Venezuela: Can Trump’s Coercive Diplomacy Help?

By Michael McCarthy*

A large auditorium-style room filled with people watching a speaker at the front

U.S. President Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017. / John Gillespie / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. President Trump’s new rhetorical attacks and financial sanctions against the Venezuelan government suggest a shift toward coercive diplomacy aimed at achieving regime change, but U.S. power faces significant limits in the conflict-ridden country.  At the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump called President Maduro an authoritarian and said “this situation is completely unacceptable and we cannot stand by and watch.”  Washington’s approach emphasizes sticks – sanctions against President Maduro, senior advisors, and threatened action against the oil sector – over carrots, while also voicing support for the opening of new mediated face-to-face talks between Maduro and the opposition.  A contact group of six Latin American and four European countries is promoting the talks, with the backing of UN Secretary General and the Vatican, to help avoid the worst-case scenario of open conflict.  Previous efforts to coordinate a multilateral coalition that simultaneously keeps the pressure on the government while opening negotiation avenues have failed – and agreeing on a roadmap is even more complex in view of the installation of the Constituent Assembly that stripped the elected, opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers.

  • Trump’s new Executive Order directs financial sanctions that come close to directly threatening Maduro’s vital supports. It bans Caracas from issuing new debt in the United States and prohibits U.S.-based CITGO – a wholly owned subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company – from repatriating dividends to Caracas.  These measures will impose austerity on Maduro (who claims he will still make upcoming debt payments) and future actions are likely to try and undermine the government’s economic foundations.
  • In addition to installing the Constituent Assembly, Maduro seems to be pursuing a new regime-survival strategy in which he plays the role of a non-vengeful victim. Maduro criticized Trump’s sanctions and called him “the new Hitler” after the UN speech on Tuesday, but he’s also offered donations to aid post-Harvey recovery efforts in Houston and invoked John Lennon in a call for “giving peace a chance” in a New York Times ad earlier this month.  To regain a degree of credibility, Maduro will probably consider making elections for Governors slated for October 15 look competitive, but whether he has the political capital with his base to make bigger political or economic moves is unclear.  He may look to establish a new institutional equilibrium of dual legislatures, though it would hinge on removing the threat of retaliation against the opposition via the Constituent Assembly’s so-called “Truth Commission.”  He may also try to address massive fiscal imbalances by reforming the multi-tiered exchange rate, though this would be difficult as the system’s subsidized dollars help underwrite regime loyalty.

While the United States, Europeans, and Latin Americans are operating in loose formation – with Washington ratcheting up pressure while everyone else scrambles for negotiations – China and Russia are sticking to their strategic game.  As Maduro’s main financial backers, they are betting talks can stabilize the situation bit by bit.  They may kick in some more financial assistance if and when Maduro restores some stability by holding peaceful regional elections, delivering on the dialogue, and making large upcoming debt payments.  But while there is some basis for the geopolitical schadenfreude of Beijing and Moscow making it harder for Washington in Caracas, there are also signs that both have buyer’s remorse.  While they prefer Maduro stay afloat, they seem unlikely to extend loans that help stabilize the economy unconditionally.

None of the piecemeal actions that Maduro is apparently contemplating can defuse the political and social crisis, but a combination of steps may be enough to convince China and Russia to stay in the game.  Despite Trump’s statement that he was “not going to rule out a military option” in Venezuela, the Administration apparently is open to a policy of coercive diplomacy that includes genuine support for talks.  Trump attacked his predecessor for “leading from behind,” but figuring out how to sequence sticks and carrots in coordination with Latin American and European countries may require just that.  The bottom line is that the chance of a breakthrough on the biggest issues – the Constitutional road map and conditions for electoral participation – remain low, although some movement by both parties toward the middle seems realistic.  Despite the actions of outside actors, the situation is likely to remain poised over a knife-edge – without the catharsis of either peace or regime change.

September 21, 2017

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

A Divided Court on U.S. v. Texas: A Safety Net for the Administration?

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Supreme court Scalia

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan / Flickr / Creative Commons

The passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reshuffles the deck of possible outcomes in the highly politicized case involving President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.  When the White House petitioned the Court to review its dispute with Texas and 25 other states, it could not have imagined a result that now appears to be possible: a tie.  An evenly split decision would mean that the injunction against the measures issued by the lower court – the Fifth Circuit – would stand, an outcome that critics of Obama’s executive actions would herald as a triumph.  It may, however, also prove to be a safety net for the Administration and the over five million undocumented immigrants whose status is at stake because the law stipulates that a tie vote is not precedent-setting.  That means that the underlying case would proceed to trial in Texas district court – and could then potentially find its way back onto the Supreme Court’s docket, perhaps under more favorable conditions for a future Democratic administration.

