United States: Biden Versus the Arc of Immigration Policy

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Jayesh Rathod*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 13, 2020

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

U.S.-Latin America: Who Can Learn from Whom about Elections?

By Todd A. Eisenstadt*

Polling station in the outskirts of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, during the 2003 gubernatorial election in Chiapas.
Polling station in the outskirts of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, during the 2003 gubernatorial election in Chiapas./ Dr. Todd Eisenstadt

The irony of an increasingly probable electoral crisis in the United States this year is not lost on observers in Latin America, who have endured multiple challenges to the legitimacy of elections for decades – nor is the irony that the United States could learn from the region’s hard, if still incomplete, lessons in democracy. U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to raise doubts about the fairness of the November 3 elections have been reported widely in Latin America. Citing unknown sources and unconfirmed events, he has alleged massive voter fraud and predicted court challenges so serious that, he said, it’s especially urgent that his nominee to the Supreme Court be seated immediately.

Such ominous-sounding challenges to elections are not new to most of Latin America. Mexico is not unique in this regard, but I saw its whimsical and exotic election frauds closeup in the 1980s and ‘90s as an international elections observer.

  • In the razor-close 1988 election, the lights went out during the vote count, and by the time they came back on the renegade outsider leftist had lost his lead against the PRI’s candidate. Political operatives called mapaches (“racoons” because they worked only in the dark), breakfast bribes (called Tamale Operations), and voters who made the rounds all day long to cast ballots in different precincts (carruseles or “carrousels”) were common. Crazy Mouse, named after the board game, was a scheme in which opponents of the PRI were sent from precinct to precinct only to be told they were to vote across town. Similar tricks, as well as intimidation, have been common in many other countries. Latin Americans are accustomed to wondering whether the military will have to escort a president who loses an election out the door, but it’s a totally new point of speculation for the U.S. population.

Although still far from perfect, Mexico and other Latin American countries have improved their elections. The unwritten code among political bosses in Mexico has long been to not ruin national institutions (like the postal system) or invite foreign interference (like Russian manipulation of public opinion). But other steps signal a shift away from zero-sum political games.

  • Since the 1990s, post-electoral negotiations to mollify the victors’ opponents – “keep them in the game” rather than make them a destabilizing force – gave them perches from which to eventually mount legal challenges, including rightist Vicente Fox (an interim governor who later became President) and current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 in Citizens United reduced regulation of campaign donations, but Mexico has limited campaign finance and TV advertising. It has encouraged the independence of electoral institutions and set federal standards in all 32 states, which have one voter list matched against one voter ID per citizen – rather than 50 states and 3,000 counties with different criteria. Electoral observers are trained about citizens’ rights and responsibilities, not mobilized out of distrust for the system or to intimidate voters.
  • Since the turn of the century, most Latin American countries have put greater emphasis on the rule of law and tried, albeit inconsistently, to address economic inequality and other threats to democracy and stability. They have also learned the hard lesson that sometimes “dirty elections” must be cleaned through broad citizen mobilization with the support of national and international leaders. Some observers wonder whether the Black Lives Matter movement will expand and evolve into a mobilization akin to the cacerolazos in Chile and elsewhere in the 1980s that helped galvanize opposition to the dictatorships of the era.

The chaos, isolation, and economic pain caused by COVID‑19 make Latin America’s democracy lessons even more pressing for the United States. Voters fear going to the polls and are anxious about trusting balloting systems, such as mail-in voting, that President Trump is trying to delegitimize. The U.S. military, wittingly or not, mobilized troops to support the President’s suppression of civil protests. U.S. voters are in unfamiliar territory.

  • The hemisphere is watching closely if – and how – El Norte figures out how to exorcise the fears and the doubt that are undermining its democracy. Bringing in a slew of smart and seasoned international election observers from Mexico and elsewhere would be a start. So would learning from the Mexican opposition parties how to subvert expediency, especially in the time of COVID, in favor of longer-term discipline for democratization.

