By AFSC Human Mobility Team in Latin America and the Caribbean
If you live in the U.S., you have probably seen news stories recently about migrants—including migrant children—waiting at the U.S.-Mexico border or crossing into the U.S. to seek asylum, only to be imprisoned while they await a hearing. What you may not know is what those migrants and others like them have faced on their journey—and how changes to U.S. policy in Latin American could make a difference.
People move for many reasons. In Latin America and the Caribbean, violence and deep poverty propel many people to migrate in search of safety and peace. In recent years, natural disasters fueled by climate change have intensified, displacing whole communities.
Local organizations that provide humanitarian relief have faced tremendous obstacles to providing direct aid to migrants, including legal and health care assistance. During the pandemic, governments have imposed even greater restrictions on civil society organizations—sometimes using the political cover of the public health emergency to pass restrictive policies with long term implications.
In Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, U.S. policy has historically created or worsened systemic problems. Instead of supporting democracy and economic stability, the U.S. government has financed and trained military and security forces; played a role in fueling civil wars; legitimized governments taking power through coups and electoral fraud; and pursued unjust economic policies.
Those policies have exacerbated human rights violations and the humanitarian crisis facing migrants in Latin America. At the same time, the United States has strategically made it more difficult and more perilous than ever to seek refuge and asylum.
In 2019, the Trump administration strong-armed Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras into “safe third country” agreements—which essentially coerced these governments to act as U.S. immigration enforcement and stop migrants from traveling north to the U.S.- Mexico border. Thousands have been stopped with brutal force by police and national guard at the southern borders of Guatemala and Mexico. In working with local partners to monitor human rights violations, we have documented and reported on how many migrants have suffered violence and repression, faced indefinite detention, or been deported back to the conditions they fled.
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. also implemented the “remain in Mexico” program (known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP), which forced migrants to wait in Mexico—for an indefinite amount of time—as their asylum claims were processed. Many migrants have been forced to live in unsanitary, crowded camps without adequate food, water, or place to sleep.
Since taking office, President Joe Biden has announced changes to U.S. policy in Latin America to address the root causes of migration from the region, including suspending the “remain in Mexico” program and ending “safe third country” agreements. These changes are a step in the right direction, but our experience working in Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, and other countries has shown us that more comprehensive changes to U.S. policy are needed.
The Trump administration’s racist, xenophobic policies and rhetoric stoked nativism and fear in the U.S. But those attacks follow decades of U.S. policy—under every presidential administration, regardless of political party—that have harmed the lives and rights of migrants and refugees as well as communities throughout Latin America.
To truly address the root causes of migration in Latin America, the United States must take responsibility for its role in destabilizing the region. And the Biden administration must build true international cooperation with governments to transform conditions so all people can live with dignity where they choose—while affirming the human right to migrate and seek asylum freely.
For too long, the U.S. has regarded Central America as its backyard. The Biden administration must make real, structural changes to U.S. policy that protects and respects the rights of all people to migrate, demilitarizes our borders, and welcomes migrants and refugees with dignity and empathy we all deserve. We cannot settle for anything else.
We urge the Biden administration to:
End the United States’ role in militarizing borders and territories in northern Central America and Mexico. The U.S. should stop all forms of assistance to military, police, and immigration forces, which have systemically violated human rights. That funding should be invested in ensuring human rights, democracy for all, and ending corruption.
Affirm the right of migrants to seek asylum freely in the country they choose. The recent suspension of the “remain in Mexico” program (officially known as Migrant Protection Protocols) and termination of so-called “safe third country” agreements are critical steps. But the Biden administration has proposed a strategy for “collaborative management,” which might have a similar effect.
People should be able to seek legal protection in the country where they feel safe. The administration must guarantee that people seeking asylum and all immigrants can pursue their cases in both physical freedom and digital freedom in the U.S. That means NO detention by immigrant enforcement agencies and no ankle monitors.
Expand the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) program, which provides protection from deportation to people from certain countries afflicted natural disasters, war, and other dangerous conditions. Last season’s hurricanes in northern Central America and southern Mexico, in a time of pandemic, have worsened economic conditions. Climate change will continue to contribute to environmental disasters. As part of responding to the humanitarian crisis in the region, the U.S. should expand TPS by designating or redesignating TPS status for Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico.
Reopen the U.S. border and allow migrants to safely seek legal protection in the U.S. Under the Trump administration, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) ignored the advice of public health experts in closing the southern border. Reopening the border and processing asylum applications is a vital step in promoting the health and safety of migrants and border communities alike—in the pandemic and beyond.
We hope you will stand with all migrants and communities throughout Latin America. Join us in calling on the U.S. to move away from militarized responses and toward policies that address root causes of migration and displacement while respecting the human right to migrate and seek asylum freely.