This is, of course, purely speculative as a complex web of scenarios remain in play, including:

  • A 5-3 Decision in Favor of the Administration: If the Court finds that the states do not have the right (or standing) to sue the President, the case will be immediately dismissed.  A decision recognizing the states’ right to sue would force the Court to address the other two matters at stake – whether the President’s actions are consistent with existing immigration law, and whether he met the requirements for public notice and comment.  Some experts believe that members of the Court’s conservative wing may side with the Administration on these questions, striking down the injunction and allowing the deferred action programs to proceed.
  • A 3-5 Decision in Favor of Texas: A majority ruling against the Administration seems most plausible on the constitutional issue of whether the President abdicated his responsibility to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”  Though the Court had appended the separation-of-powers question to the roster of issues under consideration, it is under no obligation to hand down such a wide-reaching decision.  But should the case become a constitutional showdown, it is not inconceivable that a member of the Court’s liberal bloc might side with conservatives to prevent what would amount to be a significant expansion of executive authority – and an undermining of the judiciary’s ability to curb excesses.  Observers say it is less likely that a liberal would find the Administration in violation of immigration law or public notification procedures.

Beyond the struggle between the President and his opponents in the U.S. Senate over whether a successor to Scalia should be confirmed this year, the prospect of a tie in U.S. v. Texas and the potential for a rematch down the road has raised the stakes in this U.S. election year.  Candidates from both parties have been calling on voters to transform the November election into a referendum on the Supreme Court.  At least on the immigration front, the presidential nominees and voters alike will have to wait until the Court announces its decision in mid-summer to find out what exactly has been won or lost, and what more can be done or undone.  Though a tie would leave open the door for the legal merits of the case to be revisited by a full complement of justices under a new president during a non-election year, such a scenario is hardly ideal for the outgoing Administration.  The possibility that victory in the short-term for immigration conservatives could translate into a permanent victory should the Republican nominee win the presidency is a gamble the Administration would rather not face. 

 February 29, 2016

 

U.S. Immigration: In Need of Procedural Reform Too

By Maya Barak*

Photo Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Victoria Pickering / Flickr / Creative Commons

Migrants appear unlikely to get relief soon from President Obama’s appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn the November decision of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to continue blocking his 2014 executive actions on immigration.  With the injunction still in place, the President cannot go ahead with expansion of the President’s programs for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the creation of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA).  Assuming that the court will grant the case a writ of certiorari (which is not certain), it is unlikely to hear it before June 2016 – at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign.  Furthermore, as AULABLOG has reported, even if the Supreme Court upholds the President’s authorities on DACA and DAPA, it would also be confirming his successor’s power to reverse them.  The next President could easily terminate these actions, leaving many DACA and DAPA recipients in a precarious legal state.  Immigrants, activists, and scholars alike are following the Democratic and Republican primaries with baited breath.

While the uncertainty demoralizes immigrants and their attorneys, so too do the many procedural problems they face.  In 45 in-depth interviews I have conducted over the past two years with Central American immigrants and their lawyers, the need for procedural reform ranked high among the concerns of attorneys.

  • The processes of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, or “immigration court,” are the subject of strident complaints. Good and affordable legal representation and guidance are lacking.  Cultural and linguistic barriers preclude adequate communication between immigrants and judges in the courtroom, as well as between immigrants and asylum officers.  Videoteleconferences during removal (deportation) hearings, wherein the immigrant – and in some cases the judge – appear in a “virtual” courtroom via a two-way video, are often characterized by poor sound quality and shoddy images.
  • Detention during removal proceedings pose particularly serious difficulties for migrants and their attorneys. Accessing legal representation, case information, and necessary documents such as passports or birth certificates is extremely difficult.  Detention centers are often in distant rural areas, far from attorneys.
  • Immigration court backlogs have skyrocketed in recent years, with many courts scheduling hearings as far out as 2020 – forcing immigrants to put their lives “on hold,” unable to obtain a driver’s license or permission to work.

Despite these problems, immigrants say they feel listened to and respected by interpreters, judges, and government attorneys, which increases their belief in the legitimacy of the immigration system.  As problematic as the procedural issues are, immigrants’ greatest concern is that U.S. law as it currently stands does not afford the vast majority pathways to legalization.  Immigrants who truly want to be law-abiding – attracted to the U.S. because it is a country where the “rule of law” exists – regret that they must violate the law to escape the violent and unstable countries from which they come.  Immigration reform and procedural reform are complementary objectives and should go hand-in-hand.  While attorneys’ fixation with due process is understandable, so are immigrants’ desires for a chance to fully (and legally) participate in American society.  Just as U.S. political infighting has prevented comprehensive immigration reform and delayed – and could kill – implementation of DAPA and DACA, so too do the prospects for procedural reforms look bleak as the country enters an extremely political year.

