U.S.- Latin America: Policy Shifts Ahead?

By Fulton Armstrong

Former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks to reporters on events occurring in Venezuela Tuesday, April 30, 2019, outside the West Wing entrance of the White House.

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks to reporters on Venezuela in April 2019/ Tia Dufour/ White House/ Wikimedia Commons

The sudden departure of President Trump’s outspoken national security advisor, John Bolton, is unlikely to result in changes in U.S. policy objectives in Latin America but could lead to the same sort of swings in tactics – harder or softer – that characterize other U.S. policies around the world. The continued weakness of the State Department’s input, aggravated by erratic staffing in its Latin America offices, further suggests that it will not play a balancing role.

Trump and Bolton’s statements over their 17 months together indicated no disagreement on objectives and tactics in Latin America, including immigration, close relations with Brazilian President Bolsonaro, efforts to rescue the Argentine economy, and Venezuela. They had identical positions on the waves of sanctions against Venezuela, U.S. commitment to remove President Nicolás Maduro, and unstinting support for National Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s claim to the Presidency, including backing Guaidó’s flopped coup in April. They both also explicitly linked taking down Maduro with achieving regime change in Cuba.

  • Trump and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, widely seen as his top referent on Latin America and related political matters, are trying to signal that after Bolton’s departure the Administration is going to turn up the heat on Venezuela and Cuba. In apparently coordinated tweets between them, Trump said, “In fact, my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back!” This complements rumors that Trump has been frustrated that Bolton’s strategy in Venezuela, particularly the fact that Maduro supporters had tricked him into false confidence in Guaidó’s failed coup, has not removed Maduro from office. (It is unclear if one of his concerns is that U.S. sanctions are worsening the refugee flow challenging neighboring countries.)

Most Washington-based observers believe, however, that Latin America is the least important of the five issues that, according to press, caused friction between Trump and Bolton. The President’s personal involvement has been much greater with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in efforts to achieve regime change in Iran, in talks with the Taliban for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and in maintaining good relations with Moscow despite the complex situation in Ukraine.

  • Trump has appeared to lack deep interest in Latin America policy and sees it as primarily a domestic political tool for consolidating his base – among anti-Maduro and anti-Cuba voters in Florida, an important state in his re-election calculus, and among supporters for his wall on the Mexico border and other anti-migration measures. Long ago he essentially handed the Venezuela and Cuba issues over to Senator Rubio, and the National Security Council brought a Rubio ally, lobbyist, and blogger, Mauricio Claver-Carone, to the White House to work the issue. They appointed Elliot Abrams, despite baggage from the Iran-Contra era and the Bush-Cheney Administration, to handle diplomatic operations on Venezuela for them.
  • By all appearances, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has subordinated his own Latin America team to the White House operators, essentially stifling a traditionally important voice at the policy table. When Assistant Secretary Kimberly Breier resigned last month, only nine months after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she said it was to spend more time with her family, but her bureau’s marginalization left questions about her policy impact. Her acting successor, veteran State Department lawyer Michael Kozak, who has spent much of the last 10 years managing “democracy promotion” programs in Latin America and elsewhere, is not likely to challenge Rubio and Claver-Carone unless Pompeo takes the lead, which he shows no sign of doing.

The new national security advisor will have more urgent problems to deal with than wrestling with Rubio, Claver-Carone, and their allies. Indeed, Trump may even give them a green light to escalate provocations even further. For example, Administration allegations that Colombian guerrillas and narcotics-traffickers receive crucial aid from Caracas – buttressed by invocation of the Rio Treaty last week – are logical ways of laying the political groundwork for some sort of military action, perhaps jointly with Colombia, against alleged camps in hopes that the Venezuelan military finally tells Maduro that it’s time to go. 

  • President Trump’s trademark approach to thorny problems has been unpredictability and experimentation with wide-ranging alternatives, including face-to-face negotiations and deal-making with opponents that pose much tougher challenges to U.S. interests than do Venezuela and Cuba. Such flexibility notwithstanding, with the U.S. elections just 14 months off, Trump’s electoral calculus strongly suggests he’s going to stay the course with policies toward Latin America that he’s told are popular in South Florida.

September 17, 2019

EU-MERCOSUR: Does Their New Association Agreement Mean Much?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

29/06/2019 Coletiva de Imprensa UE-Mercosul

Press conference about the trade agreement between the Mercosur and the EU / Palácio do Planalto / Creative Commons

After nearly two decades of intermittent negotiations, the European Union and the four core MERCOSUR nations (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) have finally inked a trade agreement, but its real impact won’t be felt for years, if ever. When the negotiations began in the mid-1990s, the EU was the largest trading partner of the MERCOSUR countries, and the United States was number two. Today China is in first place, the European Union is second, and the U.S. is fourth, behind intra-Latin American trade (EU investors, however, continue to have the largest stock of foreign direct investment assets in the MERCOSUR region). When ratified, the EU-MERCOSUR Association Agreement, signed in Brussels on June 28, will exempt a little more than 90 percent of two-way trade from tariffs.