October 6, 2020

* Todd A. Eisenstadt teaches political science at American University and is author of several books on democratization, including Courting Democracy in Mexico: Party Strategies and Electoral Institutions, for which he observed over a dozen local and national elections there.

U.S.-IADB: A Last-Ditch Effort at Securing U.S. Hegemony?

By Christy Thornton*

The Inter-American Development Bank building in Washington, DC
The Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC./ Wally Gobetz/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The election this month of Cuban-American hardliner and Trump National Security Council staffer Mauricio Claver-Carone to head the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) signals a significant shift in Washington’s approach toward the multilateral institution, but Trump’s attempt to reassert U.S. strength through the bank may, paradoxically, be a sign of weakness. Claver-Carone was the first U.S. candidate put forward to head the Bank in its 60-year history, overturning an unwritten rule that the president of the Bank should be a Latin American. After a long summer of procedural maneuvering failed to delay or block the contest, other potential candidates from Argentina and Costa Rica withdrew.

  • Mexico’s decision in August to go along with the election cleared the way for the quorum necessary to hold the vote, and Claver-Carone won election despite fully one-third of member countries abstaining.

As I show in my forthcoming book, Revolution in Development, U.S. administrations since FDR have often responded to Latin American demands for representation in and redistribution through multilateral organizations by ceding procedural power to Latin Americans.  

  • In earlier eras – during the negotiations over the first Inter-American Bank in 1939‑40, the Bretton Woods institutions in 1944, and then the founding of the IABD in 1959 – Latin Americans demanded a seat at the table and decision-making power. U.S. leaders acquiesced, preferring to lead through consent rather than coercion. When the IADB was created, the United States agreed to a minority-share position and a concessional lending program, allowing it to both meet Latin American demands for development and also counter accusations of commercial and financial domination.
  • While the bank’s tenure has not been without controversy, the major congruence in economic policy prescriptions that emerged with the Washington Consensus in the 1990s meant that, even without its representative in the top spot, the United States could be assured that its interests in the region were furthered by bank activities.

The election of Claver-Carone represents an about-face in this strategy of securing consent and reinforces three aspects of Trump’s approach to the region: isolating left-wing governments like Venezuela; countering China’s growing influence; and reiterating the primacy of private enterprise and investment over public multilateral lending.

  • The very public dispute over who should represent Venezuela at the 2019 IADB meeting in Chengdu – which was to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bank’s founding and the 10th anniversary of China’s membership – challenged U.S. influence over the institution. The Venezuelan opposition under Juan Guaidó wanted to send Ricardo Hausmann, a longtime IADB official, as its representative, but the Chinese government suggested instead that no Venezuelan representative be seated, leading to the meeting’s sudden cancelation. China’s action seems to have convinced Trump that the IADB was slipping from the U.S. orbit.
  • Seeing China as a competitor in Latin America, Claver-Carone will seek to use the IADB to counter Chinese influence. The most important way that he seeks to do that, made explicit during his campaign for the bank presidency, is through further capitalization of IDB Invest, the bank’s private-sector lending arm. This emphasis on private-sector development comes despite the fact that governments throughout the region are struggling through the worst economic downturn in decades due to the ravages of the coronavirus, with insufficient public health infrastructure and little in the way of safety nets for working people. While the bank has announced more than $3 billion in additional funding for governments to mitigate the crisis, Claver-Carone has stressed that his emphasis will be, above all, on strengthening private enterprise.

Earlier administrations demonstrated their faith in the strength of U.S. influence in the region through ceding some procedural control in the IADB, thereby securing multilateral legitimacy – but the Trump Administration’s successful push for Claver-Carone is instead an attempt to assert U.S. dominance. While Trump’s “America First” approach to the bank might seem like an attempt to bolster U.S. strength, it may instead actually reveal a fundamental weakness in U.S. legitimacy in the hemisphere. If the U.S. hegemony has to be imposed from the top down through domination rather than consent, it is sure to engender resistance.

