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

U.S. Elections: Latino Vote Not Decisive

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Rob Boudon / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Rob Boudon / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Preliminary estimates indicate that Latino voter participation and support for Democratic Party candidates on Tuesday were similar to the 2010 mid-terms – but not enough to overcome the Republicans’ gains across the broader population.  Before Tuesday, Latino observers were excited that 1.2 million Latinos had registered to vote since the last mid-term elections (2010) and, with an estimated 66,000 American Latinos turning 18 each day, they would have some new clout.  Latino Decisions, the leading polling organization focused on Latinos, found that two-thirds of Latino voters in Texas supported Democrats in House races on Tuesday, and 74 percent in Georgia supported Democrats.  Their broader impact as a bloc, moreover, is hard to assess because most of the competitive races for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives were not in states with concentrated Hispanic populations.  Gerrymandering also blunted their impact on House races, and new voter identification laws appear to have discouraged participation as well.  The Dallas Morning News reported last weekend that Texas state officials estimated that the laws would render more than 600,000 registered black and Latino voters unable to cast ballots (without breaking out the size of each group).

Latino Decisions had warned before the elections that enthusiasm for Democratic candidates was 11 percent lower than it was during the general elections two years ago.  Many Latinos were angry that President Obama backed off his plan to use executive authority to begin immigration reform, while at the same time, ironically, they were frustrated that the Democrats saw them as a one-issue constituency and did not include them on other issues.  Indeed, Voto Latino, a voting rights organization, and others have been warning that Latinos care as much or more about the economy, health care, and women’s rights but feel ignored.  (The polls show that Latinos feel even more shut out by the Republicans.)  The great pool of young voting-age Latinos has been “hardest to reach,” according to Voto Latino, because they are busy and turned off by the stereotyping.  The Democrats also seem to have communicated priorities poorly.  Colorado Senator Mark Udall played up his support for comprehensive immigration reform, but Latino Decisions says only 46 percent of Latino voters there knew it.  On the other hand, Nevada Governor-elect Brian Sandoval – a Republican – attracted Latino voters with a platform emphasizing Medicaid expansion, English-learning education initiatives, while downplaying his party’s rhetoric on immigration.

The margin of Republican victory was wide enough that even high Latino turnout wouldn’t have flipped the outcome in places like Colorado, North Carolina, and Georgia.  Tuesday’s results notwithstanding, however, polls by Latino Decisions and other research indicate that the Latino voice at the polls will grow and, when mobilized, be potentially decisive.  Despite strains with the Democrats, it’s hard to see Latinos jumping to the Republican Party unless it significantly shifts policies on immigration, social programs, voter-ID laws, and the economy.  It would be unfair to blame President Obama alone for the lack of a Latino surge this year, but his decision to back off on immigration clearly hurt his party badly.  He wanted to take heat off vulnerable Democratic senators but helped neither the candidates nor his party’s ability to mobilize Latinos.  Latino Decision’s data on low enthusiasm and dismay about the delay of executive action mean that if the administration doesn’t take real action soon – and work to build Latinos’ enthusiasm over the course of the next two years – it will diminish prospects for the Democrats to have a big Latino edge in the presidential race in 2016.  With a Republican-controlled Senate, Obama faces the same dilemma as before – to risk the Senate’s wrath by taking executive action on immigration or continue to alienate a key constituency – but the answer should be clearer in view of Tuesday’s results. 

November 7, 2014

Turning the Tide on Deportations?

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Photo courtesy of ICE

Photo courtesy of ICE

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) recently released statistics showing that deportations in fiscal year 2013 hit an all-time low since Obama took office in 2009, but the drop is apparently not yet a harbinger of a policy shift.  Removals fell slightly from a record high of 410,000 in 2012 to just under 370,000.  News of the first decline during Obama’s tenure comes as he has been under growing pressure from immigration advocates and some members of Congress to use his executive powers to bring removals to a halt.  But the slight decline can be attributed to several factors:

  • First, the administration has encouraged the use of “prosecutorial discretion,” which is the agency’s authority to enforce the law against a particular individual as it wishes, and has prioritized the deportation of violent criminal offenders and others deemed to be “national security threats.”  The removal of convicted criminals – a category that conflates those convicted of aggravated felonies and misdemeanor crimes – is more time- and resource-intensive, thus reducing the overall total of deportees.
  • A demographic shift in recent border crossers has contributed to the decline.  In fiscal year 2012, 71,527 of the recent border crossers removed by ICE were from countries other than Mexico (i.e., Central America).  In fiscal year 2013, this number rose by 27 percent to 90,461.  According to ICE, this triggered an increase in the use of ICE’s detention and removal resources because the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, responsible for many deportations, is only able to return individuals to Mexico.  (In 2010, Guatemalans represented 9 percent (or 29,378) of deportees; in 2013, they made up 13 percent (or 47,769) of all removals. Much the same can be said for Honduras and El Salvador.)
  • The president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy has also reduced deportation figures by granting reprieves to more than 450,000 of the “Dreamers.”