January 14, 2016

* Maya Barak is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in Justice, Law and Criminology.

Executive Under-Reach: Migrants on the Margins of Reform

By Eric Hershberg and Dennis Stinchcomb

UAC SPONSOR PLACEMENT updated post-report-01

Graphic courtesy of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS)

President Obama’s long-awaited executive action on immigration has finally happened – with the anticipated political fireworks – and will benefit more than one third of the country’s undocumented persons. It is premature to offer predictions regarding how the dynamic will play out between a White House wounded by electoral losses last month and an emboldened Congressional opposition.  We can, however, take stock of who the administration’s measures have and have not affected.  Between 4 and 5 million people, a majority of them originally from Mexico, will be able to apply for work permits and secure protection from deportation for three years if they have been in the U.S. for five years or longer and have children who are either U.S. citizens or authorized residents.

The executive action is no modest change in policy, but it contains little good news for large numbers of undocumented persons and no good news for those his administration has already deported.  For the 250,000 U.S. citizen children whose parents have been deported over the past six years, it provides no comfort; there is no provision for the parents to return to raise their kids here.  Nor did the President’s measures offer more permanent relief to the roughly 280,000 Central Americans who have resided in the U.S. with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) following natural disasters in the region during the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Beneficiaries of those provisions will continue to pay roughly $500 every 12-18 months to renew their status. Other populations who have been here for well over a decade as stable members of the community also remain unaffected by the reforms.  No matter how long they have been here nor how good they have been – law-abiding, tax paying, churchgoing or generally nice – they will not be eligible for relief if they do not have children.  The administration’s action was strictly cast as a family-focused initiative, and family, in this instance, means children with authorization to be in the U.S.  Spouses do not count.  An important new population of migrants was also left out of the reform: the unaccompanied children, largely from violence-torn countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle, whose surge across the border received great media attention during the summer of 2014. Indeed, the president’s speech to the nation made no mention of that humanitarian crisis and made clear that those who come across now should expect to be deported.

The 68,000 children who trudged across the border during this fiscal year remain in limbo.  According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, over 55,000 have been placed with immediate or extended-family sponsors in the U.S while their removal cases are pending in immigration court.  Metropolitan areas with long-established Central American communities have witnessed the largest influx of unaccompanied children.  The Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area alone, for example, received approximately 6,500 unaccompanied minors during the past fiscal year.  Once placed in sponsor care, these kids’ prospects for remaining in the U.S. – and their well-being while awaiting a court decision – are largely dependent upon local-level policies.  While the Obama administration has taken limited steps in recent months to provide legal counsel for these minors, funding for direct legal representation and a range of other educational, health, and social services is increasingly coming from those state and local governments that traditionally support immigrant-friendly humanitarian programs. This support is crucial, as demonstrated by a Syracuse University study that found that 85 percent of unaccompanied children appearing in court without an attorney are ordered to leave the U.S.; with an attorney, however, a child’s odds of remaining in the U.S. increase from 15 to 73 percent.   In cities such as New York, local funds are also being channeled through advocacy networks to support access to services beyond the courtroom, from mental health screenings, to vaccinations, to assistance with school enrollment.  Other local communities may not follow suit, particularly in the wake of the newly announced executive action, which in the short-term will strain the already taxed resources of local governments and advocacy groups.

December 11, 2014

Executive Action, Central American Presidents and the Fate of the Unaccompanied Minors

By Eric Hershberg

Image courtesy of Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Image courtesy of Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Speculation abounds in Washington as to the content of the long-awaited Executive Actions that the Obama administration has promised to decree amidst the failure of Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform.  Having resisted pressure from Latino constituents and immigrant rights advocates to act before the mid-term election, in a vain effort to protect vulnerable Democratic incumbent Senators who lost their bids for re-election anyway, the administration now seems poised to announce new measures as early as the end of this week.  Press accounts based on leaks from within the Executive Branch speculate that as many as five or six million undocumented migrants may see their vulnerability to deportation diminish as a result of the impending policy changes.  Barack Obama’s Republican antagonists are fulminating about the consequences if he makes good on his promise, with some pondering ways to shut down the government or impeach the President, and others, fearful that a particularly intemperate response could damage the Republican brand, particularly given the need to attract at least a third of the Latino vote to the candidacy of whomever is chosen as the 2016 GOP presidential candidate, allude to the likelihood of court challenges to what they deem an extreme instance of Executive overreach.

