Biden’s Border Policies Face Pushback
Leaders and human rights advocates speak out against new U.S. barriers to asylum.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Biden’s new asylum policies at the U.S.-Mexico border draw criticism, Honduras announces plans to swap its recognition of Taiwan for China, and Nicaragua says it wants to sever ties with the Vatican.
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A New-Old Playbook
Since mid-January, when U.S. authorities began piloting a new mobile app for some migrants to schedule asylum appointments at the U.S.-Mexico border, app users and their lawyers have repeatedly reported problems with it. Many claimed appointments were hard to come by. Some darker-skinned migrants said that the app’s photo feature did not recognize their faces.
The app is part of a suite of policies the U.S. government is testing ahead of May 11, when President Joe Biden is expected to lift the United States’ COVID-19 state of emergency. That would also trigger the end of a pandemic-era rule known as Title 42, which U.S. authorities have used to turn away some asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border since March 2020.
The Justice and Homeland Security departments, meanwhile, have published draft rules that would disqualify many people from seeking asylum at the southwestern U.S. border after May 11, though some Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans with U.S. sponsors would be eligible to enter the United States by air on a two-year parole. Last week, the New York Times reported that the Biden administration was also considering restarting a policy of detaining migrant families that prompted lawsuits during the Obama and Trump years.
Altogether, the new policies have caused U.S. migrant and human rights advocates to accuse Biden of replicating former President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration crackdown despite Biden’s campaign promises of a more compassionate approach. And they’re not the only ones pushing back: Some Latin American politicians have publicly signaled doubts about Biden’s agenda. Former Colombian President—and Nobel laureate—Juan Manuel Santos wrote in a March 6 El País op-ed that recent U.S. moves on migration run counter to tenets that Biden himself championed at last June’s Summit of the Americas, especially that of opening legal pathways for migration.
The summit’s Los Angeles Declaration, Santos opined, “is imperiled by a hard-to-shake impulse, especially in the United States—the pursuit of short-term, imposed solutions thought to deter migration. The Biden administration’s recent proposal to limit access to asylum is just such a misguided move.”
Santos’s warning comes shortly after Colombia’s current government rejected a Panamanian request to close the border between the two countries at a February meeting that also included U.S. officials. The border—a dangerous jungle known as the Darién Gap—is a key crossing point for northbound migrants. On Feb. 17, Colombia’s top migration official told Blu Radio that Panama had requested such a closure three times, but that Colombia denied those requests “in defense of free mobility.”
A top official from Central America’s Northern Triangle—another migration hotspot—has also spoken up. Honduras’s foreign minister, Eduardo Reina, said on Feb. 22 that he was seeking more “balance” and to move beyond “restrictive measures” when it came to migration policy with the United States.
“We understand the Biden administration’s worries, but we also think they should understand the human trauma,” Reina told reporters. “Migration issues are part of a collaborative process that is not affected solely by restrictive measures; instead, you have to look for other alternatives,” he said.
Not all Latin American countries are denouncing Washington; Mexico, for example, has largely complied with U.S. requests to enforce new barriers to migration. But many governments in the region have stressed their desire for a framework with more legal pathways to migration as well as increased support for migrant populations in the countries where they are hosted.
Components of this approach are already on display across the Latin American countries that have absorbed more than 5 million Venezuelans over the last decade. Several receiving governments have granted sweeping authorizations for Venezuelans to live and work in their countries, and dozens of governmental and nongovernmental organizations—including Venezuelan diaspora organizations, religious organizations, the European Union, the World Bank, USAID, and several U.N. agencies—have drawn up joint plans to support displaced Venezuelans in 17 countries in Latin American and the Caribbean. They organize under the name R4V, the Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela.
A pledging conference to fund R4V’s 2023 to 2024 response plan is underway today in Brussels, co-hosted by Canada and the EU. In 2022, the United States government was by far the biggest donor to the regional response plan, contributing $555.3 million, according to R4V. Still, for the last four years, the annual response plans—budgeted at between $700 million and $1.79 billion—have gone sorely underfunded. (R4V received only 37.8 percent of necessary funding in 2022.) A specialist on refugee issues told FP’s Robbie Gramer last year that “donor fatigue” in part explains the shortfall.
Meanwhile, in Colombia—the Latin American country that hosts the largest number of Venezuelan migrants, at more than 2 million—a World Bank working paper published last week found that the rate at which Venezuelan migrants registered for legal status in a given municipality had a negligible effect on its voters’ behavior. Offering legal status to Venezuelans, in other words, did not spark a turn toward anti-migrant political candidates.
The working paper displays a snapshot of one country at one time, and its authors added that “the electoral indifference of natives may be explained by the fact that [offering Venezuelans legal status] did not change labor and crime outcomes for native Colombians.” Worries over crime appear to have affected attitudes toward Venezuelan migrants elsewhere in the region; Chilean President Gabriel Boric cited such concerns when discussing his recent decision to deploy the military to address migrant flows in Chile’s north.
“The reception of [Venezuelans] has not always been smooth, nor without controversy or tension,” Santos wrote in El País. Still, he argued that the generally welcoming approach to Venezuelans should be the model for migration policy in the Americas more broadly.
Tuesday, March 21, to Wednesday, March 22: The United Nations Human Rights Council discusses Venezuela.