September 30, 2020

* Christy Thornton is an assistant professor of sociology and core faculty member for the Latin America in a Globalizing World Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

COVID-19 Presents Challenges for Latinos in U.S. Election

By Stephen Nuño-Pérez*

“I voted” stickers in English and Spanish./ GPA Photo Archive/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The COVID‑19 pandemic – in addition to having a deep impact on U.S. Latinos’ economic wellbeing and health– is aggravating the community’s anxieties about whether their votes will be counted in the November 3 elections. A recent poll by Latino Decisions shows deep concern that Latinos’ impact on vote counts, already depressed by their traditionally anemic turnout rates, will be even more severely reduced by a lack of confidence in mail-in voting.

  • Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington – have all-mail voting systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, and California is adjusting its system in response to the pandemic to mail ballots to every voter automatically. Other states have more strict requirements to request a vote-by-mail (VBM) ballot.
  • There has been a widely disseminated argument that VBM gives the Democratic Party an advantage, but much of the research shows that neither party gains an advantage. Utah and Oregon, for example, are two very different states that are roughly 90 percent non-Hispanic white, yet Republicans control the legislature, the Senate, and the Governorship in the former, and Democrats control all three levels of government in the latter.

Latinos have traditionally preferred to vote in-person on election day, and Latino Decision’s latest poll shows that the conventional wisdom that VBM will significantly increase their participation during the coronavirus pandemic is exaggerated. While states with VBM systems tend to have higher turnout rates, the research pinpointing the causal relationship between VBM and turnout is somewhat mixed. Indeed, VBM raises concerns for Latinos. Researchers in Florida have been ringing the alarm on its inequities. Dr. Daniel Smith at the University of Florida has shown that VBM in Florida has disproportionately high rejection rates of mail ballots cast by Hispanic voters and young voters.

  • Latino Decisions’s latest poll surveyed 1,842 registered Latino voters on their concerns about voting during COVID‑19. Overall, 74 percent said they had health concerns about voting in person. (Ironically, the older respondents were slightly less concerned than the younger.) Eighty-one percent of those who identify as Democrats expressed worries, compared to just 60 percent of those who identify as Republicans.
  • While 53 percent of Latinos across demographic groups in the survey overall said they prefer to vote in-person, there was some variation in preference by state. For instance, 66 percent of Latinos in Arizona said they prefer VBM (compared to 80 percent of non-Latinos), and just 43 percent of Latinos in Texas said so. When asked if they had confidence that their mail-in ballot would be counted, just 47 percent of those who prefer to vote in person said they had confidence in the system. By comparison, 85 percent of those who prefer VBM said they had confidence in the system. Here again we see partisan differences in confidence, with 75 percent of Democrats saying they had confidence in the VBM system and 64 percent of Latino Republicans saying they had confidence their mail-in ballot would be counted.
  • A majority of Latino voters from both parties in the survey said they were confident they could navigate their states’ systems for switching from in-person to mail-in ballot. First-generation Latinos, those who were not born in the United States, were slightly less confident, at 48 percent, that they could navigate the system to request a VBM ballot.

The survey results suggest a strong need for efforts to improve VBM systems and build confidence among Latinos to vote by mail. Rejection rates of Latino mail-in voters in states like Florida are too high, and it is up to state elections officials to implement a multi-layered approach to fixing elements of the system that are seen as broken. Shoring up education on the VBM process will also build confidence in it. COVID‑19 makes this difficult, but addressing the VBM system’s flaws will help build credibility and improve participation in the November election – for Latinos as well as non-Latinos.

September 4, 2020

* Stephen Nuño-Pérez is Director of Communications and Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions.