One unanticipated but welcome measure that has been announced publically is that children deemed vulnerable to the violence in the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America will be able to apply to be reunited with parents residing legally in the U.S.  This policy shift, announced during the visit to Washington last week by Presidents Otto Pérez Molina, Salvador Sánchez Ceren and Juan Orlando Hernández, is among the administration’s responses to the surge of unaccompanied minors and families across the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year or so: 68,000 unaccompanied children were detained at the border during Fiscal Year 2014.  For their part, together with Vice President Joseph Biden at the Inter-American Development Bank, on November 14 the three Central American Presidents pledged to launch an Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, with the objective of overcoming the conditions of economic misery, social vulnerability and institutional deficiencies that propelled the wave of migration of recent years and that have the potential to motivate a renewed flow of arrivals.  Biden offered an enthusiastic endorsement, but aside from reminding those in attendance that the administration had requested $3.7 billion from the Congress in response to last summer’s “crisis,” he did not offer specific commitments of resources, which of course are unlikely to be forthcoming from the strong Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress.  Nor did the Presidents make tangible commitments to build states capable of protecting the basic rights to life chances and security that are so remarkably absent for many of their countries’ inhabitants.

Assessing the likelihood of continued surges in migration requires understanding the factors that propelled the flow of people across the border in recent years.  A newly released study* by the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, funded by the Ford Foundation, provides essential data and analysis on the drivers of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and on the fate of children and families who have arrived in the U.S. from those countries over the past year.  A core message of the report is that the absence of fundamental pre-conditions for living their lives with dignity – education, jobs, and most of all protection from violence – compels people to migrate rather than seek to better their lot in their communities of origin.  In the long run, only dramatic reforms undertaken by Central American states will build the institutions needed to address the basic needs of their populations and to provide the minimal levels of security needed for them to live their lives in dignity at home.  Perhaps little that was agreed upon during the Presidents’ visit to Washington gives cause for great optimism, but it is our hope that the CLALS study points the way toward solutions to the region’s crisis and toward ensuring the protection of those who endured the perilous journey to the U.S. border and now find themselves in limbo in the U.S.

 *To download a free copy of the full report, click here.

November 19, 2014

Obama’s Deportation Debacle: Time for Executive Action?

By Eric Hershberg and Dennis Stinchcomb

Embed from Getty Images

Amid fierce debate over the Obama administration’s record on the deportation of undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. without serious criminal records, insiders confirmed to the Associated Press on Monday that the White House is seriously considering unilateral action to reduce deportations.  Preliminary reports suggest that a review of the policy by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson may result in executive action curbing deportations.  Rumors of White House movement on the issue surfaced last week, when members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus presented Johnson with a memo outlining their demands.  Most notably, they recommended an expansion of the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the elimination of “Secure Communities,” a program initiated during the Bush era that mandates that local law enforcement agencies enforce federal immigration laws and which has led to reported abuses.

The increased pressure on the president to further limit forced removals comes at a moment when deportations are on the decline and interior enforcement is at a five-year low.  New statistics released by the Department of Homeland Security (via FOIA requests from The New York Times) and the Department of Justice provide the most comprehensive view to date of an enforcement policy fraught with political miscalculations.  DOJ reports, for example, a 43 percent drop in the number of new deportation cases filed in federal immigration courts in the last five years.  In hopes of gaining credibility and leverage for Democrats in a potential immigration deal, the administration in 2011 reallocated massive enforcement resources to the U.S.-Mexico border.  The plan was to ease interior enforcement that disrupted established families and communities – and ran up deportation numbers in the past – while deporting higher numbers of recent border crossers, who under previous administrations would have been sent home without formal charges.  In the interior, workplace raids all but disappeared, but state and local police, under the Secure Communities program, continued to identify “high-priority offenders.”

The Obama administration’s five-year attempt to placate Republican lawmakers through record-setting deportations has backfired politically, and the collateral damage is high, with nearly 2 million deportations to date and an outraged electoral base.  Though current and former administration officials argue that concerns over public safety and border security have guided immigration enforcement since day one, the evidence suggests that political expedience has driven Obama’s deportation policy and – with midterm elections just around the corner and maneuvering toward the 2016 presidential elections already underway – is likely to continue to do so.  Obama’s eagerness to impress Republicans with his toughness, without any guarantee the maneuver would work, has alienated Hispanic and Asian communities who feel betrayed and whose turnout at the polls is crucial for a Democratic victory.  The leaks of executive action indicate a White House focused on damage control with those important constituencies, while essentially signaling the definitive end of any chance of bipartisan Congressional immigration reform.  Despite some handwringing among American conservatives that the Republicans’ position will lock out Hispanic voters for years to come, most of the party’s leaders appear to give priority to their nativist base.  Obama ultimately may be calculating that, with chances of passage of immigration reform nil anyway, his energy is best spent on rebuilding ties with constituents whose communities have been torn apart by policies pursued during his first five years in office.