  • About 93 percent of MERCOSUR exports will eventually obtain duty-free access into the EU market, the bulk as soon as the agreement comes into effect. Agricultural commodities such as beef, chicken, corn, eggs, ethanol, honey, pork, rice, and sugar only get reduced duties, with many also subject to quotas. Another 100 MERCOSUR agricultural items are completely excluded from any type of preferential treatment.
  • Some 91 percent of European exports will get duty-free access to MERCOSUR, but gradually as tariffs are reduced over a 10-year period. The phase-out is over 15 years in the case of European automobiles, furniture, and shoes. MERCOSUR tariffs on the remaining 9 percent of primarily EU manufactured goods will remain in place permanently.
  • The agreement offers service providers from any signatory country full access to the markets of all the other signatory states.

MERCOSUR showed greater flexibility with the EU on agricultural subsidies than it had with the United States, a position that contributed to ultimate rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Subsidies in the EU-MERCOSUR agreement are permitted if “necessary to achieve a public policy objective.” The MERCOSUR countries also capitulated on the use of anti-dumping tariffs on intra-hemisphere trade. The new accord, however, does authorize governments to impose a duty that is less than the margin of dumping if it adequately removes injury to the affected domestic industry. It also includes provisions for ensuring that sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures as well as technical norms are not abused and become disguised impediments to free trade, although it permits enforcement of the European “precautionary principle” notion to restrict the importation of genetically modified food, for example, where the risks to health are not scientifically conclusive.

The agreement – now being “legally scrubbed” and translated into the EU’s 23 official languages – faces an elaborate, multi-year ratification process in the EU, where individual countries and the European Parliament must approve it, as well as each MERCOSUR government. Agricultural forces are already lining up in many European countries in opposition. In the meantime, the accord’s greatest impact is a signal by Brazilian President Bolsonaro and Argentine President Macri that they’re making progress on their stated objective to return MERCOSUR to its original trade focus – in contrast to their predecessors – and to claim an economic “victory” when growth in both countries remains stagnant.

  • Despite the flexibility MERCOSUR showed on agricultural subsidies and anti-dumping, its main sticking points with the United States in the FTAA, a free trade agreement with the United States seems remote as the Trump administration – in contrast to the Europeans – is unlikely to offer meaningful concessions based on the lesser developed status of the MERCOSUR countries. Neither will the Association Agreement with the EU reverse or even slow the region’s shift toward trade with China and the rest of Asia.

August 6, 2019

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of New York City-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and a lecturer at Stanford University. He is the author of Bush II, Obama, and the Decline of U.S. Hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.

Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobiernodechile/22180910394

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

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.

Venezuela: When Will the Military Flip?

By Fulton Armstrong

venezuelan military marching

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó and his backers, including the Trump administration, are increasingly focused on swaying the country’s security forces to switch allegiance from Nicolás Maduro to the National Assembly President.  Guaidó has appealed to the military to support his efforts to “restore constitutional order” and is pushing through the legislature a law giving amnesty to cooperating officers for certain crimes committed since President Chávez took office in early 1999.  U.S. officials, apparently to shake up the armed forces, continue to say that “all options are on the table”; National Security Advisor John Bolton held a notepad at a press briefing referring to “5,000 troops to Colombia.”  Maduro, for his part, continues to orchestrate loyalty pledges from senior officers and preside over military exercises.

  • Several small units of the military have flipped, and Maduro’s military attaché in Washington – serving there for a number of years to get medical treatment – has declared loyalty to Guaidó. The vast majority of the officer corps, however, still maintain an appearance of commitment to Maduro.

The most common explanation for the military’s apparent loyalty cited by Maduro’s opponents is that the high command has been bought off by opportunities to engage in corruption.  Other factors, however, may better explain why the institution has stuck with him this long.

  • Ideological reasons? Most available information suggests that Madurismo – with its gross, incompetent mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and thuggery – is not attractive to the officer corps.  But they appear to know that Chavismo has deep roots; that the elites, including the more hardline opposition, don’t understand the significance of change since 1999; and that efforts to return to the pre-Chávez era would be destabilizing and bloody.
  • Financial reasons? Although historically and perennially corrupt, senior officers arguably have been able to do more corruption under Maduro than under another regime.  That said, in their heart of hearts, they probably know a lot of their activities will continue under any government.
  • Distrust of the opposition? The military traditionally has communicated better with opposition moderates, such as Henrique Capriles, and in recent years has shown no trust in the faction that Guaidó comes from and its leader, Leopoldo López.  Information is very limited, of course, but many officers may believe that this group’s obsession with overthrowing Maduro and its no-negotiation stance has contributed to the crisis.  Senior officers’ confidence in Maduro’s ability to hold the country together seems to have evaporated, but the opposition have not presented a viable, comprehensive alternative.
  • Concern about the López-Guaidó faction’s ties with Colombia and the U.S.? Good information is elusive, but senior officers’ posture suggests that they see Bogotá’s strategic objective to keep Venezuela weak and Washington’s objective to purge the country of Chavismo and themselves.
  • Concern that the “international community” will not give them a fair deal? Distrust of Washington seems obvious, but – within their logic – senior officers almost certainly are suspicious of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the Lima Group, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and others as intolerant and biased.
  • Belief that, in the face of total chaos and widespread bloodshed, they can force a last-minute peaceful solution onto Maduro? Senior officers presumably have good enough intelligence to know when and how to intervene – and persuade Maduro to accept a peaceful solution and fly into exile.  The bigger problem at this point is that they do not see a viable alternative to sticking it out.
  • Fear that Maduro’s people have deeply penetrated officer ranks, and their lives will be at stake if they move against him? As the scope of the crisis grows and the credibility of Maduro’s power begins to slip, this would appear now to be less important.  Officers talk among themselves more than outsiders think.

