Mexico City, Mexico — Migrant justice activists are sounding the alarm bell over President Joe Biden’s handling of the arrival of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers at the U.S. southern border and are calling on Biden to follow through on his commitment to address the root causes of migration.
“What we have here is people fleeing from conditions that they can no longer stand — this is a humanitarian issue,” Roxana Bendezú, executive director and founder of Migrant Roots Media, told Truthout.
Far from treating the border crisis as a humanitarian issue, the Biden administration has continued to expel the vast majority of adult migrants through the use of the Trump-era Title 42 emergency declaration concerning COVID-19, which closed the border to “nonessential” travel under the pretext of limiting the spread of the coronavirus. Some asylum seekers have even been whisked away in the middle of the night without a hearing, leading activists to compare Biden’s treatment of asylum-seekers to Trump’s. Biden himself has even publicly boasted about the number of migrants his government is expelling. Like Trump, the Biden administration has also continued to apply diplomatic pressure on Mexico and Guatemala to use its security forces to contain the movement of migrants.
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A lack of planning and infrastructure means the U.S. has struggled to house newly arrived unaccompanied children, who are exempted from Title 42. Images of children packed in “processing centers” and families sleeping under bridges play across people’s screens on the evening news, providing fodder to anti-migrant politicians who accuse Biden of provoking the crisis. The situation has become so dire that children in immigration custody have been taken to a military base in El Paso that could be highly contaminated and potentially hazardous, according to a statement from Earthjustice.
Following demands made by migrant justice activists, the Biden administration seemed poised to differentiate itself from Trump by addressing the “root causes” of migration.
However, migrant justice activists say the government’s strategy will have little impact due to the emphasis on methods that have previously failed the people of Central America.
Bendezú said Biden’s $4 billion strategy for Central America is a continuation of policies that, instead of addressing the root causes of migration, represent an effort to perpetuate a model of economic development that is responsible for the exodus of people from the region to the U.S.
“It’s a tactic to confuse people,” said Bendezú.
In its analysis of Biden’s proposals for Central America, Migrant Roots Media concluded that, much like 2014’s “Alliance for Prosperity,” Biden’s new plan is largely centered on increasing private investment in Guatemala and Honduras.
In a report for TomDispatch, historian Aviva Chomsky also concluded that the Biden administration’s proposal for Central America differed little from previous plans and would promote a model “that Washington has imposed on the countries of Central America over the past century, one that’s left its lands corrupt, violent, and impoverished, and so continued to uproot Central Americans and send them fleeing toward the United States.”
Roberto Lovato, a Salvadoran American writer and political analyst, said that if the U.S. is interested in tackling the root causes of the crisis, U.S. politicians need to take a look at their own policies in the region.
“If you’re going to talk about the root causes of the crisis in Central America, you’d have to start off with U.S. economic policies of expropriation of resources and exploitation of labor, neoliberal economic policies that create mega-projects that destroy the environment and displace hundreds of thousands of people,” Lovato told Truthout.
Lovato said U.S. policy in Central America has never been driven by a concern for the welfare of people from the region but instead by the desire of U.S. politicians from both parties to protect “U.S. interests” in the region.
“There is a crisis in Central America, but it is not a new crisis, it’s not the crisis you see on television, it’s the crisis you see in history,” said Lovato. “And the history of U.S. policy is one of catastrophes created by U.S. economic policies that enrich the minority and impoverish the majority.”
Biden Doubles Down
Rather than abandon these failed economic policies, the Biden administration has instead opted to double down on efforts to dissuade people from attempting the journey, with the Department of State having placed more than 28,000 radio ads on stations throughout Central America and Brazil.
Bendezú said she considers it “dehumanizing” and “disrespectful” to think that radio ads are going to stop people from fleeing an untenable situation in their countries of origin.
Figures reviewed by Reuters showed that in March U.S. authorities caught more than 171,000 migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico, representing the highest monthly total in two decades.
“It’s not that they don’t know the risks that they’re taking but the desperation is so huge that they see no other option,” said Bendezú.
