplomatic and military weight to finally boot out a government that Washington has never liked.

  • The White House last week issued its most forceful condemnation yet of the government of President Daniel Ortega for “brutalizing” the Nicaraguan people with “indiscriminate violence” that has resulted in 350 deaths. Vice President Pence recently accused Ortega of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
  • The Trump team also announced it was increasing U.S. financial support to Ortega’s opponents – adding $1.5 million to an ongoing $30 million annual program to support “democracy and governance.” Visa and financial sanctions have been put in place against three officials the administration blames for human rights violations during the four-month showdown between Ortega and opponents.  The State Department earlier had condemned the violence and issued a warning to U.S. travelers to “reconsider” travel to Nicaragua – another blow to the country’s image and its reeling tourism industry.

But there is pressure on the administration to do more.  U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – widely seen as the most influential congressional voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America – has led the way.  “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path,” Rubio recently said, “the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

  • Rubio did not specify what “further action” he desired, and the reference to “regional allies” – all of whom would presumably oppose U.S. military action – may temper options. But President Trump’s own rhetoric, and that of senior officials, suggests the full array of options may be on the table.  In August 2017, the President publicly floated the idea of invading Venezuela to end the years-long crisis there.  According to amply-sourced press reports, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the intervention, but both moderating voices have since left the administration.  (Tillerson in February trumpeted the Monroe Doctrine, under which the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene where it wished, as a guiding principle of U.S. policy for the western hemisphere, saying “it clearly has been a success.”)
  • Subsequent press reports based on purportedly high-level sources indicate that Trump’s invasion comment was not as spontaneous as it appeared; he’d argued with senior staff that military action against Venezuela could be a success as were, he reportedly claimed, the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Those interventions gave a political bounce to two previous Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, as did President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Donald Trump’s polls among his political base are extremely high, and his broader approval rating has risen slightly, but nervousness about the various investigations into his campaign and presidency, and about his prospects in upcoming congressional elections, may tempt him to seek a distraction.

U.S. military action of any kind – albeit a remote possibility at this time – cannot be ruled out entirely.  The Trump administration’s policies have been highly impulsive and, in many analysts’ view, have been driven by political factors rather than considered analysis based on deep knowledge of international affairs.  Ortega has been the bane of two generations of Republicans’ efforts to forge a consistently pro-U.S. Central America, thumbing his nose at Washington repeatedly and even co-opting traditional U.S. allies in Nicaragua such as the business community.  Some analysts’ predictions that Ortega’s control over the electoral apparatus could result in his victory in early elections – a key opposition demand – also may feed Washington perceptions that bolder action is necessary.

  •  With the 72-year-old erstwhile revolutionary on the ropes and resorting to increasingly ugly tactics to remain in power, Ortega may look ripe for toppling with a little nudge from Washington. The intervention need not be a full-fledged invasion, and the pretext need not be elaborate – the Grenada invasion was supposedly a rescue mission for U.S. medical students on the island.  The administration may believe, moreover, that the Nicaraguan military, many of whose officers have appeared more comfortable with a non-partisan institutional role than with backing Ortega to the hilt, would not muster a strong reaction.  It is all hypothetical at this point, but, while Secretary of State Tillerson is gone, perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is not, and there is a long history of Washington’s treating Central America as a convenient place to “send in the Marines.”

August 7, 2018

Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.

U.S. Immigration Policy: New Obstacles to Asylum

By Jayesh Rathod*

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. / Glenn Fawcett / U.S. Customs and Border Patrol / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s decision to reverse established U.S. policy to grant asylum to certain victims of domestic violence increases the importance of – and challenges to – experts called on to demonstrate the credible threat applicants face if denied asylum and deported.  U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on June 11 issued the opinion, which rescinded precedent that had paved the way for survivors of such violence to receive asylum.  More generally, the case – known as Matter of A-B- – creates additional legal roadblocks for asylum applicants who fear harm at the hands of private (non-state) actors, such as gangs and intimate partners.

  • Federal regulations permit the Attorney General to refer immigration cases to himself for decision, in order to revisit a decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and issue a new opinion that creates binding nationwide precedent. Sessions has made frequent use of this special procedure, certifying four cases to himself since the beginning of the year.  Each of these cases is poised to limit the rights and protections afforded to asylum seekers and others facing removal proceedings.  For example, Sessions vacated the BIA’s decision in Matter of E-F-H-L-, which had held that asylum applicants are entitled to a full merits hearing, including the opportunity to present oral testimony. The vacatur opens the door to summary denials by Immigration Judges.

In Matter of A-B-, Sessions explicitly overruled the BIA’s 2014 decision in Matter of A-R-C-G-, which provided a legal road map for asylum-seekers fleeing domestic and gang violence.  Under applicable case law, an applicant – such as a domestic violence survivor or target of gang violence – who fears persecution by a private actor may qualify for asylum, provided they can prove that their home country government is “unable or unwilling” to control the private actor.

  • Courts had previously expressed distinct views on how to interpret this standard, yet most embraced a plain-language reading of “unable or unwilling.” In Matter of A-B-, however, Sessions – in language that many legal scholars judge to be meandering and slightly inconsistent – suggests applicants must meet a higher standard and show “that the government condoned the private actions,” that those actions “can be attributed to the government,” or that the government “demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect the victims.”  Sessions opines that “[n]o country provides its citizens with complete security from private criminal activity,” implying that deficiencies in law enforcement efforts will not necessarily translate into a successful asylum claim.

The unclear language in Matter of A-B- has left some wondering about the precise legal standard that is now in place.  What is certain, however, is that Matter of A-B- presents a smorgasbord of reasons for skeptical immigration judges to deny asylum claims from the Northern Triangle of Central America.  While a CLALS-hosted workshop underscored that country conditions evidence has always been critical to these cases, adjudicators will now pay even closer attention to country experts, and will demand more evidence regarding efforts by home country governments to control private violence, and of the relationship between those governments and private actors.

  • The new requirements stack the deck against asylum-seekers. The governments in the Northern Triangle of Central America – with Washington’s strong financial and political support – have long argued they’re making efforts to curb gang violence.  Before Matter of A-B-, the “unable or unwilling” standard allowed asylum claims to succeed while permitting these governments to save face under the theory that they were trying, albeit imperfectly, to control violent private actors.  By demanding even more unfavorable evidence regarding these home country governments, Matter of A-B- sets up a likely conflict between the legal standard for asylum and the preferred messaging of those governments and the Trump administration.  Facing an array of entrenched interests, it will be difficult for country experts to show that governments commit or condone the violence against asylum-seekers or that authorities are “completely helpless” to protect victims.

July 10, 2018

* Jayesh Rathod is a professor at the Washington College of Law and founding director of the school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic.