Central American Youth Migrants Show Signs of PTSD and Stress

By Daniel Jenks and Ernesto Castañeda*

Central American migrants/ Peter Haden/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The trauma experienced by Central American minors before, during, and after their unaccompanied journeys to the United States puts them at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems, creating further obstacles to their success in school and broader integration into U.S. society. New research into results from the CLALS Pilot Project Household Contexts and School Integration of Resettled Migrant Youth, which included interviews and qualitative surveys (including a validated PHQ-9 Modified for Teens and the Child PTSD Symptom Scale, CPSS), revealed that about one-third of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala show symptoms of moderate to severe PTSD — significantly higher than the general population.

  • The study team interviewed or administered surveys to more than 100 subjects, including youths who arrived in Maryland before 2017, their parents, and social service providers, teachers, and local officials. At least 20 percent of the youth respondents exhibited symptoms of mild or moderate depression, and 38 percent said that they felt sad or depressed most days during the last year.

Many of the youths suffered deeply from separation from parents who preceded them in traveling to the United States, sometimes blaming them for problems and abuses they suffered back home, but they generally fared better than those whose parents had not emigrated. Those most deeply harmed were forced from their homes by gang violence, police corruption, and other symptoms of low state capacity, and suffered trauma along the journey to the United States. They were able to come to the U.S. and escape those problems because they had family in the United States.

  • Carlos, who migrated when he was 15 years old, left El Salvador because he was facing death threats from local gangs because he refused to join. He was scared to go to home and school. Other youths experienced pre-migration trauma that included natural disasters, war, gang violence, victimization, witnessing a crime, physical and sexual abuse, or attacks based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. (Other studies document the particular abuses faced by girls and young women.)
  • Migrating from Honduras at 13 years old, Samantha was on a bus near the Guatemala-Mexico border when gangs barricaded its door and threatened to set it on fire if they were not given a hefty fee. For the rest of the trip through Mexico, the coyotes gave her and others enough to eat only once a day. Indeed, the increased risk of undernutrition, dehydration, assault, kidnapping, and other forms of violence was common for unaccompanied youths.

Inside the United States, many face the stresses of family reunification and issues of acculturation, although our research indicates that the resulting anxiety is less severe than from the in-country and en-route traumas they experience. One mitigating factor is having access and feeling welcome to use supportive social services, education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.

  • Resentment toward parents who “abandoned” them in Central America — even those parents who were loving, reliable providers — is often deep. School challenges, language struggles, and stress related to their own legal status or that of their family further tax mental health. Complex, intimidating legal proceedings, threats of deportation, and prolonged forced separation from family get many youths off to a stressful start. Many also experience discrimination and hate crimes, becoming more aware of them as they learn English. Real or perceived lack of access to social services exacerbates stresses, and fear of dealing with authorities means that many problems go unreported.
  • Some learn to prosper. Diana, a 16-year-old from El Salvador, was scared and apprehensive when she started school in Maryland, but she found friends whom she could trust and could help her in school, and her mood improved drastically for the better.

We found that the psychological distress and disorders experienced by Central American youths in a troubling number of cases can exacerbate existing obstacles to integration, family reunification, and success in school. These obstacles, in turn, can create new stressors that exacerbate PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

  • Dealing with the traumas that plague youths in Central America is a massive undertaking that, rhetorically at least, the United States and Central American governments are addressing. Inside the United States, successful cases show that the cycle of further trauma exposure, depression, and PTSD can be overcome by making migrant processing more humane, increasing access to mental health services and education, and providing guarantees of protection to those who seek help – reforms that will be very challenging. The underlying problems are deep-rooted, and even when the Executive or Legislative branch pushes particular elements of reform, change will be hard to implement because of institutional and cultural barriers.

August 26, 2021

* Ernesto Castañeda directs the Immigration Lab and teaches sociology at American University, and Daniel Jenks is the Lab’s deputy director. This article is adapted from their full study published in Trauma Care journal.

Temporary Protected Status: Prospects Under the Biden Administration

By Hannah Bossert and Jayesh Rathod*

National TPS Alliance holding a press conference and vigil in Washington, DC/ uusc4all/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

In the swell of immigration reform discussions in Washington, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), one form of humanitarian protection, has received significant attention from policymakers and advocates, but the Administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to signal its intended action for significant TPS decisions arising later this year and next.

  • Codified in U.S. immigration law, TPS provides relief from removal and work authorization for nationals of designated countries affected by ongoing armed conflict, natural disaster, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions. The Secretary of Homeland Security makes TPS designations for anywhere from six to 18 months, with no legal limit to the number of renewals. When conditions allow for a safe return, the federal government may choose to terminate the designations.
  • As part of its agenda set on restricting immigration, the Trump Administration attempted to end TPS for six countries (including four in Latin America), prompting litigation that has extended the designations while courts review the legality of the terminations.