In response to criticism of his handling of the immigration issue, President Biden tasked Vice President Kamala Harris as his point person on immigration and the border and also tapped Ricardo Zúñiga as his special envoy for Central America. Comments by officials suggest that neither is expected to deviate from Biden’s existing strategy.
Lovato says Biden’s selection of Roberto Zúñiga as envoy is particularly telling.
“Instead of sending somebody with experience doing humanitarian work to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Central America … you send somebody whose specialty is keeping U.S. economic and military policies in place,” said Lovato, pointing to Zúñiga’s role on President Obama’s National Security Council.
Zúñiga is Honduran born and comes from a long line of supporters of the National Party in Honduras, which has ruled the country since the 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya, which was consolidated thanks to the intervention of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
U.S. Silence on the “Root Causes” of the Honduran Exodus
Former National Party Congressman Tony Hernández, brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, was recently sentenced to life in prison by U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel, who described the case as one of “state-sponsored” drug trafficking. The Honduran president has consistently denied any role in drug trafficking but nonetheless hired a Washington law firm to lobby U.S. prosecutors to desist in their case.
In power since 2014, Hernández has been strongly criticized by Honduran social movements for his authoritarian rule and policies that have led to increased poverty, displacement, and marginalization of the country’s poor and working class.
Tomás Andino Mencía, a former Honduran lawmaker and a member of the Convergence Against Reelection movement, believes that Hernández’s rule has been one of the major forces pushing people to migrate.
“The cause of the exodus is not just because of the economic or social situation, like poverty and violence that we know exists, but also because of a political cause, that is the despair that exists in the population. A lack of hope that the country’s conditions will improve. That’s also why the population flees.… They don’t want a future in Honduras with a government of drug traffickers,” Mencía told the Honduras Now podcast in a recent episode.
Hernández was reelected to office in 2017 in a vote that was largely condemned as fraudulent. The country is due to hold general elections in November that could see the National Party remain in power. Honduras held primary elections in March in a process that observers such as Mencía claimed was rife with irregularities, a situation that does not augur well for the general elections.
“If [an electoral fraud] happens again at this moment, with the conditions brought about by the pandemic and in the conditions that two hurricanes have left us, this could mean a situation much worse than what we saw happen in 2017 and this could generate a humanitarian disaster on a national level,” said Mencía.
Yet the U.S. Department of State, frequently vocal about allegations of corruption and fraud in Latin America, has been conspicuously silent about President Juan Orlando Hernández’s alleged ties to drug trafficking and the evidence of electoral fraud in Honduras’s primary elections.
“If they were to talk about the corruption, drug trafficking … the fiction of their whole immigration and foreign policy in Central America would be obvious,” said Lovato. “You’re not going to see Antony Blinken, or Ricardo Zúñiga, or any of the other State Department and U.S. government operatives saying anything about Hernández.… U.S. policy helped create Hernández, beginning with the coup in Honduras that was sponsored by Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.”
Activists and advocates have strongly criticized Democratic politicians for refusing to acknowledge the role of Obama’s policies and pinning the crisis at the border on Trump’s policies alone, in an effort to obtain political gain, only to later implement similar plans.
Indeed, this week it came to light that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reportedly told ICE staff at a recent meeting that the department is considering restarting construction on some parts of the border wall in order to plug in what he described as “gaps,” despite having previously committed to halting construction of Trump’s border wall.
Lovato, who recently published a memoir called Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas, called on the public to see the connection between the Central American exodus and U.S. foreign policies that have been enacted by politicians from both parties, saying, “you can’t just sweep everything under the rug of Donald Trump.”
Lovato also called on the public to stop dehumanizing migrants and asylum seekers, and decried the mainstream media’s circulation of two-dimensional images of their suffering.
“You have no Central Americans in three dimensions — that’s called dehumanization and that’s what you need to sustain the policies that exist,” said Lovato. “If you actually start naming Central Americans … then you’re going to have to change the policy because those people would become human beings.”