LOS ANGELES — The Biden administration wants countries along a dangerous migration route through South and Central America to help address the unprecedented flow of migrants at the southern border with Mexico by committing to expand their asylum systems and enforce their borders under a new regional partnership announced Friday during the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.
The administration secured the support of 18 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean, including Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which are some of the main emitters of migrants to United States. Mexico also signed even though its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, snubbed the gathering after the U.S. opted not to invite certain nondemocratic leaders. Canada signed the declaration as well, bringing the total number of countries to 20.
“We are committed to protecting the safety and dignity of all migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless persons, regardless of their migratory status, and respecting their human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the countries, including the United States, said in the declaration. “We intend to cooperate closely to facilitate safe, orderly, humane, and regular migration and, as appropriate, promote safe and dignified returns, consistent with national legislation, the principle of non-refoulement, and our respective obligations under international law.”
The plan requires governments along the migratory route to establish and fortify asylum processing in each of their respective countries “while more effectively enforcing their borders, conducting screenings and removing those individuals who do not qualify for asylum,” a senior administration official said.
The current rates of irregular migration are unprecedented, U.S. officials have said, and affect nearly every country in South and Central America, as well as others in the Caribbean.
Under the declaration, governments committed to expand temporary worker programs to address labor shortages while reducing irregular migration. The commitments also call for the expansion of other legal channels for migration, including refugee resettlement and family reunification.
The senior official said the administration will increase funding to help countries like Colombia that host large numbers of migrants and refugees and work with international financial institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank to help middle-income countries better cope with the burden of welcoming displaced people.
The United States is also committing to help countries “combat and root out” human smuggling networks that prey on migrants through a large-scale law enforcement effort aimed at dismantling networks across Latin America.
“The Los Angeles Declaration on migration and protection is centered around responsibility sharing and economic support for countries that have been most impacted by refugee and migration flows,” said a senior administration official. “It sets forth a framework for a coordinated and predictable way for states to manage migration.”
While the administration official described the declaration as “ambitious,” there are little details on how countries are expected to fund increased border security and other initiatives. Several countries that are among the largest emitters of migrants like Cuba, Venezuela and several Central American countries, were not invited to the summit or did not send their heads of state.
The U.S. official also said that some of the proposed measures, like expanding legal pathways for migrants, would likely require Congress’ approval.
On Friday, the administration also announced it was resuming the expedited family reunification programs for Cubans and Haitians, expanding refugee resettlement and increasing funding to respond to the Venezuela crisis. The State Department said the United States will resettle 20,000 refugees from the Americas over the next two years, “a three-fold increase over projected arrivals this fiscal year.”
But the resettling number is small compared to the commitment of receiving 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and given the large influx of people displaced in the region, among them more than 6 million Venezuelans. USAID also announced $314 million in new “humanitarian, health, economic, and development assistance” for Venezuelan refugees and vulnerable migrants across the hemisphere.
Also among the commitments, the administration said it will provide $25 million to the Global Concessional Financing Facility to prioritize support for countries in Latin America, such as Ecuador and Costa Rica, to support programs benefiting refugees and asylum seekers. The GCFF is a World Bank fund created in 2016 to provide financial support to middle-income countries around the world impacted by refugee crises.
Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera, who served as president of Costa Rica between 2014-2018 during which his nation became a land bridge for migrants, said addressing the historic flows will require more than money. He said there must be new laws in the United States “to use the human capital that migration provides in more intelligent and humanitarian ways.”
“Yes, migration laws must be enforced, but this can’t be done violating human rights as some politicians in Texas and Florida suggest,” he said.
Solís said the Biden administration has correctly identified the structural causes of migration in the Northern Triangle of Central America, which includes the countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“It has also expressed its willingness to contribute with significant financial and technical resources to ease those causes ($4 billion), as well as to support new investments for an additional $3 billion coming from private sources,” Solís said in an email to the Miami Herald. “This is no small thing and should be welcomed and acknowledged.
“Yet, all these efforts will not stop the human flows and therefore require other measures both in U.S. as well as in Central America,” he added.
A United Nations study, citing the government of Panama, said that last year more than 133,000 people irregularly crossed the border between the Central American nation and Colombia.
The region, known as the Darien Gap, is one of the world’s most treacherous migrant routes. Nearly 90,000 of those who crossed in 2021 were Haitian nationals, many of whom had been living in Chile and Brazil in the years after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.
The migration pact comes as thousands of refugees continue to gather at the U.S. southern border with Mexico, hoping to cross into the United States without the risk of either getting quickly expelled back to Mexico or to their home country.
The number of Haitians in Central and South America is unknown. But according to a U.N. study, 4% of the 73,504 refugees in Mexico as of Dec. 31 had Haitian nationality. Of the 157,180 seeking asylum, 33% were Haitians, who had the lowest rate of acceptance for asylum in comparison to other, Spanish-speaking refugees.
Those who dare cross irregularly into the U.S. risk being quickly expelled under the Trump-era public health policy known as Title 42, leading to criticism of Biden, who advocates say has expelled more than 25,000 Haitians back to a country riddled with violence since September and facing a humanitarian crisis.