The Biden Administration has only begun to formulate its policies regarding TPS, which will have a major political and economic impact on immigrant communities in the United States and on the region as a whole. Twelve countries worldwide have been TPS-designated, protecting approximately 320,000 individuals, for a number of years. In March, the Administration extended protection to an estimated 323,000 eligible Venezuelans, and designated Burma in May. But pending decisions include the following:

  • Today nearly 200,000 nationals of El Salvador are protected by a designation made in 2001. Designations in 1999 for Honduras and Nicaragua currently protect around 60,350 and 3,200 persons, respectively. Thanks to federal court injunctions, these work permits and protections from removal remain valid through October 4. The Biden Administration recently agreed to participate in settlement discussions to resolve the pending litigation. The White House might find a way to extend work authorization for the existing beneficiaries; alternatively, it might re-designate these countries for TPS, which would offer protection to tens of thousands who arrived after the initial designation dates. Given the roadblocks that many Central American migrants face in advancing asylum claims, re-designation could be the more attractive option as it would alleviate immigration court backlogs and would not require Congressional authorization.
  • Re-designation was the Biden Administration’s preferred course of action for Haiti, which was also subject to a Trump-era termination effort. On May 22, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas re-designated Haiti for 18 months, expanding coverage to 100,000-150,000 new arrivals and providing an opportunity for those nearly 41,000 Haitians deriving status from the earlier designation to re-apply. The devastating effects of COVID‑19 and the instability surrounding the recent assassination of President Moïse both complicate return for Haitian nationals.
  • Members of Congress recently penned a bicameral letter urging the Administration to consider TPS designations or redesignation for 17 countries, including El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, as well as the Bahamas and Guatemala. A Guatemala designation, recently re-requested by the country’s government in the wake of severe hurricane damage, would change its decades-long outlier status when compared to its Central American neighbors.

Despite its name, TPS has enabled decades-long residency for hundreds of thousands of migrants, allowing them to build lives and families in the United States. TPS beneficiaries from El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras alone contribute roughly $4.5 billion to the U.S. economy, including an average yearly contribution of over $691 million to Medicare and Social Security. Despite past stagnation in considering longer-term relief for TPS holders, the reality of TPS has prompted new advocacy in Congress aimed at creating pathways to citizenship for beneficiaries via proposed legislation such as the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 and U.S. Citizenship Act, as well as calls to enshrine these efforts within the budgetary process, as in Senator Bernie Sanders’s Budget Reconciliation Bill.

  • Congressional action has become even more critical given the Supreme Court’s recent unanimous decision in Sanchez v. Mayorkas, which cut off the primary pathway to lawful permanent residence for TPS holders who had entered the United States without permission. This decision, absent  Congressional action, leaves hundreds of thousands in a prolonged and uncertain status. Given the current political climate in Washington, the path forward remains unclear.

July 21, 2021

* Hannah Bossert is  a second-year law student at the Washington College of Law and Dean’s Fellow for the Immigrant Justice Clinic, and Jayesh Rathod is Professor of Law and Director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the Washington College of Law.

United States: Is ICE on the Chopping Block?

By Brandon Hunter-Pazzara*

Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) in Chicago, IL/ Flickr/ Public Domain

Even if the Biden Administration does not heed the rallying slogan of hashtag #AbolishICE, the United States Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) could be put on a course that guts the agency’s mission and renders it a non-player in U.S. policy. The new administration’s push for immigration reform and reversal of many of its predecessor’s policies, including overhauling family processing procedures on the U.S.-Mexico border last weekend, signal significant change ahead for ICE – if not elimination of the agency itself.

The agency’s mixed performance on its two principal missions – enforcing immigration laws by removing unlawful migrants and combating transnational crime – has fueled pressure for reform.

Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), which account for $5 billion of the agency’s roughly $8.3 billion budget and 8,000 of its 22,000 employees, regularly fall short of ICE’s stated goals even as the mission has gotten easier. 2019 was the only year to date that it reported meeting removal targets. In 2021, the number of undocumented migrants in the United States is 10 million-11 million – the same as in 2003 – despite dramatic declines in new arrivals. According to a 2017 report by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), unauthorized border crossings were about 1 million in 2003 but had fallen below 500,000 by the time Donald Trump took office in 2017.

  • Significant changes to immigration law such as those contemplated by the Biden Administration could make ICE’s immigrant removal mission obsolete. For instance, its immigration bill creates several paths to legal status for the 11 million undocumented migrants, which if passed would shift the responsibility to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). ICE’s interior operations could very well be moved to CBP or eliminated altogether. 

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with a budget of $2 billion and some 10,300 employees, is one of dozens of federal and state agencies tasked with combating transnational crime. Observers have long noted that it remains unclear why these tasks are not handled by more effective law enforcement agencies. 

  • ICE each year reports its arrests, convictions, and cash and narcotics seizures – metrics that usually represent a small fraction of the total amount of narcotics reaching the street. ICE claimed it seized 6,105 pounds of fentanyl in 2020 – a year in which opioid-related overdoses increased significantly over 2019.
  • In terms of convictions, ICE reported in 2019 that it arrested 37,547 people for various crimes and won 16,792 convictions, a conviction rate of less than 50 percent. By comparison, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) boasts a conviction rate in the high 80s. Policymakers may be tempted to break up HSI as ICE’s core missions decline and place its agents in other agencies.
  • While ICE claims in its yearly reports that it plays a pivotal role in terrorism prevention, it has yet to provide a public accounting of any successful operations and whether it has prevented an imminent attack during its 18 years of operations. 