The Venezuelan military’s threshold for intervening against civilian governments of any stripe has always been high, amplified by the embarrassment of the reversed coup against Chávez in 2002.  None of the factors that, on balance, still appear to favor sticking with Maduro is unmovable.  Distrust of the United States, OAS, and the Lima Group – the outside forces that legitimized Guaidó’s claim to power – leave the military with no reliable allies; Cuban, Russian, and Chinese friends can provide no solace.  A credible negotiation proposal from someone like Mexican and Uruguayan Presidents López Obrador and Vázquez, especially if backed by Pope Francis, could conceivably give them a credible direction in which to push Maduro.  But at this moment – subject to rapid change – the balance still argues in favor of the military fearing a new course.

U.S. Immigration: Call for Wall Ignores Changing Migrant Profile

by Dennis Stinchcomb

Graph of southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019

Southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019 / Note: FY 2019 data is through November 2018. Figures may not total 100% due to rounding. / Data source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As a record number of Central American families and unaccompanied children flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall ignores changing migrant demographics and leaves largely unaddressed an asylum system buckling under unprecedented strain.  While undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border remains at historic lows, over 48,000 individuals comprising family units (parents traveling with children) were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border between October and November 2018 – a 308 percent increase over the same two months in 2017.  Such a staggering rise comes on the heels of what was already a record-setting year.  Between October 2017 and September 2018, border officials tallied the highest level of family crossings on record; the over 107,000 individuals detained by border officials dwarfed the roughly 40,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children that prompted the Obama administration to declare a “crisis” in summer 2014.

A closer look at recent immigration trends underscores changing realities at the border:

  • Central American families and children represent an ever-growing share of migrants. Because overall undocumented immigration at the border has dropped and families and children have surged, the latter now account for 40 percent of all unauthorized migrants apprehended, up from 10 percent in 2012.  (Prior to 2012, family apprehensions were not publicly reported.)
  • Guatemalans now account for over half of all Central American family and child migrants. Though Guatemala is more populous than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, proportional disparities in migrant flows from the three Northern Triangle countries have widened in recent years.  Guatemalan families apprehended at the border doubled between 2017 and 2018, and the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors increased by over 50 percent.  An increasing share of these migrants are coming from indigenous communities where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, so border officials face compounding challenges including linguistic barriers and health needs – factors that may have contributed to the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children while in Border Patrol custody.
  • Family and child migration from El Salvador has plummeted to its lowest level since 2013. The abrupt decline in Salvadoran migration to the United States has led many experts to point to the chilling effects of the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the U.S.  The “Trump effect” following his early 2017 executive orders, however, was short-lived, and other events, such as possible controversy over elections next month, could renew migratory pressures and further exacerbate conditions at the border.
  • The dramatic increase in migrant flows from Central America has fueled an historic surge in asylum claims. At the border, credible-fear claims – the preliminary step in soliciting asylum – continue to climb precipitously, up from 9,000 in 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.

The U.S. Government’s proposed solutions to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis do not reflect the evolving profile of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  President Trump’s border wall – a hallmark promise of his 2016 campaign – appears aimed at the familiar Mexican adult migrant of the early 2000s or the mythical “bad hombre” spawned by his own nativist tendencies.  His Administration’s recent attempts to deter migrants or bar their access to asylum, either by separating families or rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence, have not stemmed the flood of arrivals.  A new “caravan” of migrants is set to depart Honduras this week.  Nor will a wall extinguish migrants’ legal right to request asylum.  The President’s most recent budget request for modest funds for hiring immigration judges and providing border infrastructure to support “vulnerable populations” is being held up by the political impasse in Washington over his greatly disproportionate spending on a wall, Border Patrol agents, and detention facilities.  Compromise between the President and Congressional Democrats remains elusive three weeks into a confrontation that has shut down much of the U.S. Government.  While Democrats have expressed willingness to beef up border security in exchange for a significant immigration win, such as legalization of the Dreamers or renewal of TPS, anything short of meaningful reform to the U.S. asylum system will do little to resolve the backup at the border.

Jan 15, 2019