Along with seeking countries’ assistance, the U.S. was also expected to announce new support for Haiti, the administration official said.
Though the official did not go into details on the Haiti support, sources tell the Herald that the administration has committed to increasing Haiti’s participation in the U.S.’s H-2A and H-2B seasonal, guest worker visas program, creating more anti-gang fighting units inside the country’s beleaguered police force and working to relax restrictions on the purchase of arms and other equipment. The country is currently subjected to a U.S. arms embargo, which has presented hurdles in its ability to obtain certain kinds of guns, and armory to fight heavily armed gangs.
The U.S. Agency for International Development also plans to increase its food security assistance to help fight what United Nations agencies have warned is “unabated” rise in hunger. Some 4.5 million Haitians in a population of nearly 12 million are experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity, the World Food Program recently said as it noted the lower-than-expected humanitarian food assistance and the continued fallout the country continues to experience from last August’s deadly earthquake.
The brewing hunger crisis, soaring inflation, a weakening domestic currency against the U.S. dollar, deepening political instability, escalating gang violence and unabated kidnappings have all added to the migration crisis.
“We need the international community and in particular, the countries of the Americas have to act with no delay to the dramatic situation that Haiti is going through,” Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader said during a plenary session Friday where he defended his country’s much-criticized border enforcement policies against irregular Haitian migration. “I think its unjustifiable that this community of Haitians allows a state in the middle of the Americas to see most of its territory controlled by criminal gangs.
“Haitians are suffering the consequences of instability and danger created by these gangs,”Abinader said. “Its citizens have to find other alternatives to survive. They have to migrate to the Dominican Republic and to a lesser extent, other countries in the region. The Dominican Republic cannot be the only one to shoulder all of this. In fact we are already doing much more than we are able to. The situation in our neighboring country has gone well beyond the limit of a migratory problem. This is a national security problem.”
Haiti’s Interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry said Friday while his nation will continue to cooperate with host countries in the region and accept the return of Haitian migrants, he will continue to insist that they be treated humanely and their basic rights be respected.
“I believe that we need to highlight finding concrete and sustainable solutions to the issues that are pushing all of these migrants to leave their home,” he said. “In Haiti, these issues are misery, unemployment, the lack of opportunity for youth, inequities, insecurity and political instability. These phenomenons are not limited solely to Haiti. My country and others in the region need massive investments to create stable employment in order to offer our youth and other candidates for irregular migration opportunities and hope for a better future.”
While more than 20,000 Haitian migrants have irregularly crossed the U.S.’s southern land border with Mexico in the last 10 months, more than 5,300 Haitians have been stopped at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard since October in the largest exodus of Haitians by boat in nearly 20 years.
The majority are bound for the Florida Keys and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. But they are also washing up in unsafe, overcrowded vessels in the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos and Cuba, while also using the neighboring Dominican Republic as a springboard for Puerto Rico, Mexico and Latin America.
“We recognize the need to expand people’s pathways just in general but also specifically, countries where we are seeing high outflows that are directly related to humanitarian situations and security situations,” the administration official said. “I think the goal is to provide legal channels so that folks don’t have to take irregular means to get to safety or to reunite with family.”
The invitation for Henry to attend the summit has come under fire from some Haitians and U.S. lawmakers. But a number of individuals, including Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, insisted on Henry’s presence at the summit, remarking that the country’s instability is a source of concern throughout the region.
“In Haiti, we continue to work for a transition that leads to appropriate elections that are supported by all the Haitian people,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during the summit when asked about Henry’s presence. “We continue to work to deal with gang violence that is afflicting the country and is doing terrible damage to the Haitian people. We continue to work to try to find ways to support the Haitian people, who have borne more than their share of trouble in the last years, both human and naturally made.”
Since taking the reins of power after last July’s assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise, Henry has been at loggerheads with members of civil society who want to lead a two-year transition of the country. The deepening paralysis along with the kidnappings and reduced purchasing power of many households are fueling despair and a new migration wave.
During the public address in which he defended his efforts to govern Haiti “against antagonistic forces,” Henry acknowledged that the future seems “bleak” and democracy is suffering.
“My country is currently subjected to great insecurity. There are armed gangs that are stealing, raping, killing and kidnapping be it Haitians or foreign citizens,” he said. “By this criminal activity they have prevented free circulation of citizens and goods in the country.”
His government, he said, was working on a plan to return the country to democratic order through elections.
Record numbers of Haitians are not just showing up at the southern border of the U.S. where they are arriving after crossing a dozen countries in South and Central America and after spending years living in Chile and Brazil, but they are also washing up on the shores of the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico after getting on rickety boats in the largest exodus of Haitians leaving by boat from the island of Hispaniola in nearly 20 years.
More than 1,400 have successfully made it to land since October after washing up in the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico by boat.
The U.S., which had a bilateral meeting with Henry on the sidelines of the summit this week, is increasingly under pressure to provide more assistance to Haiti, especially in the area of security where a weakened Haiti National Police has been unable to control kidnappings and killings by armed gangs who now control large swaths of Port-au-Prince.
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