ICE is not the only agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with problems. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found DHS employees have a 10-point lower Employee Engagement Index Score – a measure of employee enthusiasm and purpose – compared to the federal average. But ICE and its missions are arguably the most vulnerable.

  • Numerous observers report it suffers from a culture of regular misconduct. As the ACLU documented, between Jan 2017 and April 2020, 39 adults died in ICE custody. During the Trump Administration, none of ICE’s directors was confirmed by the Senate – a sign that legislators don’t hold the agency in high esteem – and leadership resignations were common, including the remarkably brief two-week tenure of Jonathan Fahey this January. These issues only add to the damage done by numerous reports of ICE’s underhanded tactics and abuse of migrants, resulting in one 2019 poll finding that Americans considered ICE the worst federal agency. (Even so, according to a 2018 Politico Morning Consult Poll, most voters also say they do not support abolishing ICE.)
  • These contradictions are likely explained by the inertia of government reform and the rise of party polarization. In the past, a federal agency defined by inefficiency, incompetence, and bloat would have generated sharp criticism from Republicans. Yet, statements of support for President Trump during his presidential campaign and Presidency by ICE officials and the union representing its rank and file seem to have bought them protection. While the #AbolishICE groups are still likely to be frustrated that the agency survives, ICE seems destined to take some serious hits and would be wise to accept a serious conversation about its role and performance rather than wait for Mr. Trump’s return.

March 8, 2021

* Brandon Hunter-Pazzara is a CLALS Fellow and PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Princeton University.

Biden’s North American Reset?

By Tom Long and Eric Hershberg*

Map of North America/ Public Domain/ Creative Commons License

A North American approach to regional cooperation could make a comeback under the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Though promoted with little enthusiasm by President Obama and derided by the Trump administration, the utility of North American cooperation is suggested by a combination of factors: the desire to turn the page on Trump’s transactional approach to neighbors, interest in “near-shoring” as a result of the pandemic and frictions with China, and the growing salience of shared transnational challenges.

  • Trump played on anti-NAFTA and anti-Mexican sentiments in his rise to power. He followed his divisive campaign with dramatic standoffs over the border wall, tariffs on Canada and Mexico, and nativist immigration and asylum policies. Policy statements from the Biden campaign, Democratic Party platform, and transition team suggest the new president will be eager to signal his rejection of such policies, making a pro-North American stance attractive in the broader context of a return to multilateralism. To be sure, elements of the Democratic Party long harbored skeptical views of North American cooperation (especially NAFTA), but the anti-North American stance is now thoroughly associated with Trump, and Democrats have found themselves defending the concept during the last four years.
  • The pandemic and rising tensions with China have raised questions about the desirability of far-flung supply chains, at least for sensitive products like medical and telecommunications equipment. Revelations about forced-labor practices in China have also put human rights back on the trade agenda. This is an issue for Canada, too, given its tensions with China over electronics giant Huawei. At the same time, it presents an opportunity for Mexico.
  • Transnational challenges including public health, migration, and security have long provided a rationale for greater policy coordination in North America. Many of these issues have grown from irritants to major problems given the neglect and perverse U.S. policies of the last four years.

Under President Biden, these factors may give North American cooperation a new lease on life. As a regional policy framework, “North America” could give renewed stimulus to North American economic integration, which had stagnated due to China’s rise, increased border controls after September 11, 2001, limited investment in coordination or infrastructure, and various migration and security crises along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump’s rhetorical and policy barrage has awakened powerful interests to defend economic integration at the same time that it has motivated civil society organizations to defend North America’s integrated transnational communities.

Progress is likely even if the phrase “North America” is slow to return. NAFTA was officially replaced in July 2020 by a new pact that preserved most of its features but stripped “North America” from its name. (The three signatories have named the deal differently – USMCA in the U.S., TMEC in Mexico, and CUSMA/ACEUM in Canada – but none includes “North America.”) The separation of “North America” from the pact creates, counterintuitively, an opportunity to expand the understanding of the region and related policy frameworks.

  • Politically, “North America” could provide a useful space for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has shown little interest in Biden’s initiatives for bilateral cooperation and has provoked tensions with Washington through his handling of the Cienfuegos case, to provide leadership.
  • Practically, many deeply “North American” issues, particularly migration, suggest a wider understanding of the region to include parts of Central America and the Caribbean. Tensions about Central American migration will be high on the new administration’s agenda, but addressing these challenges through a North American lens offers a constructive contrast to Trump’s narrow nationalism.
  • Economically, given the contrast between countries of South America that have been more deeply reliant on exports to China versus those that are still most closely linked to the U.S. market, a broadened North America could provide a forum – larger and more diverse than NAFTA but smaller and more focused than the Summit of the Americas – to address regional policy challenges.

