Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

The Biden administration has negotiated an agreement with the government of Mexico for expanded immigration enforcement within Mexico in order to keep unaccompanied children and other migrants away from the U.S./Mexico border.  From Reuters

The people familiar with the plan said Mexico would deploy security forces to cut the flow of migrants, the bulk of whom come from Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, whose economies were battered by the coronavirus pandemic and hurricanes last year.

Two of the people said the National Guard militarized police, which led efforts to bring down the number of illegal immigrants entering Mexico from Central America during an increase in 2019, would be at the fore of the containment drive.

“The operations will be more frequent, more continuous and we will be taking part,” from next week, a member of the National Guard said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Biden is not the first president to get concessions from Mexico for expanded immigration enforcement. Mexico has been pressured to adjust its own enforcement priorities and practices numerous times in deference to U.S. border policy – Obama pressed Mexico to expand enforcement when his administration faced an increase in unaccompanied children as well. Most recently, Trump threatened tariffs on products from Mexico unless President Obrador agreed to expand enforcement measures back in 2019. 

Biden is now doing the same, but offering assistance with COVID-19 vaccines, instead of threatening tariffs. Though the Biden administration is denying a quid pro quo here, the implication is clearly that absent agreement from Mexico there would be no extra COVID-19 vaccines coming from the United States. According to the Washington Post

“It’s not a quid pro quo, it’s a parallel negotiation,” said a senior Mexican diplomat who was not authorized to discuss the conversations. “If there is no mass vaccination campaign in Mexico, it makes it more difficult to open the border to nonessential activities. So vaccinations in Mexico are a benefit to the U.S.” Similarly, the diplomat added, “if migration is under control, it diminishes the image of a crisis, and facilitates the approval of immigration reforms that are key for both countries.”

Whatever the case may be, Mexico is going along for now, and this is concerning. The reason is that Mexico’s immigration laws, while very far from perfect, are, on paper at least, more in line with international norms than those in the United States. For example, in November, Mexico passed legislation that makes it illegal to hold children in detention facilities. That law went into effect in January, just before Biden came into the White House. What should be celebrated as an advance in human rights, has been received as a nuisance by U.S. immigration authorities, as the Department of Homeland Security is now frustrated it can’t send families back into Mexico with the ease it did under Trump. 

Enter the promise of delivery of AstraZeneca (stockpiled by the United States, even though it has not been approved for use here – itself a highly immoral practice, given the global shortage of vaccines), and “Mexican officials have told the Biden administration they are willing to alter or delay the implementation of a law passed in November that limits their ability to detain minors.” Bravo.

Of course, the “crisis” for Biden at the moment involves the kids that come here without families. The narrative of this manufactured crisis goes something like this. From the New York Times:

Biden and his homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, are balancing their desire to reject Trump’s uncompromising approach — particularly with regard to unaccompanied minors, who have arrived at the border this month at a rate of roughly 400 people a day — with an acknowledgment that proceeding with business as usual simply isn’t an option, as tens of thousands of migrants, fleeing insecurity and poverty at home, require housing and processing. 

400 children a day? Are these crisis numbers? While overall apprehensions are up, for unaccompanied children the numbers are still below 2019 and 2014 peaks. To keep this in perspective, we are talking about the entire border now, including scores of ports of entry, and Border Patrol stations. In speaking with a friend at Witness at the Border a few weeks ago about numbers, he mentioned that in late spring of 2019 he was volunteering at a border shelter that assisted 800 migrants a day. One shelter. So what’s up?

A couple of context clues here. First, up to 13,000 kids were simply expelled from the United States between March and October 2020 under a public health order, “Title 42,” that has effectively closed the border to asylum seekers, even children and families. Then, a federal court told DHS it had to stop expelling the (unaccompanied) kids. The Trump administration sort of stopped – only expelling 1,500 kids in November before slowing to double digits in December and January. In January, an appellate court said that it was okay for the government to expel these kids after all (WTF?!?!?). However, Biden decided not to. 

As a result, immigration authorities are being challenged to reimagine life before it was okay to summarily expel unaccompanied children from the United States. Given that the summary expulsion of children was only approved for seven months, such an exercise in ethical excavation seems possible for a freedom loving nation of immigrants. Right?

Well, it gets more complicated. Unaccompanied children, unlike kids with families (who are, by the way, still being summarily expelled) need to be held some place while the government locates family or community sponsors. Again, this is a process that has existed for years, managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Yes, Trump messed this up like everything else, but not irreparably. Trump’s main fault with these kids was to detain them as long as possible by making it harder for families to come forward. Longer detention time was intended to be a deterrent. That never really worked. It never does. 

That said, the shelters still exist. The “non-profits” that run them are still around (though, to be honest, some have lousy reputations). While there is a debate about shelter space at the moment, capacity seems to be close to 13,000 beds – more than enough to manage the current cases. Of course, not detaining these kids for extended periods of time is the answer. In most cases, family can be identified within days, and when not, other sponsors exist and can be pre-cleared. 

There is no perfect solution, of course, but the point is that capacity exists, and so the numbers seem manageable with a little bit of foresight. The media hand-wringing, however, seems to be scaring the administration, which has called in FEMA and is talking about re-opening highly controversial temporary camps to detain the kids. The optics of all of this is bad, and what this means for some of these kids, is even worse. 

So, back to Mexico. Unable to summarily expel these kids back to Mexico once they cross the border, the solution seems to be to keep them there, or even block their passage further south. Which is to say, if the optics are bad, get the kids out of the picture altogether. On Thursday, March 18, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry announced that it was closing its borders with Guatemala and Belize to all but “essential” travel, while also announcing new regulations on the treatment of unaccompanied minors. Immigration authorities also arrested, and detained 84 minors last week, in violation of the new law banning such detentions. Though possibly an isolated incident, in context, many are concerned this presages the next few months of “increased enforcement” for kids trying to cross Mexico for the United States. 

Hopefully, they can at least get a vaccine now.

Is Biden as bad as Trump? Of course not. The Biden administration seems to sincerely want to make immigration reform that is an advance over what we’ve seen in recent years (including from Biden’s former boss, Obama). Yet, Biden, and thus the country as a whole, is still being held captive by the logic of deterrence as the cornerstone of immigration policy: If we are tough on immigrants, fewer will come! Trump’s DHS argued. Biden is not saying this exactly, but is clearly being guided by the obverse: If we treat people decently, we risk a “surge” and a “border crisis,” so we must be cautious. 

Sadly, the results are the same. 

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