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

Brazil: Relative Success – So Far – Receiving Venezuelan Refugees, Migrants

By João Jarochinski Silva*

Venezuelan migrants walk past UNHCR tents at a camp in Boa Vista, Roraima

Venezuelan migrants walk past UNHCR tents at a camp in Boa Vista, Roraima/ Marcelo Camargo/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

The influx of Venezuelan refugees and migrants since 2013 into the Brazilian state of Roraima has challenged the state’s ability to settle them, but a continued or increased flow will require a significant expansion of efforts to relocate and integrate the new arrivals. The flow has not been unmanageable or caused significant problems in public services, as some local politicians claim, and has actually generated some benefits. In the past six years, over 260,000 Venezuelans have applied for refugee or residency status in Brazil, with the vast majority entering through Roraima, which is north of Manaus and shares borders with both Venezuela and Guyana. A voluntary relocation program, called Interiorização, has moved more than 20,000 to other Brazilian cities, but most remain in municipalities near the border. Roraima state itself has less than 600,000 inhabitants.

  • The Venezuelans in Roraima are mostly working age (16-64 years old). National authorities, assisted by UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and others, have developed policies related to education, training, and employment to take advantage of their productive capacity and facilitate their integration in Brazil. These initiatives enhance the emergency benefits the migrants receive and help them become autonomous.

International, national, and local experts, including at the Federal University of Roraima, Getulio Vargas Foundation, and OBMigra, have found that the Venezuelan arrivals’ impact on Roraima has been mixed.

  • The state registered positive economic growth and diversification during 2016‑17, the period of most intense Venezuelan flow, when Roraima’s GDP grew 2.3 percent, compared to the 1.4 percent of other Brazilian states. In the two following years, the state registered significant growth in agricultural production, including Brazil nuts and some livestock items, and showed the largest recorded increase in planted area (28.9 percent), while Brazil as a whole saw a decline of 0.6 percent. Roraima surpassed all other regions with an 8 percent increase in its economic diversification index. Expanded retail trade and exports in 2018‑19 fueled a 25 percent increase in tax revenues.
  • Unemployment and poverty, on the other hand, also rose during this period. While many of the Venezuelans found jobs in services such as restaurants, retail, and construction, unemployment in the state rose by 6.1 percentage points between 2017 and 2019, while Brazil’s national rate fell 0.6 percentage points. The incidence of extreme poverty in Roraima also grew from 1.64 percent in 2015 to 5.7 percent in 2018, compared to 4.2 percent nationally in 2018. (The new Venezuelan workers, however, have not significantly reduced the wages of Brazilians living in Roraima.)

Local anxieties about new strains on social services have not been fully borne out. The Venezuelans have enrolled children in schools and used medical services, but available data do not show unusually high demand. There has been, in fact, a downward trend in outpatient care provided by Roraima municipalities, and the increase in hospitalizations in the state coincided with that seen nationally.

  • The research suggests that the state’s increase in tax revenues is on a par with the additional costs of these and other services provided to the Venezuelans. Both figures are about US$22.5 million.

Roraima’s experience – so far – shows that the influx of refugees and migrants into Brazil has not had a profound impact, but the crisis in Venezuela shows no sign of abating and could get worse. Roraima, the state with the smallest population in Brazil, has a limited ability to absorb new arrivals and settle them locally without significant new resources. Expansion of the successful elements of Roraima’s approach, such as the voluntary Interiorização relocation program, would help. Additional work-related training and professional qualification programs would also help new arrivals contribute economically after relocation. Particularly if flows continue to be strong or increase, Roraima state and its municipalities are likely to feel growing urgency to develop systems to manage them and beef up social protection networks to support relocation – with the same goal of taking advantage of the economic potential of the Venezuelans’ full social and economic integration.

February 3, 2020

* João Jarochinski Silva is a CLALS fellow, professor at the Universidade Federal de Roraima (UFRR), and one of the report’s researchers. The research, funded by the Escola Superior do Ministério Público da União (ESMPU) and the UNHCR, is available here in Portuguese.

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.”

Mexico: Has AMLO Compromised on Human Dignity?

