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Latin American Leaders Reject US-Imposed Migration Policies at Palenque Summit

At the Palenque Summit in Mexico City, Latin American leaders blamed coercive U.S. policies for the migration crisis.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks at the closing of the migration summit held in Palenque, Chiapas State, Mexico, on October 22, 2023.

In their impromptu camp built in the median just outside Mexico City’s northern bus terminal, a group of Venezuelan migrants adjusted the plastic bags covering their tents in an effort to keep the rain out. It was a cold and wet night with the rains caused by Otis, the massive Category 5 hurricane that struck the state of Guerrero on October 25, reaching all the way to the Mexican capital. Mexican officials are still assessing the damage wreaked by the storm, and the fallout of the tragedy will likely be felt for years to come.

Days earlier, leaders from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean had gathered in the city of Palenque, Chiapas, to discuss a regional strategy to deal with the growing migration crisis in the hemisphere. The official joint statement stemming from that meeting adopted a decidedly political posture, warning that the negative effects of climate change were among the root causes of migration. The Palenque Declaration also stated from the outset that “the main structural causes of migration are political, economic, social and the negative effects of climate change.”

In commentary seldom seen in official summit communiqués, the joint statement explicitly criticized the “negative effects” of unilateral coercive measures, commonly known as sanctions, on “the most vulnerable people and communities.”

The inclusion of an expressly political posture vis-a-vis sanctions in the Palenque Declaration stems in part from the in-person attendance of both Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has frequently defended the political legitimacy of both leaders, made a point of inviting leaders from the countries with high emigration. The Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees, the autonomous government body more commonly known by its Spanish acronym COMAR, indicates that the top five source countries of migrants requesting protection are Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti, Honduras and El Salvador.

Meanwhile, both Caracas and Havana maintain that their economic troubles are the product of the United States economic blockade on their countries. Experts such as Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez say U.S. sanctions play a significant role in extending and deepening Venezuela’s economic crisis, helping to drive people out.

Migrants end up congregating in the Mexican capital due to a perverse incentive caused by the U.S.’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) app “CBP One.”

The arrival of high numbers of Venezuelan nationals has created a major challenge for President Joe Biden and his re-election hopes. In addition to the restoration of deportation flights to Venezuela, the U.S. Treasury Department recently announced a long-awaited easing of sanctions on Venezuela.

The 14-point Palenque Declaration also issued a call for origin, transit and destination countries to implement comprehensive migration policies that respect the human right to migrate.

Otoniel Marín, a 63-year-old Venezuelan national traveling with his family and living in the camp outside the bus terminal, says that while the people of Mexico have been kind and generous, the same cannot be said of Mexican immigration officials and state security forces.

“We are subject to a lot of mistreatment from migration officials,” Marín told Truthout.

He says immigration officials and state security forces are frequently aggressive and charge bribes. On one occasion he watched them make a pregnant woman walk after forcing those without transit papers off a bus.

A September 2023 study by IBERO University’s Program for Migration Issues found that 92 percent of migrants interviewed were victims of violence in the journey through Mexico, with state security officials frequently accused of violating their human rights.

Margarita Núñez Chaim, coordinator of the IBERO migration program, says the experience of migrants does not match the Mexican government’s rhetoric. She highlights the fact that the commissioner of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, Francisco Garduño, is still in office, despite the fact that he is facing charges as a result of the fire at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez that happened under his watch and killed 40 people.

“We know that migratory flows are increasing and it is no longer legitimate for the authorities to argue every year that it is a never-before-seen phenomenon and that they are not prepared or do not have the capacity to address it.”

“Over the course of this six-year term we have seen how the gap between discourse and reality is increasingly widening,” Núñez Chaim told Truthout.

While she posits that the pressure to deter migrants undoubtedly is coming from the United States, Núñez Chaim argues that responsibility for their care while inside Mexico is the duty of the Mexican state and they need not carry out their functions as they have.

Marín, himself, made a direct appeal to President López Obrador to tell Mexico’s migration officials to change the way they treat migrants.

“We want the president of Mexico to help us out and let us calmly pass through with our kids, let him place his hand on his heart and treat us in a humanitarian way,” said Marín.

Earlier this month, Núñez Chaim took part in a press conference at a shelter in the north end of Mexico City where she, alongside several migrant rights activists, sounded the alarm about the terrible conditions many migrants were being forced to endure. The city’s shelter system is stretched well beyond capacity, leading to the emergence of these improvised camps throughout the city.

Tents covered in black plastic line a paved road as people walk around
People take shelter amid a row of tents that form part of an improvised camp erected on the median outside Mexico City’s northern bus terminal, October 25, 2023.

Migrant rights activists called on the city to meet its obligations to migrants. The Mexican capital is a “sanctuary city” and a number of laws, as well as the city’s constitution, compel the government to attend to the needs of migrants. During previous mass arrivals, the city set up temporary shelters, something officials have not yet done in this case. Núñez Chaim tells Truthout that following the press conference, representatives from the city’s Well-Being Secretariat toured a shelter to ascertain the situation but as of yet have not followed up with concrete actions.

Meanwhile, left with no other option, shelters are prioritizing giving their beds to women and children, with men living in the encampments throughout the city, although entire families sleeping in a single tent is not an infrequent sight.

The emergence of migrant camps in the city is proof that this issue is invariably a regional one.

“There’s an interest in having a mass of undocumented people that are devoid of rights, that are going to be selling their labor in the cheapest way possible and under the worst conditions.”

