Fair Observer: The U.S. Must Commit to Protecting Central Americans

This op-ed was originally published in the Fair Observer.

Recent comments by US Vice-President Kamala Harris over migration from Guatemala are part of an unfortunate pattern. Like Harris, other members of the Biden administration have been telling Central American migrants — many of whom are forced to leave home — “do not come” to the United States because they will be turned away at the US-Mexico border.

Harris walked back these statements last week, partly in response to criticism from groups like Refugees International that swiftly highlighted the right to seek asylum and international protection. In an interview following her trip to Guatemala and Mexico, she said, “Let me be very clear, I am committed to making sure we provide a safe haven for those seeking asylum, period.” But it remains an open question whether this commitment will be reflected in concrete policy change.

It is time for the United States to show a stronger commitment to the protection needs of Central American migrants. The Biden administration can do so by taking five important steps.

Rights of Central American Migrants

First, the administration must commit to increasing resettlement. Politicians who want to emphasize protection sometimes speak about having migrants apply for asylum from home. This confuses asylum, which is requested at the border or from within the US, with resettlement, which is usually applied for from a third country rather than the home country, where it is too dangerous for people seeking protection to await processing.

Unfortunately, no significant US refugee resettlement program for Central Americans currently exists. Harris did not discuss plans to create one, even for the women the administration acknowledges flee violence in Guatemala. The statement that Guatemalans should not come undermines not only the right to seek asylum under US law, but it also bolsters a long history of American refusal to recognize Guatemalans as refugees or the role of US policies in causing forced displacement in the region.

The Biden administration has allocated some additional refugee visa slots for Central Americans and established a Migration Resource Center in Guatemala to advise people about the availability of refugee resettlement. However, much more needs to be done by the State Department, Homeland Security (DHS) and Congress to build a substantial resettlement program for Guatemalans. The administration should work with Congress to ensure that more Central Americans are referred and are eligible for refugee resettlement.

Second, the United States must make it possible for additional at-risk youth from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to qualify as refugees through the Central American Minors (CAM) program. On June 15, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced an expansion of the renewed program, which existed under the Obama administration. It allows parents based in the United States to apply to have their children come to the country from Central America as refugees.

This is welcome news. But the devil is in the details. It remains to be seen if, unlike during the Obama-era CAM program, significant numbers of Guatemalan parents will actually be eligible and helped to apply and if US officials sent to interview children will recognize them as refugees. It is also unclear if, this time around, the US government will ensure the safety of children while they are interviewed in Guatemala and provide them with needed support after they arrive in the US. The Biden administration must revise eligibility, retrain adjudicators and commit resources to make this program a true pathway to security for Guatemalan kids.

Third, the Biden administration must also restore asylum at the border. Harris’ description of the border as closed does not accurately represent precisely what is happening, only further adding to the confusion. On the one hand, newly arriving migrants cannot ask for asylum at ports of entry along the US southern border and they could be expelled under an unjustified COVID-19-related order. On the other hand, the administration has exempted unaccompanied minors from Central America from this order and is admitting rather than expelling the majority of arriving families. Yet single adult asylum seekers who enter between ports of entry are an enforcement priority. These migrants are either expelled without any screening for their protection needs or detained at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities for long periods.

Further, the Biden administration recently announced that asylum-seeking families admitted at the border will have their cases adjudicated on a faster timeline in immigration court without ensuring they will have access to counsel. Refugees International encourages the administration to end the COVID-19 expulsion policy, process asylum seekers at ports of entry, release asylum seekers to pursue their claims at their destination locations, and expand access to legal counsel for asylum seekers.

Fourth, the Biden administration must listen to the voices of Central Americans. Harris’ comments will likely do little to affect migration and may take away from other issues that are of the utmost importance for Guatemalans. Smugglers are not swayed by such remarks and continue to profit off a booming business that feeds on the lack of legal pathways available to Central Americans.

Guatemalans themselves often have no control over the conditions that force them to migrate, little of which have to do with US immigration policies. Two devastating hurricanes, pervasive violence and crime, and endemic corruption are some of the main reasons why people flee. These drivers will take years to diminish. In the meantime, the United States should work to build trust with Guatemalan civil society and prioritize support to areas that Guatemalans are specifically calling for help. Most notably, the US needs to support Guatemala in reducing corruption, as several prominent organizations in the country have asked for.

Finally, the Biden administration must work with Mexico on a holistic approach to migration that goes beyond deterrence and the prevention of northward movement. For decades, the US has asked the Mexican government to help keep migrants from the border through increased enforcement at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and ramped up detention and deportation in Mexico. This limits many with international protection concerns from seeking asylum in Mexico or the US.

It remains to be seen whether policy changes like the proposed US-Mexico “Operations Group on Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking” will offer protection to victims of human trafficking at the border, whose needs have been ignored in the past. On his trip to Mexico last week, Secretary Mayorkas met with officials from the National Institute of Immigration (INM), but not with representatives of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR). Nor did the delegation from the United States traveling with Mayorkas include officials focused on asylum and humanitarian concerns. In bilateral discussions about migration with Mexico, the Biden administration needs to increase emphasis on access to protection.

Following Through

If President Joe Biden is serious about providing protection to Central Americans, his administration must more clearly and consistently articulate its commitment to this goal. It must follow through on the commitment via increased access to refugee resettlement and asylum and to humble and holistic cooperation with regional partners.

Harris’ approach was a political mistake and a lost opportunity. Other plans announced by the administration indicate a more productive approach that can be best fulfilled by adopting the five steps we have outlined.