The Bolsonaro-Trump Relationship: Costs for Brazilian Values and Interests

By Laís Forti Thomaz and Tullo Vigevani*

Bolsonaro and Trump

Jair Bolsonaro (L) shakes hands with Donald Trump (R) at the White House in 2019/ Palácio do Planalto/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

New priorities in Brazil-U.S. bilateral relations since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 have shifted the country away from its longstanding diplomatic values. In his eagerness to demonstrate a strong capacity to reach international deals, Bolsonaro has made concessions in talks that haven’t produced concrete benefits for Brazil.

  • Talks on a proposed merger of Boeing and Embraer ended when the U.S. company walked away from the table. Negotiations with the United States on the use of U.S. technology in space launches from the Alcântara Launch Center have been inconclusive – even after reaching the Alcântara Technological Safeguards Agreement (AST) and the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Agreement (RDT&E). Brazil granted a visa waiver to U.S. travelers without any reciprocity for Brazilian citizens visiting the United States. Even the government’s interest in joining the OECD has been controversial: its candidacy required Brazil to abandon its developing-country status at the WTO, and the Trump Administration then gave priority for OECD accession to Argentina.
  • In trade, for years Brazil has been one of the few countries in the world that has maintained a steady deficit with the United States. The expansion of quotas on ethanol and wheat from Brazil in favor of the U.S. (without opening the market for Brazilian agricultural commodities like sugar) and steel and aluminum tariffs are examples of unbalanced trade issues. The Brazil-U.S. Commission on Economic and Trade Relations has been negotiating various rules, but tariffs are not on the table. USTR Robert Lighthizer has stated, moreover, that the Administration doesn’t have “any plans right now for an FTA with Brazil.” A new “mini” trade deal supported by the Brazil-U.S. Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce in Brazil may be forthcoming, but there is no evidence that it will better distribute the benefits of trade between the two countries.
  • When Trump mentions countries with the worst performance in combating COVID-19, he highlights Brazil and supports measures to prevent Brazilians from entering the United States.

The Bolsonaro Administration does not appear troubled by these failures, despite Brazil’s unilateral concessions, because they parallel the President’s worldview. Bolsonaro’s philosophical approach to foreign affairs is not far from the idea of the Monroe Doctrine and the realist theories that prevailed during the Cold War, but this time against China. The inclusion of Brazil as a major non-NATO ally can be seen in this logic. His team considers a close relationship with the Trump Administration as essential to Brazil in order to achieve its economic, strategic, and political objectives.

  • Bolsonaro and his advisors may also believe their responsibility is diluted by the fact that most of the recent agreements emerge from negotiations that started in previous Administrations, especially during Michel Temer’s 28 months in office preceding Bolsonaro’s inauguration in 2019. But the way that Bolsonaro concluded these agreements reversed key elements of traditional Brazilian diplomacy. Among them are the prominence of the advocacy of multilateralism, opposition to any kind of unilateralism, and respect for international law and sovereignty. Former Brazilian foreign ministers serving presidents of all major political parties since 1990 have issued a statement regretting this shift away from Brazilian allegiance to international institutions.

As with his embrace of chloroquine as a COVID‑19 treatment, Bolsonaro seems to believe that Trump’s solutions to bi-national problems are in Brazil’s interest. The resulting alignment with Washington borders on subservience – harming Brazil’s other strategic partnerships and strong foreign policy principles. Brazil is drifting away from Latin America, especially Argentina, as well as from the BRICS countries. The government is also neglecting Mercosur, despite the collective’s recent agreement with the European Union. Some European countries, concerned about Brazilian government policies on the environment and Amazon rainforest preservation, have been questioning Bolsonaro’s attitudes and cooling on the deal. While the Brazilian Constitution gives priority to peaceful relations with all countries, members of the Bolsonaro cabinet have suggested supporting a possible invasion of Venezuela.

  • The lack of concrete benefits for Brazil from the U.S. relationship does not appear likely to drive a reassessment of Bolsonaro’s approach. Similarly, the government’s Trump-like confrontations with a large part of the international community, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN), show no sign of diminishing despite their high costs. Brazil and the United States have been strategic partners – as Presidents Lula da Silva and George W. Bush reaffirmed in 2005 when establishing a new strategic dialogue – yet the two countries’ current presidents have disrupted the terms of this relationship in ways that will take years, if not decades, to mend.

