Latin America Brief

A one-stop weekly digest of politics, economics, technology, and culture in Latin America. Delivered Friday.

Washington Is Eroding Asylum at the U.S.-Mexico Border

The latest U.S. immigration plans would dramatically reduce Venezuelans’ ability to seek protection.

Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Catherine Osborn
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
Migrants line up to be transported from Canaan Membrillo village to the migrants reception station in Metetí, Darién province, Panama, on Oct. 13.
Migrants line up to be transported from Canaan Membrillo village to the migrants reception station in Metetí, Darién province, Panama, on Oct. 13.
Migrants line up to be transported from Canaan Membrillo village to the migrants reception station in Metetí, Darién province, Panama, on Oct. 13. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Washington moves to shut down asylum access for Venezuelans at the U.S. southern border, Ecuador’s Indigenous groups finalize a series of deals with the government, and Chile’s Atacama Desert blooms.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Washington moves to shut down asylum access for Venezuelans at the U.S. southern border, Ecuador’s Indigenous groups finalize a series of deals with the government, and Chile’s Atacama Desert blooms.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.


Biden’s Backpedal

Last week, the Biden administration announced a deal with Mexico that will severely limit Venezuelans’ right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. The measure expands U.S. use of a border rule known as Title 42, which was implemented under former President Donald Trump and allows U.S. authorities to expel migrants—including would-be asylum seekers—to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Though U.S. President Joe Biden attempted to end Title 42 in May, a federal lawsuit has kept it in place. Last week’s announcement comes as both Republicans and some Democrats have pressed Biden to crack down on immigration ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

Since 2015, more than 7 million Venezuelans have fled their country’s economic and political crisis. Until last week, Venezuelans fleeing persecution based on their political beliefs or group identity had largely been allowed to apply for asylum upon arrival at the U.S.-Mexico border—as is consistent with U.S. refugee law and international refugee treaties to which the United States is a signatory.

The rate of Venezuelan asylum-seekers who win their cases is above the average for all nationalities, Ariel Ruiz Soto of the Migration Policy Institute told Foreign Policy in an interview. That may reflect the U.S. government’s view that Venezuelan asylum-seekers are “fleeing communism … fleeing hardship,” as White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said last month. Meanwhile, Biden administration authorities have used Title 42 to expel other migrants—such as Haitians, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Mexicans—en masse, without giving them the chance to seek asylum.

But the Department of Homeland Security said last week that, starting Oct. 12, Venezuelans arriving at the U.S. southern border without prior authorization would meet the same fate. It also announced that the U.S. government would create 24,000 slots for eligible Venezuelans to earn temporary entry to the United States if they had a valid passport and a financial sponsor in the country—and enter by plane.

More than 33,000 Venezuelans arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in September alone, suggesting a mismatch in scale between the new legal pathway and the asylum cutoff. What’s more, the new legal pathway’s preconditions require a degree of economic privilege that most Venezuelan asylum-seekers lack.

Some 130 U.S. and Latin American human rights groups denounced the new policies in a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, writing that they caused “disappointment and shock.” The organizations stressed that the new policies—and the continued use of Title 42 for migrants of other nationalities—clashed with the principles of the regionwide declaration on migration that Washington helped craft at the U.S.-hosted Summit of the Americas in June.

In the nonbinding Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, countries from across the region pledged to protect the “safety and dignity” of asylum-seekers and work for them to access “regular status.” Washington has taken steps to expedite asylum processing inside the United States and so far pledged over $800 million in humanitarian and security assistance to support goals related to the Los Angeles Declaration across the region.

On Oct. 14, the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration also issued a statement about the new U.S. policies toward Venezuelans, welcoming the 24,000-slot program but saying that legal pathways “cannot come at the expense of the fundamental human right to seek asylum.”

Biden has continued the Trump administration policy of leaning heavily on Mexico to erect new barriers to northbound migration—including for asylum-seekers. The U.S. reliance on Mexico for its migration enforcement has become so great that “everything else gets shaded by that migration lens, and it has probably complicated more tough conversations about Mexico’s human rights record,” said Maureen Meyer, the vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The new U.S. approach toward Venezuelans still has some details pending, in part because Mexico is likely to set a cap on how many expelled Venezuelans it will accept from the United States each day, Ruiz Soto said. It’s possible that under the new policy, the flow of northbound Venezuelans will slow at first and then pick up again, he added.

A similar drop and rebound in the flow of northbound Venezuelans occurred after Mexico—at U.S. urging—introduced a requirement for Venezuelans flying into the country to have valid visas in January. Visas require up-to-date Venezuelan passports, which are hard to get in Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela—especially for the poor. At first, the number of Venezuelans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped dramatically. But over the following months, Venezuelans increasingly opted for a land route northward that included crossing a treacherous stretch of jungle on the Colombia-Panama border called the Darién Gap.

Journalist Molly O’Toole recently traveled alongside Venezuelan migrants as they crossed the Darién Gap while conducting research for a forthcoming book for Penguin Random House. If Venezuelans are crossing there—where they encounter “drug traffickers, human traffickers, cartel activity, [and] paramilitary activity” as well as “the deadliest snakes in the world, flash floods, and mud that is often above your knee,” she told Foreign Policy—it is a sign that a U.S. mindset of “prevention through deterrence” does not work. Making the journey more difficult “doesn’t actually stop people. It just kills more of them.”

“U.S. policymakers have sort of operated under this assumption that the global refugee crisis happens somewhere else,” O’Toole said. “They’ve relied on the fact that they’re geographically and economically isolated, or they thought that they were, from the largest generators of displacement and refugee crises on the planet,” she added, noting that she had met Afghans, Ethiopians, and Somalis in the Darién region.

