The year is 2014. Barack Obama is president, Joe Biden is vice president and Donald Trump is just a reality TV star. But you’ll be forgiven for thinking I’m describing today’s “crisis.” President Biden and his team also seem to have forgotten they’ve done this all before.
As Vice President Harris — who has taken on the role of tackling the root causes of immigration — prepares to visit Mexico and Guatemala, the Biden administration must be aware that we’ve trapped ourselves in this immigration time loop because we fail to listen to immigrants, and we refuse to think differently.
Since Bill Clinton began building the “prevention through deterrence” border wall in 1994, every president from both parties has followed suit, using walls, laws, family separation and foreign armies as their tools. Instead of creating more opportunities for immigrants to temporarily or permanently relocate to the United States, we close the door tighter every day. We’re leaving more people stranded and desperate, multiplying the cycles of poverty and violence that made them flee in the first place.
It’s Groundhog Day at the border, and Biden is mindlessly laying the foundation for more problems in a few years. We’ve watched it all play out before. Immigration deterrence doesn’t work.
Back in 2014, after the Central American child migrant crisis, Obama set in motion a plan to “address the root causes” that forced all these people to flee.
First, Obama administration officials turned to Mexico, where they quietly nudged then-President Enrique Peña Nieto to launch the Southern Border Plan, deploying the military in southern Mexico to “protect” migrants by arresting them. Then in Central America, Biden led the Alliance for Prosperity, a multibillion-dollar plan to spur economic development, fight corruption and improve security. The plan included messaging aimed at would-be migrants: Don’t come to the United States. “I’ve sent a clear message to parents in these countries not to put their kids through this,” Obama said condescendingly.
Biden’s plan in 2021 follows the same playbook. A day after Biden announced he’d be sending more than 2 million coronavirus vaccines to Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador held a parade for soldiers and immigration agents to celebrate a new migrant crackdown. In Central America, Harris is now in charge of the response and wants to send $4 billion for development. The Biden administration is telling migrants to not come, and says it will get “more aggressive.”
So how did this same plan turn out back in 2014?
Mexico’s Southern Border Plan worked, at least in one sense: It outsourced U.S. dirty work. Arrests of migrants in Mexico skyrocketed, and the number of migrants arriving at the U.S. border fell temporarily. But crimes against migrants — committed both by people involved in organized crime and Mexican authorities — also spiked.
The Central America Alliance for Prosperity Plan mostly flopped, in large part because Obama and Biden aligned themselves with crooked leaders. Guatemala’s president at the time was arrested in connection with a corruption scheme in 2015. Honduras’s president has been embroiled in scandals amid accusations of working with drug traffickers, siphoning public funds, stealing an election and violently repressing protesters.
Trump picked up Obama’s failed plan and heaped cruelty on top of it. Instead of nudging Mexico to crack down, he tweeted tariff threats. Instead of just telling migrants not to come, he stole their children. Instead of offering a development plan in Central America, he cut off aid until the repressive leaders agreed to block their own citizens from leaving their country. Despite repeatedly criticizing Trump’s immigration policy, Biden also has Central American countries cracking down.
Obama tried deterring migrants with his characteristic lawyerly tact. Trump did it with his cruel, petty impulsiveness. Biden is doing it with his folksy toughness. The styles are different, but the results of immigration deterrence will always be the same.
We’re trapped in this cycle because the U.S. government refuses to listen to migrants. Having met hundreds of migrants during my years reporting in Mexico and Central America, it’s obvious why deterrence doesn’t work: What’s at home is worse than anything the United States could threaten. Most migrants don’t want to leave home. But they do because violent death or crippling destitution is all that’s left.
Failing to actually come up with a solution, we of the “greatest country on Earth” become tremendously feeble and defensive at the arrival of a few thousand immigrant children. But there is another way.
We must treat immigration as a civil and humanitarian issue, not a criminal one. Criminalizing people fleeing violence, persecution, climate change or economic hardship exacerbates these problems. So decriminalize border crossings and rebuild border facilities as welcome centers, not jails. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection agents at the border should be social workers, not cops.
If Trump’s family separation atrocity showed us anything, it’s that millions of Americans want to help immigrants in need. The United States should cooperate more with these groups. There are already large networks around the country that can provide housing, food, legal services, education and medical services to immigrants. Why rely on expensive armed border agents instead of willing, motivated humanitarian groups?
Finally, Washington should stop making the problems worse with bad foreign policy. Despite numerous abuses, scandals and criminal allegations involving Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, the Biden administration refuses to denounce him, though many think he is responsible for the conditions Hondurans are fleeing. In fact, Biden administration officials are working with Hernández to try to prevent Hondurans from fleeing. He’s just one example in a long history of U.S. meddling to prop up corrupt, abusive, U.S.-friendly regimes. No amount of U.S. dollars in aid can make up for bad foreign policy.
President Biden can’t stop the crisis today. After all, he helped create it. But he can make sure this is the last “border crisis” we face.