July 13, 2020

*Laís F. Thomaz is Professor at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG). Tullo Vigevani is Professor at the State University of São Paulo (Unesp) and researcher of the Center of Contemporary Culture Studies (CEDEC). Both are researchers at the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU).

U.S.-Latin America Policy According to John Bolton

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

John Bolton

John Bolton/ Gage Skidmore/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s memoir highlights his differences with President Trump and several government agencies over tactics for achieving regime change in Venezuela. It confirms, however, that they share an embrace of the Monroe Doctrine that has survived his departure from government. The book, published this week, is Bolton’s version of his 17 months in the Trump Administration. The chapter on Venezuela is 34 pages long and, while confirming much about the Administration’s disdain for the law and longstanding practices in U.S. foreign policy, provides new insights.

  • Bolton’s pledge in November 2018 to rid the hemisphere of the “Troika of Tyranny” – Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua – reflected a consensus in the Administration, and he attributes the alliterative trope to a Trump speechwriter. But as the policy gained momentum, the Treasury Department and State Department wanted to go slow on some of the more draconian sanctions against Venezuela that he pushed.
  • Bolton puts the best face possible on Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaidó and his claim to the national presidency in January 2019. He credits the Venezuelan opposition entirely for conceiving and initiating the maneuver, even though circumstantial evidence, including the advanced U.S. efforts to build international support for it, suggests otherwise.
  • Tellingly, he says his initial reaction to the country’s repeated waves of electricity outages was that it was the opposition’s work, although he then posits that they resulted from government incompetence and underinvestment, leaving open the possibility that they resulted from an intelligence operation. (Bolton would be violating his secrecy commitments if he admitted as much.)
  • Bolton reports that President Trump consistently argued that Guaidó – whom he called “this kid” – was a lightweight incapable of wrestling control from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
  • Trump was the strongest proponent of military intervention to remove the Venezuelan from office. But Trump also felt he could deal with Maduro as he did with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. He flip-flopped again last weekend. On Friday he told Axios that he “would maybe think about [meeting Maduro],” suggesting openness to dialogue, but on Monday he tweeted that he “would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!”

Bolton barely registers the contributions of Latin American and European governments in support of the American position on the Venezuela issue or the advancement of a negotiated solution.

  • The position of the “Lima Group” on Venezuela gets only a passing mention, although the group’s support was arguably a historic signal of Latin American acquiescence in Washington intervention in the region. The OAS got a backhanded compliment: “Even the Organization of American States, one of the most moribund international organizations (and that’s saying something), was roused to help Guaidó.”
  • Although Norway had been arranging negotiations between Maduro and Guaidó representatives for eight months by the time Bolton resigned as National Security Advisor in September 2019, the book makes little mention of the effort. Nor does it mention U.S. actions that – by design or not – obstructed the talks. The work of Elliott Abrams, the Administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, also gets no serious treatment.

Bolton is gone, but his vision for U.S.-Latin America relations, including revival of the Monroe Doctrine as rationale for Washington’s actions, remains robust. The Administration has nominated the senior director that Bolton brought to the NSC to work on the region, a protégé of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, to be President of the Inter-American Development Bank, a perch from which he can exercise influence for five years even if Trump leaves office in January 2021. If the aide is elected, it would break with the tradition of having non-U.S. presidents at the Bank. A half dozen retired Latin American presidents have expressed opposition to that, but Ecuador’s government has labeled the nomination as “very positive,” and Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez, who took office with U.S. approval after the military forced out President Evo Morales last November, has welcomed it enthusiastically.

