Migration looms over summit despite White House skittishness

As planning began for this week’s Summit of the Americas — the first to be held in the U.S. in nearly three decades — the Biden administration circulated an agenda outlining its key issues: Improving Health Care, Combating Climate Change, Empowering of democracy and expanding access to technology.

Civil society members and advocates planning to attend the Los Angeles summit noted a glaring omission for a hemisphere in crisis: migration.

The politically tense and regionally complex issue that has angered the US and Latin America since the summit’s inception loomed large at this week’s conference. Though the summit was dogged by regional disagreements over who was invited, supporters and some involved in the planning say a reluctance to highlight migration has undermined US leadership on the issue. It also limited the Biden administration’s chances of forming a coalition to resolve the issue, they said.

“Not to be the focus [migration] and then not putting it in the spotlight and actually using that opportunity responsibly to get leaders to understand what is driving people out of their countries is a missed opportunity,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. “It’s not being elevated to the level that reality demands.”

The result, she said, is that migration has become the “elephant in the room.”

The US skipped discussion of the migration issue until Friday, the final day of the five-day conference. At that point, President Biden plans to sign a joint statement in which more countries will commit to sharing the burden of hosting migrants by creating more visa avenues to move legally or provide humanitarian protection to migrants. However, it is not yet clear which nations will join the agreement.

Leaders from several countries critical of the issue skipped the summit in protest at the Biden administration’s decision to expel leaders from several countries it considers anti-democratic. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who led objections to the guest list and is perhaps the most important US partner in the region, stayed home and sent his Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard instead.

The leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras also decided not to attend. Mexico and these three countries produce the most migrants trying to cross the US border.

The boycott has led some to wonder if the statement will be purely symbolic, although White House officials have expressed confidence several countries will step up, including Mexico. US officials said the issue of migration at the end of the conference will give them time to persuade countries to back the deal. They also noted that Biden discussed the issue in his major summit speech, telling attendees that “safe and orderly migration is good for all of our economies, including the United States.” But he added: “Irregular migration is unacceptable.”

Even so, some advocates have expressed frustration that pushing migration to the last day has only made it harder to reach an agreement, emphasizing the US’ apparent reluctance to seriously address the issue.

“I think it was a missed opportunity not to have more civil society dialogue and feedback on things that government should consider and prioritize when addressing protection issues,” said Maureen Meyer, vice president of programs for the Washington Office for Latin America.

Economic devastation, environmental disasters, corruption and political instability have upended migration patterns across the region. The crisis in Venezuela has catapulted disproportionately millions of migrants to countries like Chile, Colombia and Peru.

Physical and political earthquakes in Haiti have shifted migrants to South America, while Americans from northern Central America are crossing Mexico into the United States at an historic pace. Nicaraguans fled their country’s dictatorship to Costa Rica.

“Migration is a challenging issue for many of these countries for many reasons, and they’re dealing with it in different ways,” said Theresa Brown, a former Department of Homeland Security official who now serves as the executive director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“I think there are some things you can do together if you want to. But a lot of these leaders have never met before… maybe that was part of the challenge.”

According to Gasper Rivera Salgado, project leader at the UCLA Labor Center, the Biden administration has encountered difficulty convincing some countries to aggressively address migration for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with conflicting policy goals.

“It would force countries that are the sources of these multiple migration flows to recognize that their domestic policies are not working in terms of security and economic opportunity,” he said. “It would also force countries that host these migrants, such as the United States and Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile, to recognize the problem as a humanitarian crisis. That would mean they had a moral obligation to provide assistance rather than turn to deterrence.”

“It highlights the failed promises and limits of multilateralism, because multilateralism goes only so far as nationalism.”

In the US, the Biden administration is faced with tough immigration policies. Republicans have seized on the issue to portray Biden as weak on border security ahead of the November midterm elections. And he’s frustrated by progressive supporters who argue he’s been slow to implement the immigration reform he’s been fighting for, lifting border restrictions, including a pandemic-era health regulation that gave authorities the power to expel migrants without legal progress. (A federal judge prevented the administration from repealing the order known as Title 42 in May).

Analysts say the relentless criticism and political toxicity of immigration has apparently caused some in the White House to hesitate to prioritize migration at this year’s summit.

“For the hosts of the US summit, the ugly domestic politics of immigration undermines US leadership on this issue,” said Benjamin Gedan, acting director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America program.

Vice President Harris, for example, has suffered a severe domestic setback due to lack of progress on her most important job – leading the government’s efforts to address the so-called root causes of migration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Republicans have hammered her over a lack of progress in stemming the influx of migrants, and pro-immigration advocates have expressed concern that she appears ambivalent on the issue.

Administrative officials responded that Harris takes the matter seriously. Earlier this week, it announced nearly $2 billion in new private investment in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, bringing the total corporate commitments for investment in the region to $3.2 billion since the initiative began last year increased. She also started a women’s empowerment program to train young women and girls with job skills and a $50 million Central America Service Corps to provide paid community service positions to young people.

However, when the government officially opened the summit on Wednesday, the vice president didn’t even mention migration in her opening address, although she rattled off a list of other issues facing the region, including “climate crisis, food insecurity, economic inequality.” , corruption and gender-based violence.” Migration looms over summit despite White House skittishness

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