Mexico City — After four years of racist Trump-era immigration policy designed to appeal to white supremacists, migrant justice activists and allies are welcoming a series of changes by U.S. President Joe Biden. However, they signaled that the proposed reforms are only the beginning, and warned that these changes will need to be accompanied by major shifts in U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America.
On his first day in office, Biden announced a series of executive orders that included a reversal of some of former president Donald Trump’s most hardline immigration policies. Biden’s orders included efforts to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, softening certain forms immigration enforcement, ending construction of the physical border wall and rolling back the “Remain in Mexico” program, as well as a memorandum calling for a 100-day moratorium on some deportations.
“The executive orders for us, they’re really the floor, not the ceiling,” Jacinta González, said senior campaign organizer with Mijente.
Biden also announced his intention to send a comprehensive immigration reform bill to Congress as one of his first legislative pushes. González says there is still much more to accomplish and that the legislative process, as well as the 100-day review of DHS policies also announced by Biden, will be “organizing opportunities” for Mijente, which works to increase the political power of Chicanx and Latinx communities in the United States.
“Our community needs permanent protection from deportation and a path to citizenship,” said González.
The Biden administration has also signaled its intent to address some of the root causes of migration, following demands made by migrant activists both in the United States and inside Central America.
Bartolo Fuentes, a Honduran journalist and migrant human rights defender, said the changes announced by Biden are a welcome departure from the policies of the previous administration but warned that the U.S. will need to both undo the damage already done by Trump and move away from the type of imperialist foreign policy championed by both Republicans and Democrats.
The Trump administration pressured governments in the region to support its anti-migrant agenda, implementing deals that resulted in them cracking down on migrant caravans, impeding migrants from advancing to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“These anti-migrant policies [by the U.S.] result in: Mexico militarizing its southern border, the beating of migrants in Guatemala, and that Honduras places barriers made up of police on the highways to impede the exit of migrants from the country,” Fuentes said.
“Is Biden only going to stop the construction of the wall between Mexico and the United States, or is he also going to get rid of the human walls that have been erected in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras?” he added.
Of particular concern to Fuentes are the so-called Safe Third Country agreements that compel governments in Central America to resettle refugees in other countries in the region. The Biden administration has stated it intends to implement regional processing centers in Central America, explicitly stating that not all refugees would be resettled in the U.S.
“A ‘safe third country’ does not exist here in Central America … I do not believe the solution is for people to go somewhere else,” said Fuentes.
For Hondurans the current political and economic crisis driving much of migration today began with the 2009 coup in the country, which was carried out and consolidated during the Obama administration where Biden served as vice president. Since the coup, successive governments led by the National Party have ruled the country, with the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, having been re-elected in 2017 in a vote that was widely viewed as fraudulent.
The Hernandez regime has been frequently accused of endemic corruption and the president’s own brother has been convicted of drug trafficking by a New York court.
Fuentes says that tackling the root causes of migration must invariably include ending U.S. support for the Hernandez regime, something he argues would restore hope to many who are thinking of migrating.
“As long as the United States continues endorsing the pawns it has in these countries, there is no solution [to the migration crisis],” said Fuentes. “As long as conditions in the country do not improve, the flow of migrants will not end.”
The Biden administration has stated that addressing the root causes of migration is a priority for the government, but the Biden government and migrant activists have a very different understanding of what that actually means.
The Biden administration’s current proposal for Central America is similar to the previous Alliance for Prosperity Plan, which was crafted when Biden served as Barack Obama’s envoy to Central America during a previous migration crisis. However, the Alliance for Prosperity was roundly criticized for failing to meet its stated objectives and instead promoted neoliberal development projects in the country, aimed at enriching the country’s oligarchy.
Migrant Roots Media, a U.S.-based organization that amplifies the voices of migrants and works to shift narratives on root causes of migration, analyzed the Biden campaign’s $4 billion strategy for Central America, concluding in its report that the current proposal ultimately “bolsters a neoliberal development plan that will end up largely benefitting private investors at the expense of impoverished workers and rural campesinos (peasants), the majority of them Indigenous.”
Alejandra Mejía, chief editor of the report, said that previous efforts to address the root causes of migration, such as the Alliance for Prosperity Initiative, ultimately ended up funding the further militarization of countries like Honduras. Biden’s newest proposal also makes mention of support for “security initiatives” in the region.
Biden’s proposal also puts a heavy emphasis on private investment and development. Honduras has a long history of conflict resulting from development projects that are imposed on communities without free, prior and informed consent.
“It has been, historically, corporations and elites who will go in and drive people out of their lands through these economic policies,” said Linda Brito, policy director at Migrant Roots Media.
Brito argues that U.S. foreign policy in Central America and across the globe is focused on promoting U.S. business interests and “extracting the most amount of wealth from communities.”
“Within the migrant justice movement we need to really consider an analysis of the root causes [of migration], which are these neoliberal economic policies,” said Mejía.
Roxana Bendezú, executive director of Migrant Roots Media, said that if more people in the U.S. were aware of this history, they would welcome migrants at the border with open arms.
Bartolo Fuentes expects migrant caravans to continue forming, with the most recent one departing earlier this year before being broken up by Guatemalan authorities. He too calls on the U.S. to welcome migrants and to take a new approach toward the migrant caravans in particular.
“There will be more caravans … People are going to go because we were poor to begin with, the pandemic and the quarantine destroyed families’ finances, and here in the northern region, the hurricanes finished us off,” said Fuentes.
Politicians in the U.S. on both sides of the aisle have frequently depicted the caravans in a negative light, as being full of “criminals” and, more recently as being potential sources of contagion. Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan has even made public comments trying to dissuade migrants from coming.
Nonetheless, the new political terrain opened up by successful grassroots organizing and the election of Joe Biden to the presidency has migrant justice activists and allies feeling cautiously optimistic.
“The fight is not over. This is just the first chapter in what is going to be a long battle ahead, but we are already excited about what the future brings,” said Jacinta González.