By Alexandra Délano*

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard speaks during a meeting in 2018, during which U.S. Secretary Mike Pompeo was present

Mexican Foreign Secretary- designate Marcelo Ebrard participates in a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in Mexico City on October 19, 2018. State Department photo/ Wikimedia Commons

Mexico has always negotiated with the United States from a position of weakness – it depends on its northern neighbor economically and politically more than the other way around – but the recent negotiations, compromising its commitment to human dignity in exchange for avoiding tariffs, may be among the worst outcomes. Tariffs on Mexican products would surely be costly for Washington, as business leaders and Republican legislators have stated recently, but the much greater economic threat is to Mexico. As a result, Mexico has consistently sought to keep the issue of migration separate from trade and other priorities – a delinking that both countries have accepted for the sake of advancing economic integration.

  • Trump has destabilized that tacit agreement by asserting that maintaining the status quo in commercial relations will depend on new steps by Mexico to support expansion of barriers on its northern border, to better control its southern border, and to stop the flow of migrants from Central America. In addition to imposing the tariffs, Trump threatened to abandon the newly negotiated North American Trade Agreement (“USMCA”) and even to close the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has opted for a strategy of minimizing confrontation with Trump. This has implied concessions such as accepting the return of persons awaiting asylum hearings in U.S. courts. Even though this policy, called the Migrant Protection Protocols (or Quédate en México), is not in an official agreement, and even though it does not go to the extreme of establishing Mexico as a “safe third country” – which would obligate migrants to claim asylum in Mexico instead of having the option of continuing their journey to the United States – it is an attempt to appease Trump and maintain the fragile balance in the relationship.
  • AMLO has taken other steps to placate Trump. For example, Mexico and the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC or CEPAL) recently announced a development plan for Central America that, although limited in scope and without apparent funding, is an important step towards addressing root causes of migration in the region.

AMLO’s government negotiated to increase its control of the southern border and to continue to host asylum-seekers awaiting a court hearing in the United States. It did so in the absence of an integrated migration strategy, and without a commitment to invest resources, at a time when the budget of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) was just cut 20 percent. The Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) is also ill-positioned to assume a greater role without addressing its need for the resources and measures necessary to root out corruption and reduce its over-reliance on detention and deportation. Officials from these organizations were not even included in the negotiations – further reflecting the lack of vision and interagency coordination on the migration challenges. Not surprisingly, the INM Commissioner resigned days after the agreement was announced.

  • Mexico’s policies also appear to neglect the need to strengthen multilateral mechanisms to compensate for its weakness in the face of U.S. pressure. Mexico has traditionally been one of the most active promoters of multilateral agreements on cooperation on migration issues, including the Global Compact on Migration approved last year, but it appears unable to build on these accomplishments to either counterbalance Trump’s pressures or guide an internal policy on what to do. It has also failed to build support among G20 allies, including Canada – its second most important trading partner and a player in the extractive activities implicated in driving emigration and internal displacement in Central America and Mexico.

Mexico’s migration policy at this point is very far from the ideals laid out by López Obrador. His primary concern has been to pursue the impossible goal of containing Trump without harming other interests. Above nationalist posturing – claims that Mexico will never negotiate away its dignity – is the need to protect the dignity of persons. A migration policy that prioritizes migration control and that is based on the mood swings of the United States’ government does not meet this basic criterion. It leaves Mexico in the same weak, isolated position from which it cannot negotiate agreements on labor mobility, humanitarian protection, and economic development. Mexico seems to have made a strategic error in response to Trump’s most recent tantrum – one likely to reoccur under even more challenging conditions as the 2020 election nears.

June 25, 2019

* Alexandra Délano is chair of the Global Studies Department at the New School in New York City. This article is adapted from her essay in El País on June 5, Lo que está en juego en las negociaciones con Estados Unidos: la dignidad humana.

U.S.-Mexico: Tariffs, Threats, and Trade Agreements

By Ken Shadlen*

Cargo ships

Cargo ships off shore of Galveston Island, TX / Jocelyn Augustino / Creative Commons / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FEMA_-_38860_-_Cargo_ships_off_shore_of_Galveston_Island,_TX.jpg

The United States’ threat last week to apply tariffs on imports from Mexico, unless Mexico revamped its approach to Central American migrants passing through the country, underscores the power asymmetries in the global economy – and undermines the credibility of U.S. trade agreements elsewhere. President Trump threatened to abrogate U.S. commitments under NAFTA (and the WTO) unless Mexico introduced measures in an area that is not addressed by NAFTA. While the tariffs won’t be applied, at least not now, and there is debate about just how much Mexico changed its migration policies as a result of Washington’s maneuver, the linkage between trade and “non-trade” issues such as immigration, especially within preferential trade agreements such as NAFTA, have deep implications for the political economy of international trade.