President Biden inherits an old trilateral region that seemingly has no name and a badly damaged economic partnership, but the gravitational pull of the U.S. market, new rhetoric and policies from Washington, and other underlying drivers should restore the economic and political importance of the region, offering an opportunity to rethink the boundaries and purpose of North America.

January 21, 2021

* Tom Long is Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and Chair of the Robert A. Pastor North American Research Initiative at American University. Eric Hershberg is Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and Professor of Government at American University.

United States: Biden Versus the Arc of Immigration Policy

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Jayesh Rathod*

Acting Deputy Commissioner Ronald D. Vitiello visits the Border Wall Construction Site near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry/ Photo Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Yesica Uvina/ whitehouse.gov/issues/immigration/ Creative Commons License

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged more than just a return to the Obama-era status quo on immigration, but the historical arc of immigration policy, the pandemic, entrenched agency cultures, and the limitations of executive lawmaking point to modest progress by a would-be Biden Administration. Absent from the Biden-Harris immigration platform are many of the more progressive proposals of Biden’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, including commitments to decriminalize border crossings, abolish or restructure Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), eliminate expedited removal proceedings, and temporarily halt deportations in hopes of compelling Congressional action. Even so, the Biden-Harris plan promises urgent action within their first 100 days to reverse President Trump’s sweeping changes to the immigration system, followed by novel reforms.

But the challenges faced by a Biden Administration would extend far beyond the mountain of executive formalities (and potential defensive litigation) needed to “undo Trump’s damage.” Since 1986 – the last time Congress passed comprehensive immigration legislation – two dominant trends embraced by administrations from both parties have constrained the potential for pro-immigration advances, leading to a one step forward, two steps backward dynamic from which a Biden Administration would have to break free.

  • Criminalization. In the runup to his 1996 re-election, President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which laid the groundwork for the aggressive immigration enforcement regime of the Trump Administration. IIRIRA subjected legal immigrants to deportation for a range of non-violent offenses, limited the due-process rights of certain categories of immigrants facing deportation, and facilitated the recruitment of local law enforcement agencies to carry out immigration directives. Today, a remarkably broad swath of criminal activity triggers immigration consequences, and migration-related conduct (including unlawful entry) is increasingly subject to criminal sanction.
  • Securitization. The Bush Administration’s framing of immigration as a security issue after 9/11 and the reorganization of the Immigration and Naturalization Service within a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put additional pressure on migrants. Intensive vetting of would-be migrants, including extra scrutiny of nationals from certain countries, often dovetail with the “criminal alien” narratives, particularly when migrant streams are portrayed as vectors for drug trafficking and organized crime.

President Obama gradually realigned enforcement priorities and promoted a culture of prosecutorial discretion, but the deeply entrenched notions of immigrants as lawbreakers with suspect intentions limited and undermined his pro-immigration policies. When faced with record numbers of arrivals at the southern border, the Obama Administration could not escape the enforcement paradigm, choosing to dramatically expand the practice of family detention and deport millions of noncitizens without criminal records.

  • This enforcement dragnet reinforced an agency culture within ICE and other components of DHS that equated increased apprehensions and removals with success. Obama’s timid reform policies and aggressive enforcement left enshrined criminalization and securitization as hallmarks that made it easy for Trump to implement unprecedented restrictionism. The President has infused his rhetoric with repeated references to immigrants as “bad hombres” and as threats, not just to public safety, but to American culture and identity.

If Mr. Biden takes office, we can expect a deluge of executive orders undoing many of the 400-plus actions taken by the Trump Administration that dramatically curtailed legal immigration, cut off temporary protections, and dismantled the asylum system. But an immigration counterrevolution is unlikely. Biden has acknowledged the missteps of the Obama-Biden Administration, but his middle-of-the-road approach – compared to the proposals advanced by other Democrats – fails to recognize that the ills of the immigration system predate President Trump.

  • Far-reaching reforms that break the decades-long trend to criminalize immigrants and view them through a security lens will require more than regulatory tinkering. Another wave of White House-mandated programs that grant temporary relief while subjecting immigrants to perpetual uncertainty is unlikely to satisfy immigrant communities and their advocates. The public health crisis caused by COVID-19, moreover, has provided renewed impetus for the securitization of immigration and may prove one of the greatest obstacles to Biden’s immigration agenda, which is silent on the pandemic.
  • Hope for groundbreaking reforms may only come in the form a Democratic-controlled Senate, where a legislative overhaul might embrace the decarceration and other less punitive approaches gaining traction in the criminal justice context. But even then, a Biden Administration would have to contend with thousands of existing DHS employees with a fundamentally different vision for migration management. These conditions, which align with the broader arc of immigration policy, forecast only incremental progress.

October 13, 2020

* Dennis Stinchcomb is the CLALS Assistant Director for Research, and Jayesh Rathod is Professor of Law and Director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the Washington College of Law.

