The reality, though, is one more of continuity than change. The same unsuitable facilities that housed thousands of asylum-seeking minors under Trump are packed once again under Biden. Thousands of migrants are being turned away at the border or expelled every day. Local officials, aid workers and immigrant advocates have long-standing complaints over backlogs in asylum applications and border authorities ill-equipped to be custodians of frightened, desperate children.
“The emergencies of the past decade are really three chapters of the same struggle: an exodus from Central America has been under way, as families and children attempted to escape violence, poverty, and government corruption,” wrote the New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer. “The immigration system at the border, which was built up in the nineteen-nineties, with single, job-seeking adults from Mexico in mind, was not designed to handle a population seeking asylum on this scale. On average, it takes almost two and a half years to resolve an asylum claim, and there’s now a backlog of 1.3 million pending cases, up from half a million under Obama.”
Moreover, according to analysts, the new influx started almost a year ago in April. “But it’s shot up recently because of a combination of factors,” my colleagues reported. “Pandemic-induced economic crises, two hurricanes that ravaged Central America, the end of strict coronavirus lockdowns, and a perception that the Biden administration will be more tolerant of migration.”
“The American president said we could come in,” a Guatemalan man expelled by U.S. authorities back to the Mexican border town of Reynosa told The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff earlier this month. “But they sent us back here.” (In reality, the Biden administration has aired messages on TV channels and radio stations in parts of Latin America warning migrants against making the trek north.)
The current surge of minors, explained the Atlantic’s Caitlin Dickerson, is the fourth over the course of three U.S. administrations. “For decades, most immigration experts have viewed border crossings not in terms of surges, but in terms of cycles that are affected by an array of factors,” she wrote. “These include the cartels’ trafficking business, weather, and religious holidays as well as American politics — but perhaps most of all by conditions in the children’s home countries.”
The key countries in question are the three nations of Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. For years, the countries have been hobbled by ruinous governance, natural disasters and an epidemic of gang- and cartel-driven violence.
“People from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador don’t migrate in search of a better life. They are looking for a shot at survival,” wrote Mexican journalist and commentator León Krauze.
“If the alternative was famine, gang violence, kidnapping, rape or sexual slavery, wouldn’t you bet it all on the journey north?”
More so than its ultranationalist predecessor, the Biden administration recognizes that the solutions to what it describes as the “challenge” at the border lie much further south. Soon after taking office, Biden announced a $4 billion plan to invest in the Northern Triangle nations — roughly doubling U.S. assistance to those countries with a slate of programs aimed at helping improve quality of life, restructure the security forces and counter both gang violence and official corruption. The White House tapped Vice President Harris earlier this month as the point person in its efforts to address the “root causes” of Central American migration north.
It’s a thorny and daunting mission for Harris. The governments of all three Northern Triangle countries pose diplomatic challenges, further complicated by Trump’s transactional approach. In Guatemala, the Trump administration tacitly assented as authorities shuttered one of the region’s most-lauded anti-corruption commissions in 2019. The president of Honduras, who had a cozy relationship with Trump, is implicated in drug trafficking by the U.S. Justice Department. And in El Salvador, the Biden administration has to balance the need to find common ground with the country’s popular — and populist — president with its concerns over democratic backsliding.
Then there’s the United States’ long and undistinguished track record in attempting to help develop and reform these countries. “Why, after so many decades of systematic support by the U.S. directed at Central America’s structural challenges, has the situation in the region not significantly improved for millions of its peoples?” asked Luis Guillermo Solís, former president of Costa Rica, in an essay laying out the challenges for U.S. policy-making in the Northern Triangle. “What factors have impeded and continue to obstruct the aspirations of Central Americans who endure the hardships of lives dominated by fear, dispossession, sickness, corruption and hunger?”
Solís pointed to a history of U.S. agencies misspending in the region but, more importantly, to a series of entrenched local factors: a legacy of “undemocratic, unfair, repressive and opaque political systems, largely dominated by clientelism, authoritarian practices, state-sponsored violence and disrespect for the rule of law” that have now yielded states with frail institutions and endemic corruption.
Of course, the United States in the past played a major — and often negative — role in underwriting those clientelist regimes. Now, though, the Biden administration may focus more on lifting up the region’s fledgling civil society. “There is so much corruption. It is really endemic and pervasive through a lot of the government structures,” a U.S. official told the Daily 202’s Olivier Knox. “We’ll make sure that there are the right kinds of safeguards in place so we know our assistance has real impact.”