  • Many critics of Trump’s threats claim that immigration policy and trade policy are distinct, and that it makes no sense for the administration to link the two. But this misses the point: what is and is not “trade” is determined politically. Since the 1980s, the United States has conditioned market access on the introduction and enforcement of a wide range of “trade-related” policies, including investment, intellectual property, government procurement practices, and so on. Market size confers to the importing country the power to define what constitutes “trade,” and the definition of “trade” thus has changed according to Washington’s preferences. In that sense, Trump’s linkage maneuver is not at all new.
  • On the one hand, NAFTA is the outcome of massive linkage of this sort, as Mexico was required to introduce extensive changes to policies and practices in a range of trade-related policy areas in order to qualify for the agreement. On the other hand, NAFTA was meant to protect against further “ad hoc linkage,” with new conditions attached at the whim of the United States.
  • Prior to NAFTA, Mexico’s exports largely entered the U.S. market under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which offers preferential market access to exports from developing countries under a wide range of conditions. But GSP preferences can be withdrawn unilaterally, and, as the importing country, the United States changed GSP preferences in response to its changing sentiments. Beneficiary countries always ran the risk of having the U.S. Congress and Executive attach additional conditions to the program, like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
  • NAFTA and other NAFTA-like trade agreements that have followed promised to deliver substantially more predictability and stability than the GSP.

Recent events question these premises. In 2017-18, Trump warned that Washington would withdraw entirely from NAFTA unless it was renegotiated on terms more to his liking. Last week’s threat to remove preferential market access unless Mexico changed its immigration policies and practices is precisely the sort of behavior that NAFTA was meant to protect against. The agreement supposedly replaced the unstable preferences of GSP, which were always vulnerable to the whims of U.S. politicians, with a new set of preferences that were clearly defined, had fixed conditions, and were less prone to being unilaterally withdrawn. But evidently it didn’t.

Washington’s actions are similar to if the Mexican government announced it would stop enforcing copyrights and patents of U.S. firms, unless the United States were to substantially increase science and technology assistance to help upgrade the stock of biologists, chemists, and engineers in Mexico. The reaction to such an announcement would be ridicule, and Washington would claim NAFTA (and the WTO) binds Mexico to protect intellectual property. The United States would assert, moreover, that its science and technology assistance is not covered by NAFTA; Mexico’s threat would elicit no change of behavior on the part of the US. 

  • Beyond NAFTA per se, these events make one wonder why any country would sign a trade agreement with the United States. After all, if countries already have preferential market access under the GSP, then one of the main benefits of reciprocal trade agreements is to lock-in and stabilize those preferences – even with the need to make substantial concessions on “trade-related” policy areas. If, in reality, only half of the bargain is locked in, if the benefits can be made to disappear at the whim of the U.S. President, then for many trading partners the benefits of such agreements will be unlikely to compensate for the costs.

June 11, 2019

*Ken Shadlen is Professor of Development Studies and Head of Department in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 24, 2018

South America: Venezuela Humanitarian Crisis Roiling Region

By Michael McCarthy*

A line of Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint.

Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint. / Colombia Reports / Wikimedia

The humanitarian crisis driven by both Venezuela’s increasingly dire economic situation and political repression is taxing all of northern South America, with no remedy in sight.  In what UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials call “one of the largest mass-population movements in Latin American history,” an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans – about 7 percent of the country’s population – have poured out of the country since 2014.  According to UNHCR, more than half of them suffer from malnutrition, and a significant percentage suffer from diseases, such as diphtheria and measles, previously thought to be under control.  The crisis is posing economic and security challenges to neighboring countries:

  • Colombia has seen the greatest flow. About one million refugees have crossed the border since 2015, but arrivals have peaked – reaching about 5,000 per day – as the Venezuelan economy hits new lows.  Venezuelans’ fears that Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, will close the border have driven part of the surge, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s recent policy announcements – including a fórmula mágica that includes controlling inflation by lopping five zeros off current prices – are main drivers, according to most observers.
  • Ecuador received more Venezuelans in the first half of 2018 than in all of 2017 (340,000 to 287,000). Confronted with severe disruptions in border communities, Quito has declared a month-long “emergency” in four border provinces and has sent doctors and other personnel to help mitigate the impact of the arrival of several thousand Venezuelans a day.  Ecuador has announced that it is now denying entry to persons without passports.  Quito last week called for a regional summit on the crisis in mid-September.
  • Peru is the largest refugee hosting country in the Americas, but it has now begun to demand official documentation.
  • Brazil has taken in several tens of thousands of Venezuelans, but the influx is provoking local tensions. A regional judge closed the border – a decision overturned by the Supreme Court – and locals in the border city of Pacaraima took matters into their own hands vigilante-style, burning down a tent city and chasing about 1,200 Venezuelans back across the border.  Argentina and Uruguay, which last granted residency to 31,000 and 2,500 Venezuelans, are beginning to feel pressure to slow the flow.
  • Guyana is also upset because Venezuelans claiming Guyanese citizenship are arriving with claims to properties held by others since at least the 1980s. As the International Court of Justice takes up Georgetown’s case on its decades-old border dispute with Venezuela, the refugees’ arrival is an unwelcome distraction.

The United States and European Union have offered assistance, mostly to Colombia.

  • Earlier this month, Washington announced it would give Colombia an additional US$9 million in aid to provide water, sanitation, hygiene and some medications to Venezuelan migrants – bringing the overall U.S. commitment to over US$46 million over the past two years. USAID has cast the aid as supporting a “regional response” to the problem, but Washington’s closest ally, Colombia, will receive the overwhelming share.  U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis has announced he’s sending a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to Colombia and “possibly other destinations” to help.
  • In June, the EU committed €35.1 million (US$40.2 million), mostly for “emergency aid and medium-term development assistance” for people remaining in Venezuela and for neighboring countries affected by the crisis, and the EU Commission promised it would mobilize its migration and asylum program to provide help for migrants.

Assistance from the U.S. and EU, as well as any future help from multilateral development banks, is crucial but, ultimately, these interventions are palliatives.  Durable solutions will have to come from within Venezuela and from regional initiatives.  The summit proposed by Ecuador will produce little without strong leadership that at the moment appears absent.  The Organization of American States seems fatigued by the issue, and its Secretary General’s personalization of the struggle against Maduro over the past year has left him few options as well. UNASUR has been severely weakened – most recently by Colombian President Duque’s announcement of his country’s definitive withdrawal from the group – and its interlocutors from past efforts to find a solution in Venezuela have refrained from public comment.  The leadership of UN refugee specialists is critical, but the Security Council is very divided over the Venezuela crisis and the Secretary General has failed to gain traction with efforts to take a more active political role to address the Venezuelan crisis.  With Maduro’s fórmula mágica for resolving Venezuela’s economic challenges having next to no possibility of helping, the hemisphere should not be surprised that the flow of refugees will surely continue.

August 28, 2018

* 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.

U.S.-Latin America: “Zero Tolerance” Makes Zero Progress

By Ernesto Castañeda *

Children and adults stand in a line

Central American migrant children and their parents. / Pride Immigration Law Firm PLLC / Wikimedia

U.S. President Donald Trump’s family separation policies, despite his June 20 executive action ending them, will have long-term negative consequences and will do nothing to stem the flow of migrants into the United States.

  • Hundreds of families remain separated. Families are detained indefinitely for applying for asylum or crossing into the United States.  Political outrage in the United States may be new, but these policies are not.  Millions of families have been separated across U.S. borders for many years.  After growing up without their parents, children who did not originally accompany migrating parents often attempt to reunify with them in the United States, resulting in the increase of unaccompanied minors that we have seen since 2014 and the surge in violence in Central America.
  • The Trump Administration’s policies fail to address the underlying causes of migration – violence, impunity, corruption, and poverty in sending countries and high U.S. demand for low-cost workers – which show no sign of abating. Many Mexicans and Central Americans are fleeing kidnappings, extortions, and death threats as they explain during credible-threat interviews that give them valid claims for asylum.  U.S.-backed militarized responses to drug trafficking have produced much of the violence and corruption in Mexico and Central America, generating asylum-seekers.  Beyond the traditional economic and social reasons, many recent immigrants are escaping violence, as they did during the Mexican Revolution and the political violence in Central America in the 1980s.