U.S. Fails to Consider “Best Interests” of Child Migrants

By Eric Hershberg*

Child sitting down on a grass field

The lack of a “best interests” standard in the U.S. Government’s handling of child migrants subjects the children to enduring harm and skews their chances of fair adjudication of their immigration cases. Its absence is aggravated by recent U.S. policies under which a majority of children and families are unable to present protection claims which they are legally entitled to make.

  • The best interests principle is nearly universally accepted. It is enshrined in a vast body of domestic law, such as when determining the home in which to place a child, and in various international human rights instruments. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which has the force of law in the 196 countries that have ratified it, states that “in all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

The United States is the sole country not to ratify the CRC, but – as a signatory – it pledged not to act in a manner that undermines the best interests principle. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. Government has, on the whole, allowed practices incorporating best interests principles to gain considerable momentum – until the Administration of President Donald Trump brought such efforts to an abrupt halt. Soon after taking office in 2017, the Administration began stripping away the limited safeguards that leaders of both political parties had, albeit sometimes reluctantly, allowed to emerge over the previous two decades.

  • Trump Administration policies have aimed to deter child and family migrants by forcing them either to suffer confinement in increasingly inhumane conditions in detention facilities or await their case outcomes in Mexico. The Administration has steadily sought to erode the baseline protections in the 1997 “Flores Settlement,” which set standards for the detention, release, and treatment of minors. It has ignored the Flores provisions that detained children be held only in “safe and sanitary” facilities and within strict time limits. (U.S. courts having stymied the Administration’s efforts to detain children and families indefinitely.) Other policies have limited the number of migrants allowed to enter the United States each day and have forced families to wait out the immigration process in Mexico rather than be released into local communities.
  • For those children and families undeterred by these obstacles, another set of policies has stacked on requirements that effectively zero out their ability to prevail on their claims for protection. The effort began as a narrowing of the substantive criteria for asylum but, over the last year, has become a de facto ban on asylum for Central American children. Though courts again have played a critical role in thwarting many Administration’s efforts, one failed policy is quickly replaced with another even more drastic attempt to shut off all avenues for relief.

While the Trump Administration has taken rejection of the best interests principle to an extreme, no U.S. President has been willing or able to provide strong leadership in guaranteeing the protections to migrant children that U.S. domestic law affords citizens and residents. Widespread perceptions fed by the Administration that migrants are gaming the system make serious discussion of solutions extremely difficult. Policymakers and immigration officials often claim that embracing the best interests principle would create an open border. But respect for children’s best interests can co-exist with a full and fair adjudicative process. It simply guarantees children’s protection, family integrity, and wellbeing during and after a just determination process – even in the face of rejection of their petitions. Rather than updating the U.S. immigration infrastructure and building regional cooperation ensuring children’s well-being, the Trump Administration has further widened the divide between international and domestic child protection laws and U.S. immigration policy.

  • With the underlying drivers of migration remaining strong and likely to spike as the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hits Central America, the gap between principle and policy will have ever greater consequences for children, whose best interests are increasingly trampled. The repercussions are enormous, according to numerous studies. For children who are already vulnerable, ongoing family separations are traumatic experiences with potentially long-term implications for their physical and mental health. Unsanitary conditions in detention centers were dangerous even before the pandemic. Inadequate access to food, drinking water, clean clothing, and daily necessities – soap, toothbrushes, and towels – has been well documented. Psychologists fear that these children will struggle throughout their lives, be it in the United States or in their native countries.

July 6, 2020

* Eric Hershberg is the Director of CLALS. The report In Children’s Best Interests: Charting a Child-Sensitive Approach to U.S. Immigration Policy (click here for the full report), based on a joint symposium held in February with over 300 participants. The full program and video recordings are here.

The Other Pandemic

By Alan M. Kraut*

Donald Trump speaking to supporters

Donald Trump speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. / Flickr / Creative Commons License

The coronavirus has sparked a virulent wave of racism and intolerance in the United States – as seen in past pandemics – but strong leadership can blunt or even stop it. The current wave echoes a contemporary ethnocentric nationalism that has infected many societies and political leaders around the world.

  • U.S. President Donald Trump denounced the anti-Asian prejudices – including epithets and, at times, spit and punishing blows against Chinese-Americans – that were stirred by his own use of the terms “foreign virus” and “Chinese virus,” but the damage was done. A community was put on notice, “You are the ‘other’ and you endanger us all by your presence.”

Throughout human history, groups defined by race or religion have been persecuted because of their association with disease. The Black Death of the Middle Ages was blamed on Jews, triggering ferocious physical persecution that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, often by torture. Sociologist Erving Goffman observed that the most essential version of stigma was the abomination of the body – because the disease-causing contagion cannot be detected with the naked eye or easily avoided.