Though positive, the relatively small decrease does little to offset the Obama administration’s staggering deportation totals – 1.8 million since February 2009.  Nor does it signal an attempt to reverse course in light of the rapidly approaching 2 million mark.  The Obama administration is undoubtedly walking a political tightrope on the issue.  It is pressured by the right not to appear lax on enforcement, while many on the left want the president to sidestep a deadlocked Congress and loosen up on removals – a move Obama himself has characterized as executive overreach.  As the deportation rate remains steady, Obama risks eroding the support of Latinos, an increasingly powerful segment of the electorate.  So pervasive is the fear of deportation that, in a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Latinos said protection from deportation was more important than a pathway to citizenship.  This would suggest that lawmakers might eventually be open to allowing undocumented immigrants to attain legal status even without a chance to naturalize.  Some 205,000 U.S. citizen children lost a parent because of deportations between July 2010 and September 2012 alone, and a growing number of them face the prospect of having to accompany a deported parent back to Central America, potentially increasing the political urgency for a fix to the country’s broken immigration system.

The TecnoLatinas: A Start-Up Revolution

Foro de Ahorro de Energía Eléctrica, México | Photo credit: Alejandro Castro | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Foro de Ahorro de Energía Eléctrica, México | Photo credit: Alejandro Castro | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Latin America is experiencing a full-fledged start-up movement amid rapid growth of an innovation and information economy.  Over the last several years the region’s online population has grown faster than in any other part of the world – with approximately 255 million internet users as of last year.  Half of the top 10 markets worldwide, ranked by time spent on Facebook and other social media, are in Latin America.  Clusters of innovation start-ups, such as those around Monterrey, Mexico, are springing up with astonishing speed.  In 2012 Mexico was among the largest exporters of information technology services in the world.  Google is currently building a data center in Chile, while Amazon Web Services opened a data center in Sao Paolo last December.  But these are not information-era maquiladoras. Instead, Latin American entrepreneurs are combining the availability of open-source innovation tools and the emergence of cloud computing with effective bridge building in Silicon Valley to bring collaboration, expertise, and capital to their home markets.

  • Latin America offers multiple advantages for tech start-ups: a low cost of development, an educated and growing talent pool with the necessary technical and entrepreneurial skills, and increasingly available and affordable broadband and internet access.
  • In particular, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia, along with metropolitan areas across the region, are incentivizing the development of a competitive start-up ecosystem – an advantage attracting a growing number of “angel investors.”
  • Start-Up Chile, a national program begun in 2010 with 22 start-ups from 14 countries, offers seed capital, grants, tax protection, space, mentoring, and networking to “accelerate” promising ventures.  Its most recent competition drew 1421 applicants from 60 countries, including from Singapore, London, and San Francisco.

The lack of tech innovation and incentives for start-ups has been an Achilles’ heel of Latin American economies for decades.  If the start-up trend continues, the region could make significant, lasting progress toward narrowing the sizable gap between itself and the most dynamic developing countries, mostly in Asia.  Latin America’s start-up movement is both top-down and bottom-up, with a tech-savvy generation of entrepreneurs not afraid to take risks and to leverage government support, as part of a collaborative business model built on multiple ties to Silicon Valley.  A core challenge will be whether these initiatives are scalable, and whether governments can move away from stale policy debates rooted in antiquated paradigms to move their economies toward the frontiers of innovation of the information age.  Old elites with a lock on traditional industries are poorly positioned to obstruct the phenomenon, but if these emerging innovation hubs are to succeed, at some point they are likely to confront  the entrenched and oligopolistic business practices still prevalent in the region’s energy, telecom, and other sectors.

Mexico: Expecting More of the Same

This is the first of a series of entries examining how the U.S. presidential campaign is being viewed in different Latin American countries.

Photo: Zocalo, Mexico City | Luis Lobo Borobia (“Cromo”) | Flickr | Creative Commons

A survey of Mexican media indicates that, despite the considerable attention the U.S. presidential campaign is getting, few Mexicans expect the November election to result in significant shifts in bilateral relations.  Unlike in U.S. coverage of Mexico’s recent presidential contest, the Mexican press has not focused on bilateral drug cooperation.  Some commentators have stated general preferences.  “For the economy, demography, and proximity, a second term for Barack Obama would be good for Mexico,” wrote Enriqueta Cabrera in El Universal.  But most opinionmakers appear focused on particular issues.

There is a broad recognition in Mexico that the campaign is primarily about the U.S. economy, and the potential impact of continued stagnation has driven wide coverage.  The Mexican media are also tracking the candidates’ immigration policies.  President Obama’s executive order to halt deportation of young people who would be eligible for legal status under the long-stalled DREAM Act helped his image in the Mexican press.  The coverage of Republicans has been harsher, with El Universal saying that immigration has been “the taboo topic” for the GOP and that Governor Romney had “forgotten” about Hispanics.  The role of Latinos in the campaigns has drawn attention, mostly positively for the Democrats.

The Mexican media’s treatment of the campaign – and assumption that relations will not change much – reflects the fact that neither American candidate has brought new ideas to the table in one of the United States’ most important bilateral relationships.  On drug policy, bloody continuity seems far likelier than change, regardless of who wins in November.  Although Romney has tipped his hat – as Obama has – to the need to reduce U.S. consumption of narcotics, his main message is “to help Mexico as we did Colombia, with intelligence and surveillance.”  The greater variable is on the Mexican side, where new President Enrique Peña Nieto’s promise to refocus the drug fight on citizen security – instead of cartel interdiction – has drawn criticism from some in the United States.  Allegations that the “old PRI,” tolerant of the drug trade, is back are not far behind and could poison the relationship.