  • The Pentagon will not be enthusiastic about military action to remove President Maduro. But some officials have referred to the two paramilitary contractors captured seven weeks ago during the ill-fated “invasion” of Venezuela and six dual-national CITGO employees arrested in 2017 for alleged corruption as “hostages” – a possible pretext for some sort of action that, as Bolton so fervently hoped during his tenure, would prompt the Venezuelan military to finally switch sides.

June 23, 2020

The Other Pandemic

By Alan M. Kraut*

Donald Trump speaking to supporters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 12, 2020

* Alan M. Kraut teaches history at American University.

United States: Putting the Hammer to Venezuela

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Trump press conference

Trump at a briefing on April 4th, 2020/ The White House/ Flickr/ Public Domain

The Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive actions to drive regime change in Venezuela – at a time that the already-desperate country, weakened by its incompetent government and U.S. sanctions, faces a potentially massive COVID-19 crisis – reflect Washington’s favoring of ends over means, with little concern for corollary damage. Regardless of whether President Nicolás Maduro survives the challenge, the country’s massive humanitarian and social disaster is likely to grow worse during the weeks and months ahead. At this point, there is no plausible scenario in which Washington can achieve what it claims is its desired outcome – a stable, democratic government – without a negotiated settlement.

  • The March 26 indictment of Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials on charges of narcotics-trafficking and support for terrorism against the United States underscored the administration’s commitment to removing a government it calls a “threat to the hemisphere.” The U.S. Department of Justice asserted that Maduro “expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation.” The indictment forced an end to preliminary talks between Maduro and his opponents over a partial truce that would allow them to make a joint appeal for international aid to deal with COVID‑19.
  • On March 31, the administration announced a “Democratic Transition Framework” for Venezuela. The plan called for Maduro to step down immediately and yield to a “Council of State” to govern until new elections. National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, whom the United States and more than 50 other countries recognize as Acting President, would surrender his claim as well, but American officials made clear he had their full support in any upcoming campaign. Coming on the heels of the indictments, the framework was quickly rejected by the government.
  • The announcement on April 1 that the United States and 22 allies were launching “enhanced counternarcotics operations” in the Caribbean near Venezuela – with large-scale military assets rarely seen in such missions – was another prong of what U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien called “our maximum pressure policy to counter the Maduro regime’s malign activities.” Maduro cited these threats and indications of mysterious arms movements in Colombia – reported by a former Venezuelan general who some observers say turned collaborator with the U.S. DEA – as reasons for putting the country on military alert last weekend.

The U.S. actions appear to reflect a calculation that the Venezuelan government is so vulnerable that Maduro’s “former regime” will collapse and, somehow, a more sympathetic successor will emerge. U.S. sanctions over the past year-plus have effectively starved the economy, and the recent crash in oil prices has reduced revenues to a trickle. Observers in Caracas report that fear of COVID-19, in a country without medical supplies or even clean water in many parts, is intense.

  • The administration insists it desires a negotiated settlement, but these enhanced pressures, particularly the indictments, greatly complicate any effort to revive talks as Norway had configured them. Similar to last year’s efforts to provoke a coup against Maduro, this year’s “maximum pressure” seems premised on creating a collapse on a scale that forces the military’s hand. But the task of overthrowing Maduro would fall to an exhausted citizenry and field-grade officers not indicted or otherwise targeted by the United States government.

Whether Washington has a comprehensive strategy, is just taking ad hoc steps to force regime change, or is merely looking to wreak havoc at a time that its handling of the COVID‑19 crisis at home is falling under intense criticism, there is precious little historical evidence that its tactics will work in Venezuela. The movement of warships to the Venezuelan coast may only be a publicity stunt, with the support of some countries in the region, but it entails diplomatic and operational risks. It also is not beyond the pale to suppose that the administration, long frustrated in its regime-change efforts, will begin to believe its hyperbole about Maduro as a narco-terrorist poisoning drug-consuming U.S. youth, and be tempted to deploy measures even more drastic than those taken to date.