  • Throughout American history, epidemics have often been blamed on a specific immigrant or ethnic group and triggered anti-migrant policies. A cholera epidemic in 1832 was blamed on Irish Catholic newcomers who were poor and lived in congested conditions. The anti-Catholic passions of Protestant evangelicals were a factor.
  • Before the Quarantine Act of 1878 quarantine powers shifted from the states to the federal government. Each state had its own laws and immigration depots, such as Castle Garden in New York, which opened in 1855. Later, at federal depots, physicians used increasingly sophisticated medical instrumentation and diagnostic techniques to admit the healthy and those sufficiently robust to support themselves, but their expertise did not curb xenophobic hysteria or the association of immigrant groups and their behaviors with specific diseases. Chinese laborers were blamed for bubonic plague in the San Francisco area in the 1880s, and Italians were blamed for a polio epidemic that swept through the east coast of the United States in 1916. Anti-Semitic xenophobes dubbed tuberculosis the “Tailor’s Disease” or the “Jewish Disease” despite the lower rates of the disease in Jewish communities than in many non-Jewish communities in the United States.

Xenophobia and racism have not always surged in the United States during pandemics – thanks to greater public awareness of immigrants’ contributions and to strong political leadership.

  • There were fewer incidents of xenophobia during the 1918 influenza pandemic because immigration declined dramatically (from 1,218,480 a year in 1914 to 110,618 in 1918), and critics found it awkward to blame newcomers because over half a million foreign-born soldiers of 46 different nationalities were serving in the U.S. military.
  • Many Presidents of both parties since then have not hesitated to encourage Americans to call upon the better angels of their nature with respect to the foreign-born. Sitting in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed an immigration act in 1965 that abandoned the most restrictive immigration policy in American history and replaced it with a more welcoming policy. Years later, former Republican President George W. Bush echoed those sentiments, noting that “America’s immigrant history made us who we are.”
  • Xenophobia during an epidemic may be a “social ritual” that reaffirms a hypernationalism in the native-born, but when the drama concludes and the curtain descends, the prejudice and acts of discrimination can either transfer to a different stage or leaders can lead us away from them.

Little such leadership has come from the current occupants of the White House. Presidential advisor Stephen Miller and his allies claim that stopping new arrivals crossing the country’s southern border is necessary to preserve public health from illnesses borne by migrants. In 2018, the surge of migrants toward the border led to inquiries that Miller hoped would reveal – but did not – the spread of highly contagious diseases that endangered residents of states where they settled. More recently, Miller has encouraged the President to use his public health powers to seal the borders. One such federal law, the Public Health Service Act of 1944, allows the Surgeon General and the President to exclude from the U.S. individuals who might pose a danger because they could bring in “communicable diseases.” Ironically, while it has been Miller’s intention to target Latinos, many of them are doing the “essential work” that has kept the nation going during the crisis – in meat processing plants, grocery stores, and hospitals, where they are involved directly in the care of Covid-19 patients. Many thousands of those providing patient care are Latino “Dreamers” protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that the White House wants to end.

May 12, 2020

* Alan M. Kraut teaches history at American University.

Lessons Learned from Last Century’s Climate Change Migration

By Elizabeth Keyes*

Then and Now

Left: Migrant Workers in California, 1935/ Dorothea Lange/ U.S. Library of Congress/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)// Right: Central American migrants find quarter in southern Mexico/ Peter Haden/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)

Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States are not the first victims of government policies that discourage migration, send law enforcement to turn them away at a border, ban them from receiving public benefits, and pass laws seeking their immediate repatriation: the Dust Bowl migrants, almost 100 years ago, faced the same fate. Their story is more complex than that of John Steinbeck’s Joad family turning to labor in California’s “factories in the field.”

  • Drought came to Oklahoma and other Dust Bowl states after decades of agricultural practices that prioritized heavy production at the expense of land management and conservation. Corporate farmers favored practices maximizing short-term yield over long-term sustainability. The New Deal bought up farmland, displacing tenant farmers. Relief at the peak of the Dust Bowl in 1934 was mismanaged, and it did not help people stay.
  • Affected residents headed to California, which during a previous economic boom had sought out “migrant” labor from elsewhere in the United States. Many had a relative or friend already in California who could provide a migration pathway, just as happens with migration in 2020. Those with friends or family in the cities fared relatively well, but those who ended up in the labor camps of California’s valleys fared extremely poorly.

As the state’s boom ended in the Great Depression, California made efforts to discourage the migrants, erecting billboards along Route 66 warning would-be migrants that California was no longer an ideal destination. The state criminalized the act of helping indigents migrate, and the Los Angeles Police Department set up “bum blockades” to refuse them entry.

  • California’s responses looked a lot like current efforts to stop migrants seeking to enter along the U.S. border with Mexico: criminalization and walls. Internally displaced persons in the 1930s faced the same kinds of xenophobia that the migrants from outside the United States do today, defining “Okies” as a problematic “other” as if from a foreign country. Although they were, indeed, “fellow Americans” and driven from the land by environmental disaster, it took almost a decade for the U.S. Supreme Court – in Edwards v. California – to clarify that states could not bar migration from other states, and to affirm an ethic of sharing hardships across state lines.
  • The Dust Bowl migrants entered a labor market with strong racial and class inequities. As the United States deported roughly a million Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers between 1929 and 1936 (with an estimated 60 percent of those being U.S. citizens wrongfully deported), the new migrants took over those jobs.