Family separation and the detention of unaccompanied minors in shelters are not new practices either.  What was new in recent months was the separation of families that come to the United States seeking asylum.

  • These forced separations cause the children lifelong trauma. The American Psychiatric Association recently stated that “the evidence is clear that this level of trauma also results in serious medical and health consequences for these children and their caregivers.”  Separation inflicts trauma on adults too; parents suffer from being away from their children due to their decision to migrate.

The logic behind “zero tolerance” is to discourage migration by making conditions as miserable as possible for intending migrants – building psychological walls as well as the physical wall that Trump has pledged to build along the border with Mexico.  By ignoring the underlying causes of these movements of people, this approach is not only cruel but unlikely to be successful.  The concern is also misplaced, despite the increasing visibility of refugees and asylum-seekers in the media, as border apprehensions show a steep downward trend.

  •  The U.S. Congress has so far rejected solutions to the issue of family separation, such as creating larger guest worker programs, strengthening asylum courts, passing the DREAM Act, and demilitarizing responses to drug trafficking. Until the underlying causes of migration are addressed, Washington will be squandering its money prosecuting and causing lasting trauma for innocent children and parents.  Contrary to Trump’s claim that immigrants hurt U.S. culture, my research shows that immigrants are skillful at integrating into American life.  New pathways for legal immigration are the only way ahead to reduce undocumented migration.

 July 3, 2018

 * Ernesto Castañeda is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at American University and author of A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona (Stanford, 2018).

MS13: Criminal Patterns Defy Traditional Solutions

By Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva*

Gang members gather behind bars

Incarcerated members of the MS13 in Sonsonate, El Salvador. / FBI / Creative Commons

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs and – despite decades of law enforcement action in two hemispheres – it remains a persistent threat.  In a report based on three years of research released this week by CLALS and InSight Crime (click here for full report), we estimate that the MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or other countries with a large Central American diaspora.  In the United States, its strongest base is in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metropolitan areas, but it is expanding beyond urban areas in California and along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to North Carolina.  The failure to understand the gang’s roots, organizational contours, and everyday dynamics have long hindered efforts to combat it.

  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. It creates a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, often involving acts of violence and expressions of social control.  The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, with an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  In Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang “cliques” have developed some degree of social legitimacy by prohibiting predatory activities (such as domestic violence) in areas of influence where the state provides no protection.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse, networked phenomenon with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. It’s a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other differently depending on circumstances.
  • Internal discipline is often ruthless, but the gang has guidelines more than fixed or static rules. Haphazard enforcement leads to constant internal and external conflicts and feeds violence wherever the gang operates.  Gang-related murders (of which MS13 represents a fraction) are thought to represent around 13 percent of all homicides in the United States, and upwards of 40 percent of the homicides in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The violence at the heart of the MS13 builds cohesion and camaraderie among the dispossessed men and boys who comprise it and it has enhanced the gang’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.  However, that extraordinary violence has also undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies because partners see it as an unreliable and highly visible target.
  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, but it is not a transnational criminal organization (TCO), as it only plays a part-time role in drug-trafficking, human smuggling, and international criminal schemes. Its growing involvement in petty drug dealing, prostitution, car theft, human smuggling, and, particularly in Central America, extortion schemes nearly always depends on its ability to control local territories rather than to command trafficking networks that span jurisdictions.  Significantly, we’ve found no evidence that it is involved in encouraging or managing the flow of migrants from Central America through Mexico and into the United States.

The U.S. government has placed MS13 at the center of several policies that do not give sufficient weight to these key characteristics.  The gang’s violent activities have also become the focus of special gang units and inter-agency task forces across the United States, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies involved with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms.  Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community.  In the United States, moreover, lumping all members with the most violent offenders, casting immigrants as criminals, and isolating gang-riddled communities inspires fear and reduces cooperation with local authorities.  The U.S. and Central American governments also empower MS13 by making it a political actor, either by negotiating truces with it (as San Salvador has) or by making it a center-point of immigration policies that have little to do with its fortunes (as Washington does).  The gang will prosper until governments base policies and programs on a realistic evaluation of its strengths, origins, and internal dynamics.

