Discover more from Americas Migration Brief
Washington thinks regionally, but what does it prioritize?
While migration to the United States has traditionally been dominated by Mexicans and then Northern Central Americans, the last few years have seen new trends in increasing migration from South America, the Caribbean, and extracontinental migrants from Africa and Asia. This has both highlighted the regional—and global—nature of migration and increased the number of countries—and borders—between home countries and the United States.
Thinking regionally about migration and implementing collaborative migration policy with partners across the Americas is relatively new in Washington, a new paradigm that seeks to look beyond the US-Mexico border to better understand the reality of human mobility. This new way of approaching migration has had many benefits, including increased coordination and information sharing between stakeholders, the creation of new labor and protection pathways, stronger initiatives to promote integration in receiving countries across the hemisphere, and improved efforts to clamp down on human and sexual trafficking.
The LA Declaration, signed June 2022, was a historic recognition of the regional and multifaceted nature of migration across the Americas. But since the declaration’s signing, the most clear follow through at a regional level has been the proliferance of hardening border enforcement measures and efforts to halt migrants in transit in their tracks.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the implementation of visa restrictions.
Thinking regionally has brought an increased coordination on these border enforcement efforts. The four countries that have received the most attention of late for their migration to the United States are Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Using the tools available without congressional reform, the Biden administration has implemented an innovative humanitarian parole policy for these four countries and sought to expand family reunification pathways; it has also pushed for countries along the route north to introduce visa restrictions in an effort to deter asylum seeking at the US-Mexico border. Less than a decade ago, Venezuelans could enter Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama without a visa en route to the United States. Today, Venezuelans must go through laborious and expensive processes to enter those same countries.
One example that slips under the radar but is emblematic of the policy approach is that of Belize, where new visa restrictions have been implemented for Haitians and debated for Jamaicans due to their use of the country as a landing point before continuing on by foot to head north. Per Caricom’s CSME and the Treaty of Chaguaramas, both Haitians and Jamaicans should generally have visa-free entry for up to six months in Belize.
Download and see the maps up close here.
Visa restrictions also act as a deterrent for extracontinental migrants, too. Migrants from Africa and Asia are increasingly looking to seek asylum at the US border, but most are pushed to fly to South America—often Ecuador or Brazil—before taking off on foot heading north. The trend has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic, but began as far back as 2013 (see also MPI research here).
Despite a proliferation of targeted visa restrictions, the reality is that migration has continued. As the option of flights and other regular travel further north has been taken off the board, this has only pushed migrants to take more dangerous paths to the US border, most infamously through the Darien Gap. 127,678 migrants crossed the Darien Gap between January and April 2023—six times more than over the same period last year. And even though the Biden administration announced new deterrence measures following the expiration of Title 42 that have been labeled an “asylum transit ban,” migrants have continued to make the trek north.
The Trump administration’s coordination with Mexico and Safe Third Country Agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to halt asylum seekers were the first real regional migration policies from the US government—bar perhaps the Obama administration’s Alliance for Prosperity Plan for Northern Central America. Paired alongside a deep history of US law enforcement and security cooperation with regional partners (covered excellently by The Border Chronicle recently), the Trump administration’s policies were heavily centered on enforcement measures and deterrence.
The Biden administration, by contrast, has taken a dual approach oriented towards both crafting and expanding legal pathways to the United States and implementing deterrence measures geared towards migration management and border enforcement. Washington is now thinking more regionally about migration, but the question becomes where its priorities lie, and where they will head as we approach the 2024 presidential election and beyond.