Migrants end up congregating in the Mexican capital due to a perverse incentive caused by the U.S.’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) app “CBP One.” The app is meant to serve as a portal for CBP’s services, including the scheduling of appointments to present themselves at ports of entry, a crucial first step for migrants to secure entry to the U.S. However, people can only start to try to schedule an appointment once they are in Central Mexico.

Edwin Rosales, a Venezuelan migrant from the state of Falcón, who, like many others, traveled via land through the deadly Darien Gap, told Truthout that he intends to stay in or near Mexico City until he can secure an appointment via the CBP One app and continue on to the Mexico-U.S. border. Rosales has a friend in nearby Hidalgo state but struggled to find a way there since bus companies will not sell tickets to migrants who lack the necessary documentation to travel within Mexico.

The number of migrants arriving or transiting through Mexico City is unlikely to decrease anytime soon. Mexican Foreign Secretary Alicia Bárcena recently said that the country was witness to a “historic phenomenon.”

Núñez Chaim, however, cautions that the issue should not be treated as a totally unique situation.

“Every year this is talked about in the political discourse as if it were a novelty, but every year we break migration records,” she told Truthout. “We know that migratory flows are increasing and to that extent, it seems to me that it is no longer legitimate for the authorities to argue every year that it is a never-before-seen phenomenon and that they are not prepared or do not have the capacity to address it … it is time for them to prepare and develop capacities to address this phenomenon.”

Once inside the United States, many migrants opt to head to New York City, where many have friends and family, and also where a court ruling obliges the city to provide them with shelter. This has led New York City Mayor Eric Adams to take a hardline position against migrants, with one critic even charging that “there’s a real possibility of his rhetoric fomenting violence.”

Adams subsequently took an unprecedented trip to the region, visiting Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia, but nonetheless maintained his anti-immigrant positions, telling an audience in Puebla, Mexico, that there is no more room in New York, echoing Vice President Kamala Harris’s famous reprimand in Guatemala when she sternly told migrants, “Do not come.”

Ximena Bustamante, founder of the Undocumented Women’s Fund, which works to deliver resources to migrant women in New York City, says Adams’s statements on this issue are largely driven by his desire for re-election and are an effort to hide the root cause of the problem.

“The shelter system has been in crisis for years, and I think that what many of us that are organizing here are saying is the influx of new immigrants is not the crisis; the crisis precedes all of this — the influx has made it visible,” Bustamante told Truthout.

She suspects that Adams knows that his efforts to dissuade migrants from coming will not actually have a deterrence effect and instead his message is aimed at a domestic audience. Bustamante, herself a migrant, believes that the rhetoric used by anti-migrant politicians is also driven by an interest in controlling and disciplining migrant labor.

“Generally speaking, there’s an interest in having a mass of undocumented people that are devoid of rights, that are going to be selling their labor in the cheapest way possible and under the worst conditions,” said Bustamante.

Writing for The New Republic, Felipe De La Hoz lamented the shift in public attitudes and the pivot by Democrats on the issue, saying that Biden’s decision to facilitate the expansion of the border wall “marked the official death of the pro-immigrant consensus that solidified in mainstream Democratic circles.”

Bustamante says that a powerful migrant rights movement, capable of pushing back against prevailing anti-migrant sentiments, is lacking inside the United States.

“There’s no reason for the political establishment to change gears because there’s really no force asking them to do that,” she said.

For their part, migrants have consistently maintained that these deterrence measures do not factor into their decision-making. The Venezuelan migrants Truthout spoke with all said they would have preferred to stay in Venezuela but felt they had no choice but to leave their country because of the extremely challenging situation back home.

“The situation forces you to leave the country,” said Rosales.

While Bustamante laments the role that Mexico plays in enforcing the U.S.’s border policies, she argues this will only be reversed if there is a “regional or strategic alliance” capable of providing a united front against U.S. pressure in the region.

The thinking behind the Palenque Summit was to generate a united regional response to the disproportionate influence the U.S. has on the matter — as a matter of fact, U.S. officials were not even invited to attend. López Obrador stated he intends to hand deliver the message from the summit to U.S. President Joe Biden when he meets with him next month at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco.

The Palenque Declaration’s call for the end of the U.S.’s unilateral coercive measures was warmly embraced by Venezuelan President Maduro. At the summit, he commented that the emigration issue could be quickly resolved if the U.S.’s unilateral coercive measures were lifted completely.

Ana Gabriel Salazar, research coordinator for the Venezuela-based human rights organization Sures, says it is impossible to understand Venezuelan emigration without addressing the “imposition of the economic, financial and commercial blockade” against Venezuela.

“The issue of unilateral coercive measures is dismissed in the media, precisely because a narrative that Venezuela is a failed state that does not comply with its international obligations regarding human rights has been promoted,” Salazar told Truthout.

“There is a directly proportional relationship between the imposition of these coercive measures and the outgoing flows of migrants from Venezuela to other countries in the region and to other continents.”

In response to past efforts to incentivize emigration of Venezuelans for political reasons, the Palenque Declaration also included a call for countries to abandon policies that serve to “draw” migrants.

Salazar said that Sures had found that some of these policies, far from attending to the human rights of Venezuelan migrants, were cumbersome and wholly insufficient. Salazar added that the Palenque Summit marked an important first step toward addressing Venezuelan migration in a “holistic” way, which will ensure their human rights are respected, including the right to return.

Both Marín and Rosales told Truthout that if the situation in the country improved, they would happily return to Venezuela.

“That is our country, where we were born and raised, where our family lives, even if it meant starting over, we would return to our homeland,” said Marín.

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