State and international borders differ legally, of course, in critical ways, but the experience of Dust Bowl migrants nonetheless sheds light on the possibilities for Central American and Mexican migrants today. Climate change is again increasing the drivers of environmental displacement, both internal and international, both slow-onset and acute. Just as a focus on environmental justice and sustainable agriculture would have reduced the need for migration out of the Plains in the 1930s, work done now to mitigate and adapt to climate change would help Central American and Mexican farmers stay in place. And in the communities receiving migrants, we see that California adapted and accommodated them once the Supreme Court refused to endorse California’s deterrent strategies. The Court recognized in the strongest terms that California was enduring great upheaval but determined that it could not use its state border to limit that upheaval.

The same Court also routinely upheld the federal government’s right to use the national border to inoculate the country “from difficulties common to all.” International immigration is legally, if not dynamically, morally or philosophically, different from internal migration.

  • Nonetheless, the Edwards decision provides a wonderful exercise in “what if” thinking. Because of the decision, those suffering in Oklahoma and Kansas had a place to go and could build new lives in California, changing the state but not ending it. Indeed, the state has the largest economy of all 50 states and by one measure is the “14th happiest” in the nation. California is an example of state resilience to migration, even dramatic levels of migration.
  • Perhaps the pain of the Dust Bowl – the forces that sent people migrating and the realities they faced in their new homes – offer us important lessons for international migrations caused by climate. There is no international-style Edwards approach, and refugee law offers no good answers. But the full, complicated Dust Bowl history encourages us to move beyond fear and xenophobia to face the challenges forthrightly, knowing that we do have a remarkable capacity for adaptation.

April 15, 2020

* Elizabeth Keyes teaches law and directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Challenges to “Safe Country” Strategy in Central America Mounting

By Fulton Armstrong

San Ysidro

Processing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry/ U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Flickr/ U.S. Government Works

Challenges to the U.S. government’s “Asylum Cooperation Agreements” (ACAs) with Central American countries – under which asylum seekers approaching the U.S. border are sent to camps in the Northern Triangle – are mounting fast, but the administration of President Donald Trump does not appear likely to budge significantly from its current approach. Under the threat of loss of $143 million in aid to the three Central American countries, Guatemala signed its agreement under former President Jimmy Morales last August; a similar accord with Honduras is to “come online any day,” according to U.S. officials; and El Salvador is also deep in negotiations. (Aid has been restored.) The ACAs stipulate that asylum seekers apply for asylum in the “first safe country” they enter after fleeing their own. As a result, the United States has sent about 800 persons of various nationalities to Guatemala.

  • Immigration and human rights advocates have condemned the agreements. They report that Guatemala – where most asylum seekers have been sent so far – lacks the ability to process them. Human Rights Watch recently reported, moreover, that individuals repatriated to El Salvador since 2013 – as envisioned by the ACAs – have been assassinated at an alarming rate. The group has confirmed 138 cases of individuals killed after deportation and another 70 beaten, sexually assaulted, extorted, or tortured.
  • The chairs of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and relevant subcommittees (all Democrats) have called the ACAs “illegal, dangerous, and antithetical to U.S. values.” In a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, they said that U.S. law requires that asylum seekers have “access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum” – which the Guatemalan facilities lack. The Congressmen assert, moreover, that U.S. law requires adherence to international law on non-refoulement, which mandates that asylum seekers cannot be sent to a country in which they will face further persecution.
  • The workers’ union representing 700 U.S. asylum and refugee officers has declared that the agreements and the administration’s implementation of them are a “violation” of international treaty obligations. These are the career specialists on the front line charged with carrying out the policies. The Guatemalan government has raised its own concerns, citing its “very limited capacity” to process asylum-seekers sent there. Newly inaugurated President Alejandro Giammattei has never appeared comfortable with the ACA and has asked Washington for “clarifications” of his country’s obligations under it.

U.S. reaction so far has been to deny anything is wrong. Senior officials say that very few asylum seekers deported to Guatemala are applying for asylum there, with the vast majority instead choosing to return to their home countries. Citing experts, the U.S. congressmen say that less than 4 percent have “been able to seek protection through Guatemala’s overburdened system.” Others report that victims of violence in their home countries face similar prejudices in Guatemala.

  • Apparently to encourage potential asylum seekers to apply for U.S. visas, the administration on March 5 announced it is increasing H2‑B visas for non-agricultural workers this year, with 10,000 reserved for applicants from the Northern Triangle. But if H2‑B visas are issued along the same guidelines as other visas, U.S. consular officers will be required to deny them to applicants they have reason to suspect will try to remain in the United States – as all ACA cases have tried.

The ACAs are a key element of the Trump administration’s efforts to move the “wall” blocking asylum seekers as far off the U.S. border as possible, shifting the burden to the same Central American countries whose poverty, violence, and corruption are driving citizens to flee. However compelling the Foreign Affairs Committee’s arguments that the administration is violating U.S. law and values, the letter’s impact has been blunted by widespread perceptions that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is further proof that the United States needs to keep outsiders from entering the country. The Administration is also not swayed by the fact that the U.S. State Department’s own repeated warnings that U.S. citizens limit travel to Northern Triangle countries – because of widespread “violent crime … rape, and narcotics and human trafficking – contradict the assertion that the ACA partners are “safe countries.”