February 13, 2018

* Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a CLALS Fellow, and Héctor Silva is a CLALS Fellow.  Their three-year research project was supported by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the report’s conclusions are their own.  The report will be the subject of a discussion entitled Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction at the Inter-American Dialogue (Washington, DC) on Friday, February 16.  Click here for details.

El Salvador: End of TPS Will Challenge Government and Society

By Jayesh Rathod and Dennis Stinchcomb

People wade through knee-deep water

Flooding in Jiquilisco, El Salvador / Global Water Partnership / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s end of Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans in the United States next year potentially will drop some 200,000 people into an environment in which basic needs, including personal security, cannot be met.  TPS for Salvadorans was first granted in 2001 after earthquakes caused “environmental disaster and substantial disruption of living conditions,” but subsequent 18-month extensions have been based on a broad range of factors.  On 11 occasions over the past 16 years, Washington has cited the lack of infrastructure, food, housing, and health care and slow economic growth as reasons for continuing TPS for Salvadorans.  Violence, corruption, and impunity as well as limited state capacity to combat them were also key reasons.  Statements by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announcing the policy change this week make limited mention of these factors, but numerous experts, including those contributing to a recent joint report by CLALS, The Washington College of Law, and the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI), concluded that El Salvador remains unable to adequately handle the return of its nationals.

  • Despite a decline in its national homicide rate, El Salvador remains the most violent country in the hemisphere. While the government espouses a narrative of progress, other indicators make clear that improvement on the security front has been limited, if not altogether absent.  Extraordinary security measures have coincided with increased allegations of extrajudicial killings perpetrated by both security officers and civilian self-defense groups.  Citizens’ pursuit of safety has made El Salvador the second-ranking country in the world of new displacements relative to population size.  Widespread corruption and weak rule of law contribute to impunity and abuse.
  • El Salvador remains extremely vulnerable to natural disasters – experiencing three major earthquakes since July 2016 and deadly torrential rains throughout 2017. El Salvador consistently remains Central America’s slowest growing economy, and under-employment affects more than one quarter of the labor force.  (That percentage will increase to roughly a third if TPS beneficiaries return to their homeland.)  The country has the highest deficit in adequate drinking water in the region.  Six out of 10 families who live there lack adequate housing.

The Salvadoran government is trying to put the best possible face on decision to terminate TPS, which it had previously lobbied against forcefully.  On January 8, the Foreign Ministry expressed “thanks to the government of the United States” for “postponing” the end of TPS for 18 months because it acknowledged the contribution of Salvadorans to the U.S. economy, culture, and society.  The government also thanked various non-governmental actors for supporting the “renewal” of TPS.  In closing, however, the government reiterated its commitment to push “alternatives” in the U.S. Congress that would promote Salvadorans’ “migratory stability” in the United States.

  • Think tanks and humanitarian organizations in Washington have condemned the Trump measure. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said ending TPS is a “senseless and inhumane policy.”  The Inter-American Dialogue notes that the Salvadoran MS-13 gang – one of President Trump’s most-stated enemies – will be a “primary beneficiary.”  Some fear that returnees, because of their perceived wealth, will be targets for extortion and other criminal activity at the hands of gangs.  A number of observers say that the resulting increase in instability in El Salvador will trigger more illegal migration into the United States.

Ending TPS for Salvadorans casts a shadow of uncertainty over the lives of 200,000 law-abiding, tax-paying migrants – half of whom have lived in the United States for more than 20 years and a third of whom have homes with mortgages, according to estimates.  That same uncertainty extends to TPS beneficiaries’ families, which include 192,000 U.S. citizen children. The Salvadoran government’s statement dodges the key issues of whether it can accommodate the influx of returnees and the loss of a significant portion of the roughly $4.5 billion (equivalent to 17 percent of El Salvador’s GDP) they send home each year.  There is no evidence that it can provide even basic protection for the returnees.  The Foreign Ministry’s unctuous thanks for Washington’s “extension” of TPS until the Salvadorans lose their status in 18 months suggests a mysterious confidence that the U.S. Congress will carve out exceptions for its compatriots in the United States.  However desirable that scenario might be, there’s precious little evidence that the U.S. legislature’s current leaders, who have shown support for most of Trump’s anti-migrant agenda, will help avoid the train wreck that Trump has now set in motion.

Click here for an in-depth review published by CLALS, The Washington College of Law, and ICEFI on the rationale behind TPS since 2001 and continuing need for protection.

January 10, 2018