  • Negotiations, although difficult, are not impossible. When U.S. opposition to diplomatic efforts to resolve the wars in Central America reached a certain point, regional governments met behind Washington’s back and produced a historic plan – the “Esquipulas Accord” – that led to peace processes in each affected country. This situation is, of course, different, but Esquipulas showed that moving the U.S. to the side can work.
  • The indictments are reminiscent of U.S. tactics to overthrow General Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1988-89 – resulting in a massive invasion to arrest that one man. Venezuela is different in many ways, and all parties should heed the adage of former U.S. military commander and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said, “You break it, you own it.”

April 7, 2020

USMCA: Devil’s in the Details on Automotive Content

By Frank L. DuBois*

Automated manufacturing of cars

Automated car manufacturing/ Steve Jurvetson/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The automotive trade regime in the recently completed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) – “NAFTA 2.0” – will create headaches for many manufacturers but appears unlikely to deliver the big boost in jobs it promises. Much of the focus of the negotiations was on changing the automotive rules of origin (ROOs) to encourage more auto manufacturing in the United States and Canada and make it difficult for automakers to shift production from high-wage locations to low-wage factories in Mexico. Under the new rules, some manufacturers will see significant changes in operational strategies while others will be less impacted.

According to the agreement, a 2.5 percent tariff will be applied to the import value of cars (25 percent for light trucks) if the vehicles don’t meet the new ROOs:

  • 70 percent Regional Value Content (RVC) rather than 62.5 percent under the old rules.
  • 40 percent of the Labor Value Content (LVC) of vehicles (45 percent in the case of light trucks) must be made in plants that employ workers making at least $16 per hour.
  • 70 percent of the value of steel and aluminum used in the vehicle must be of regional origin.

The Kogod Made in America Auto Index (KMIAA), which I’ve been compiling for seven years, challenges assumptions used when calculating the U.S. content of a car, including some used as marketing strategies to portray products as being more “American” than what a buyer might think.

  • KMIAA results and rankings differ significantly from those indices that evaluate domestic content solely based on where a car is assembled, without taking into account the country of ownership of the brand. (Japanese, Korean and German car manufacturers are treated the same as U.S. manufacturers despite non-US R&D and profits that are repatriated back to the home country). Location of manufacture of engines and transmissions, which account for approximately 21 percent of vehicle value, may also not be addressed in other indices. Likewise, assembly labor accounts for around 6 percent of vehicle value.
  • The index reveals the complicated nature of content calculations. Toyota assembles only one vehicle at its plant in Tijuana – the Tacoma light truck with an engine of either U.S. or Japanese origin (depending on displacement) and a transmission of either U.S. or Thailand origin. Toyota has made the same truck in San Antonio, Texas, but recently announced that all of Tacoma production will be moving to the Mexican factory. Toyota is likely to reduce its non-North American sourcing (fewer engines and transmissions from Asia), and restructure supply chains to place a premium on U.S. parts and power train sourcing. Other manufacturers face greater shifts. The Audi Q5, for example, currently has 79 percent Mexican parts content and only 3 percent U.S. parts.

Producers’ operational responses are likely to run the gamut from full compliance to limited changes. Some automakers may simply pay the WTO tariff of 2.5 percent for access to the U.S. market. A separate requirement that at least 40 percent of the value of cars be made in plants with $16 per hour labor will be problematic given that wages in Mexican auto plants average $3 to $4 per hour. Producers will have to decide whether to raise wages in Mexican plants, shift sourcing to U.S. and Canadian plants, or attempt to develop ways to game the system by shifting some high-wage expenses into the labor value category. While the new rules may boost some manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and Canada, they will raise costs leading to lower auto sales, and have nowhere near the impact that their boosters have promised. Again, the devil is in the details.

March 5, 2020

* Frank L. DuBois is an Associate Professor of Information Technology and Analytics at American University’s Kogod School of Business. Data for the KMIAA comes from data automakers provide under the American Automotive Labeling Act (AALA) and from field visits to car lots in the DC metropolitan area.

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