The Mexico-U.S. Call On Immigration: What Can Be Done?

On August 9th, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke with United States vice president Kamala Harris about issues of internal migration and Central America’s ongoing struggle with COVID-19.

The U.S.-Mexico call is the first sign that Mexico is starting to implement the economic changes promised in the deal the two countries signed in June. However, although many of the call’s specifics have not been released to the press, the information that has been made public seems to indicate a continuation of the disjointed and exclusionary approach to immigration that the Biden administration has facilitated so far. A public-facing Harris says this approach “address[es] the root causes for migration,” even as Biden’s policies continue to expel or trap hundreds of thousands of migrants in the asylum process. Biden’s immigration policy has been widely criticized and is only hurting the immigrants the administration claims to seek to protect.

Mexico has been closed to non-essential travel to the U.S. for the past year and a half due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. The country is currently experiencing a humanitarian crisis at its northern and southern borders, as hundreds of thousands of migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras travel up from the Northern Triangle and get trapped at the border lines.

Despite the Biden administration’s efforts to loosen immigration regulations, the crisis at the southern border has escalated. Hundreds of thousands of migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have been trapped at Mexico’s border lines. According to ABC News, the asylum process has been slowed to a trickle in an attempt to clear the backlog of deportation cases, resulting in a 76% increase in illegal immigrants being arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border since the beginning of the year. In total, this amounts to 180,000 encounters – the highest that number has been in two decades. A majority of the adults in that group were sent back immediately under the controversial “Title 42” process. However, children are exempt from those protocols. This has resulted in a massive wave of unaccompanied children being detained at the border as well.

Those who were sent back, according to ABC News, have been documented to have been illegally flown to Mexico’s southern border in an attempt to “discourage recidivism.” The Mexican government then flies many back to the Northern Triangle, putting them immediately back into conditions they fled from. Non-governmental rights organization Human Rights First has decried these processes as “illegal, inhumane, and blatant violations of U.S. refugee law,” and Amnesty International has encouraged both Mexico and the U.S. to amend their policies to “take into account the risks to their lives” which migrants must make when emigrating. Yet the policies continue.

Despite the inhumane policies the Biden administration has implemented and continued, Harris has put on a public show of co-operation with President Obrador over the past few months. Her outreach plan has been focused around “addressing the root causes” of migration through “bolstering the economies” of Central American countries, promising to direct money and resources to address “poverty, violence, and lack of economic opportunity,” Reuters reports. More recent concerns, brought up in the call between Mexico and the U.S., included “agricultural reform and climate resilience.”

COVID-19 vaccines were also a highlight of the call. The U.S. promised to send additional doses of the vaccine to Mexico, on top of the four million already delivered over the past year. This influx will hopefully help address the infections ravaging border towns and asylum facilities, which have been notorious hotspots for the virus.

However, despite this show of good faith, these reforms are only middle-level solutions. They will not address the conditions of migrants currently trying to get into America, or the inhumane policies still being upheld under the Biden administration. These reforms may buy time for Biden to iron out the asylum-seeking process and potentially make reforms, but very little can be done in the long term if the narrative surrounding immigration doesn’t shift.

According to an article from Tufts University’s news website, three key changes will help alleviate the pressures of the United States’ immigration crisis: boosting legal migration, reducing disease fears, and recognizing migrants’ vulnerability. While Harris has put in a public effort to emphasize the third of these, the Biden administration has struggled to achieve the first, done nothing about the second, and actively obstructed the third. Concrete reform can only begin to be made when the U.S. takes cohesive steps to change its approach to immigration.