But “it’s here, and this is the new normal.”


Upcoming Events

Friday, Oct. 21: The finance ministers of Peru, Chile, and Mexico participate in an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Thursday, Oct. 27: Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández appears at a hearing on drug trafficking charges in New York.

Sunday, Oct. 30: Brazil holds its presidential runoff election.


What We’re Following

Lithium check-in. For Foreign Policy, Bolivia-based journalist Thomas Graham looked at to what extent the countries of South America’s so-called lithium triangle have been able to take advantage of this year’s record-high lithium prices, which have been driven by demand for electric vehicle batteries. Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia together sit atop more than 50 percent of the world’s known lithium reserves.

Chile—currently second only to Australia in lithium production—has expanded mining this year and continues to heavily regulate its industry. Only two private companies operate in the sector, paying royalty fees of up to 40 percent to the government. In Argentina, which is much friendlier to private investment, around 40 lithium mining projects are at some stage of development, including two that are already producing, Graham reports.

Bolivia’s government has played a big role in its nascent industry and is in the process of selecting a private partner for its state-led lithium company. In a separate report for the Financial Times, Graham wrote that four Chinese groups, one Russian group, and one U.S. group were finalists for the partnership.

Chile has announced plans to launch a state lithium company, but it will likely take years to establish, Graham wrote. “For new, state-led operations in Chile to arise, and for Bolivia to become a truly significant producer in the market, 2030 and beyond is more realistic.”

In July, Argentina’s and Chile’s foreign ministers discussed possible cooperation in producing value-added goods related to lithium, such as batteries. Argentina’s foreign ministry said it hoped to organize a presidential meeting on the matter in the future that also included Bolivia.

Legal coca’s track record. Colombian President Gustavo Petro has publicly announced his intentions to overhaul Colombia’s drug policy and decriminalize some coca production. In the nearby countries of Bolivia and Peru, the Economist noted, coca production has been partly legalized for years—and in Bolivia, there is evidence that legalization reduced coca-related violence.

Joaquin Chacin, a researcher at the Universidad Mayor de San Simón, found that between 1982 and 2003—prior to the partial legalization of production via a “community control” system in 2004—Bolivia saw 120 deaths from coca-related violence, while they dropped to 15 deaths in the period from 2004 to 2021.

Flowers bloom in the Atacama Desert in Chile’s Copiapó region, some 500 miles north of Santiago, on Aug. 28, 2017.
Flowers bloom in the Atacama Desert in Chile’s Copiapó region, some 500 miles north of Santiago, on Aug. 28, 2017.

Flowers bloom in the Atacama Desert in Chile’s Copiapó region, some 500 miles north of Santiago, on Aug. 28, 2017.MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

Blooming desert. Chile’s Atacama Desert is one of the driest places in the world, but every two to five years—usually in connection with the El Niño climate phenomenon—deep pink flowers bloom across its surface. The phenomenon occurred early this month, drawing visitors from around the world and prompting Chile’s government to announce plans to create a new national park in the area.

While climate change is thought to make El Niño and the blooming desert phenomenon more frequent, a trend of drier overall conditions also means the blooms may grow weaker over time, Chilean scientists have said. Chilean authorities hope that research during desert blooms can provide insights on cultivating agriculture in increasingly dry settings.


Question of the Week

As part of its efforts to shore up its dwindling dollar reserves, the Argentine government has introduced new sector-specific exchange rates in recent months, a form of capital control. One of these exchange rates, called the “Qatar dollar” for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, aims to discourage Argentines from spending money abroad by charging a higher rate for credit card purchases in foreign countries.

Which of the following is not a sector-specific exchange rate announced by the government?

The blue dollar is the name of Argentina’s black market exchange rate.

The soy dollar rate is approved by the government for soy exports, the Coldplay dollar for the purposes of paying foreign entertainers, and the tech dollar for the high-tech industry, El País reported.


FP’s Most Read This Week

• Biden Is Now All-In on Taking Out China by Jon Bateman

• The Thaw on Russia’s Periphery Has Already Started by Daniel B. Baer

• As War Hits the Home Front, Russia’s Defeat Inches Closer by Alexey Kovalev


In Focus: Ecuador’s Indigenous Shadow Government

Leonidas Iza, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, speaks during a protest in front of the Constitutional Court in Quito on Sept. 6.
Leonidas Iza, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, speaks during a protest in front of the Constitutional Court in Quito on Sept. 6.

Leonidas Iza, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, speaks during a protest in front of the Constitutional Court in Quito on Sept. 6.RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, Ecuador’s government announced a series of deals reached with a powerful federation of Indigenous groups after a three-month dialogue. The Catholic Church had mediated the talks to calm the country after 18 days of chaotic nationwide protests by Indigenous activists that left at least six people dead in June.

The talks established 10 working groups on topics such as debt forgiveness, labor rights, security policy, access to health care, and energy policy. Only two of the working groups did not reach an agreement of any kind, GK reported.

President Guillermo Lasso’s government committed to halting oil drilling in 15 areas where consultations with local communities were deemed insufficient, imposing a price cap on 13 basic household items, introducing debt rollover plans at public banks, dramatically increasing public spending on education in Indigenous languages, and extending new credit lines to small-scale agriculture workers. But no deal was reached on the policy that sparked the demonstrations: Indigenous opposition to the removal of price controls on gasoline.

The results of the dialogue underscore the agenda-setting power of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or Conaie. While a party of Indigenous lawmakers, the Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement, currently enjoys its largest-ever representation in the country’s legislature, some Pachakutik lawmakers failed to take aggressive stances on Indigenous demands at the start of Lasso’s term. For now, their advocacy has been upstaged by Conaie’s grassroots actors.

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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