Tonhe died The suffocation of 53 migrants in a tow truck outside San Antonio, Texas, last month was a gruesome reminder of the risks involved in entering the United States illegally. All of the dead came from places that have long provided large numbers of immigrants: 27 were Mexicans; the rest were from Central America.
Yet across the Americas, people are migrating in new ways as well as in old ones. Crowds of Haitians are now gathering in cities from Mexico to Santiago. Venezuelans deliver meals by bicycle in Lima and Bogota. More than 150,000 Nicaraguans have sought asylum in Costa Rica. An equal number of Cubans have left their island in the past year. The pathless jungle of the Darien Gorge was once an impenetrable barrier between South and Central America. The Panamanian government said more than 130,000 people passed through it last year.
Partly blame the impact of the pandemic and the rising number of failed states. Falling birth rates and faster economic growth have meant that for several years more Mexicans have returned home rather than headed north. Now, the recession and criminal violence of the pandemic, along with a booming labor market in the U.S., are once again prompting many to emigrate. The same goes for Guatemala, Honduras, and the El Salvador delta in northern Central America.
The numbers are distorted by Section 42, a public health measure implemented by Donald Trump during the pandemic under which migrants are pushed back across the U.S. border rather than being processed or arrested. This had unintended consequences, not least by encouraging repeated attempts by Mexicans to cross the border.Even so, about half of border “encounters” reported us The April and May Customs and Border Protection incidents involved people who were not from Mexico or the Northern Triangle.
Since 2015, some 6 million Venezuelans have fled economic collapse and dictatorship, most of them within South America. As Venezuela’s economy recovers modestly, some are starting to return. But now Cubans and Nicaraguans are fleeing their failed leftist dictatorships. The pandemic appears to have prompted Haitians who immigrated to South America a decade ago to head to the United States.
All of this adds up to a headache for the government. It’s sparking new thinking, as last month’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles showed. The meeting was contentious: Six leaders did not attend, including Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, as President Joe Biden did not invite the rulers of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela By. But more important is the consensus reached. The Los Angeles Declaration on Immigration, signed by 21 countries, is the first attempt to develop some common approach. Among them are promises to expand legal immigration and improve the asylum process.
The debate on immigration has traditionally been polarized between sending and receiving countries. Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank, said the manifesto “created a common language” for the first time. It could mobilize more money from development banks to help countries such as Colombia, Costa Rica and Ecuador that are legalizing immigration. Mr Selee said many countries were concerned about how to deal with people crossing multiple borders. For example, the new aid could help screen refugees from economic migrants before they reach the Darien Gorge. Mr Biden’s people have stressed the importance of addressing the “root causes” of immigration through development aid and fighting corruption in Central America, despite little sign of doing so so far.
Although Mr. López Obrador was not in Los Angeles, Mexican officials claimed the statement was attributable to a “collaborating architect,” as one put it. Thanks in part to Trump’s bullying, Mexico has played what its president’s critics see as the U.S. military police, deploying the National Guard on its southern border to stop migrants. But the official said Mexico was trying to apply its own laws and control access to its territory while maintaining a humanitarian policy. He noted that it had issued visas to “hundreds of thousands” of Haitians and Central Americans.
That’s why it wants other countries to share the pressure. At a conference in Washington this week, Mr López Obrador pledged $1.5 billion for border infrastructure. He also urged Mr. Biden to issue more visas for legal immigrants. A big unknown is whether a future Republican administration will continue this approach, or return to Mr. Trump’s border wall. This could be a conversation stopper.
Read more from our Latin America columnist Bello:
Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest Gets More Dangerous (July 9)
Ecuador’s president sees little hope of implementing reforms (June 16)
Latin American Politicians Tired of War on Drugs (June 9)