  • Guatemala’s call for “clarification” of implementation guidelines and talks on the final details of Honduras and El Salvador’s arrangements give the administration a chance to make cosmetic adjustments and, perhaps, promise more resources to the designated “safe countries.” But it has given no sign of reconsidering its overall approach. The Trump administration remains as committed as ever to addressing the migration problem by closing the U.S.’ door rather than addressing the underlying conditions in the region driving people to risk their lives to get to the United States. Central American analysts are already deeply concerned that the economic impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic (including 1 percent growth or less), coupled with USAID’s own budget cuts, spell reduced aid and a worsening of the vicious cycle of poverty that drives emigration and empowers illicit actors.

March 17, 2020

Mexican Migration Crackdown Creates a “Wall” Before the Wall

By Maureen Meyer and Adam Isacson*

A truckload of military police, wearing National Guard armbands, passes through central Ciudad Hidalgo

A truckload of military police, wearing National Guard armbands, passes through central Ciudad Hidalgo/ Adam Isacson, WOLA

Facing U.S. threats to impose potentially steep tariffs on Mexican goods last June, Mexico has adopted a series of measures along its southern border with Guatemala that, while somewhat effective at stopping the flow, seems a partial solution with high financial and political costs.

  • Mexican authorities’ apprehensions of migrants in June, after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his threats, reached 31,416. Captures that month and in July were three times greater than the same period in 2018. (The total of migrants and asylum-seekers apprehended by the United States and Mexico last year is estimated to be more than a million.)
  • Mexico deployed nearly 12,000 of its newly minted National Guard troops to the southern border states with Guatemala. Many identify themselves to visitors as “soldiers”; appear to have little (or no) specialized training for migrant interdiction; and wear military uniforms with black armbands that read “GN.” The Guard, however, has not reduced criminal activities against migrants. Local and international experts report that criminal elements assault, rob, rape and kidnap people transiting the area and prosecutors’ offices take little action to investigate these criminal attacks. Observers report that coyotes, working with corrupt officials, arrange safe passage for many migrants on designated “safe buses” for up to US$2,600 per person.
  • Local observers say the enhanced operations have largely shut down what was the most transited of the four main routes through which migrants have traveled in recent times, but some people are learning to take alternate routes through puntos ciegos (blind spots) where government patrols don’t often go and where risks for migrants can be greater. One such corridor, in central Chiapas, seems to continue to be exploited robustly.

The Mexican government has been reluctant to deal with the consequences of its acquiescence to Washington’s demands, according to numerous border-area observers. At its peak, the aggressive patrolling filled detention centers to far over capacity (some at 300 percent capacity) with poor health conditions and alleged mistreatment. Apart from the members of the National Migration Institute’s Citizen Council, officials have restricted independent monitoring of detention facilities by human rights groups and migration specialists. The country’s refugee agency is on the verge of collapse, yet the Mexican government has yet to allocate sufficient resources to it. Over the course of 2019, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) received over 70,000 asylum requests – more than double in 2018 – but its 2020 budget is a mere US$2.35 million (4 percent of UNHCR’s budget for Mexico operations).

  • The U.S. push has put the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in a bind. On his first day in office, he signed a decree with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – from which the vast majority of migrants come – to address the underlying causes of the migration. Another agreement was reached with El Salvador, to fund programs to preserve and create jobs in agriculture. While the Mexican government has not left behind the focus on reducing the “push” factors of migration, it has been largely put on the back burner.

The Mexican government has put managing U.S. relations ahead of addressing the strategic migration problems it faces. It did not push back when the Trump administration announced it would be returning U.S.-bound asylum seekers to Mexico to wait for their hearings through the “Remain in Mexico” program, and under the threat of steadily rising tariffs up to 25 percent on Mexican goods, it has largely complied with nearly all U.S. demands. The results have been mixed, and the costs have been high.

  • Sources in the southern border region report that the National Guard deployment and other Mexican actions over the past seven months have reduced – although estimates range from “not very significantly” to “probably just around 30 percent” – the number of Central American migrants arriving in Mexico. Shelters are not as full as they were in mid-2019, but several remain very full. Data on other nationalities is sketchy, but anecdotal information indicates that Cubans, Haitians, and even Africans continue to find their way to shelters in the area.
  • In complying with U.S. demands, AMLO and his government have risked violating some of their fundamental stated values. AMLO had campaigned on independence, transparency and improved human rights, but the border deployments of the National Guard represent a further militarization of Mexico’s border security strategy – with a significant risk of human rights violations – and the detention of fearful Central Americans and extra-continental migrants in substandard conditions.

January 17, 2020

* Maureen Meyer is Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Adam Isacson is WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight. The full text of their report is at The “Wall” Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border.”