Friday, March 24: The U.N. Human Rights Council shares the outcome of its Universal Periodic Review of Ecuador and Brazil.
Friday, March 24, to Saturday, March 25: Latin American leaders meet with leaders from Spain and Portugal in the Dominican Republic.
What We’re Following
Bank runs north and south. Last Friday’s run on Silicon Valley Bank echoed across the Latin American venture capital ecosystem. U.S. investors often require Latin American startups to have a U.S. bank account to receive funding, and Silicon Valley Bank was one of the few places they could get one, Rest of World reported. More traditional U.S. banks are often hesitant to take on young companies that do not do business in the United States, one investor said.
Ironically, the crisis embroiled Latin American startup founders “in a bank run reminiscent of the ones [U.S.] investors had feared they’d face” in Latin American countries, Daniela Dib and José Luis Peñarredonda wrote.
But despite the chaos, they added, the U.S. government’s intervention to shore up depositors’ money means the United States is still a safer banking destination than Latin America in the eyes of U.S. investors. Now the onus will be on Latin American startups to try to open accounts at more than one U.S. bank, despite the obstacles.
Coincidentally, Bolivia also experienced a bank run this month—though it was slow-moving and low-tech. For days, customers lined up outside the Central Bank in La Paz to buy dollars amid reports of dollar shortages at currency exchange houses and fears of an economic slowdown.
From pope to nope. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have long emphasized their Catholic faith. But this week, after years of tensions over their detentions of activists and critics—including local Catholic leaders—Ortega requested the closure of the Nicaraguan embassy in the Vatican and the Vatican’s embassy in Managua.
Pope Francis, whose office had previously tried to mediate between Ortega’s government and the Nicaraguan opposition, had days earlier compared the government to a “Hitlerian” or “communist dictatorship” in an interview with Infobae.
The pope is not the only one who has recently drawn parallels between the Ortega government and Nazis. The head of a U.N.-appointed commission of criminal justice experts made the same comparison at a March 2 launch event for a report on abuses in Nicaragua. He cited both “the weaponizing of the justice system against political opponents” and “people massively stripped of their nationality and being expelled out of the country.” His team concluded that crimes against humanity had occurred and thus could be prosecuted in any international court.
Literary legend. Ninety-year-old journalist Elena Poniatowska is “arguably Mexico’s most famous living writer, with an influence that cuts across the literary and the political,” the Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff wrote in a profile this week. Poniatowska, who was born in Paris, has chronicled decades of social movements in Mexico and still travels the country to conduct interviews and write a weekly newspaper column.
Poniatowska’s recent columns have featured interviews with Mexican architects and booksellers peppered with observations about her subjects. But she doesn’t comment only on the arts: Poniatowska has more recently been open about her concerns about the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), whom she endorsed in 2018.
Poniatowska has lamented what she calls López Obrador’s efforts to influence the next election, his militarization of the country, and his criticism of his own dissenters, Sieff wrote, but she still keeps an “AMLO for President” pillow in her living room.
Question of the Week
Poniatowska’s most famous book was about an iconic student protest that Mexico City police attacked in the 1960s. In what year did it occur?
Mexico, like many countries, experienced a wave of street protests in 1968. Student-led demonstrations called for more political freedoms and denounced the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, including by protesting the cost of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Police fired on demonstrators and killed hundreds of people, according to eyewitnesses.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Staring Down the Black Hole of Russia’s Future by Anastasia Edel
• Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War by David V. Gioe
• Don’t Trust Russia’s Numbers by Agathe Demarais
In Focus: Honduras’s Switch to China
On Tuesday, Honduran President Xiomara Castro followed through on a campaign promise by announcing that she would open diplomatic relations with China, a step that implies dropping Honduras’s recognition of Taiwan. Only 12 countries in the world, plus the Vatican, will maintain full diplomatic relations with Taiwan after the transition.
Reina, Honduras’s foreign minister, has said repeatedly that economic concerns were at the forefront of what he described as a complex decision. Honduras is seeking more infrastructure investment, which China has provided by the billions of dollars to Latin America in recent years. A Chinese company recently completed a nearly $300 million dam in eastern Honduras. The country also recently sought to restructure its bilateral debt to Taiwan without success, Reina said.
On Wednesday, Reina told the Associated Press that “the world has been moving in this direction” regarding recognizing China. Trends in Latin America are emblematic of that shift; four other countries in the region have switched their allegiance from Taiwan to China in the last six years.
Both Guatemala and Paraguay, which recognize Taiwan, issued assurances on Wednesday that they would not change their stances. But the presidents of both countries are facing elections this year, and the issue of China and Taiwan has proved polarizing. Paraguay’s opposition candidate said he would drop the country’s recognition of Taipei.
Though Reuters quoted an unnamed U.S. State Department official who said Wednesday that Honduras should be wary of Chinese promises going “unfulfilled,” the U.S. government did not immediately comment on the record about the country’s switch to Beijing. The Atlantic Council’s Jason Marczak wrote Wednesday that the United States will need to continue engaging Castro’s government to cooperate on migration and should advance its own investments in Central America.
Correction, March 20, 2023: A previous version misstated the cost of the dam completed by a Chinese company in eastern Honduras.
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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