What the Past Can Show Us About a Way Forward for Migration Policy in the Americas 

Last month’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles and the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the Biden administration to end the “Remain in Mexico” program highlight important trends in the history of U.S. relations with Mexico on migration policy in the hemisphere. Understanding these trends highlights the need for more attention to protection in future collaboration on migration.   

Looking Back 

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton hosted the first Summit of the Americas in Miami, Florida, in December 1994. It was held amid a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. Foreshadowing the Los Angeles Summit that would be held nearly 30 years later, migration was not explicitly on the Summit agenda. Instead, to the extent it was discussed, the focus was primarily on California’s Proposition 187—an initiative to restrict undocumented people in the state from receiving public services and require all state and local government employees to report suspected illegal immigrants—as well as trade and economic development as the key to stemming the flow of undocumented migrants. Heads of state agreed to the proposal of a Free Trade Area of the Americas—though it never came to fruition. When it came to the question of protection, the 1994 Summit’s Plan of Action rhetorically echoed the 1990 United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and urged governments in the Western Hemisphere to “guarantee the protection of the human rights of all migrant workers and their families.” At the time, this was a convention signed by migrant sending countries and not receiving countries—with Mexico clearly the former and the United States the latter.

Free trade as a solution to undocumented migration was key to U.S.-Mexican relations at the time, as evident in arguments about what the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would achieve. In short, it would provide economic opportunities for individuals so they would not need to migrate. But that did not pan out. The lifting of existing Mexican protectionist agricultural policies under the agreement hurt struggling Mexican farmers, and low wages in U.S. owned factories in the borderlands new maquiladora sector spurred further migration. Responding to anti-immigrant pressure at home, the Clinton administration paired its trade policies with a tough restrictionist stance and punitive approach meant to deter irregular migration. After the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, the Mexican government presciently worried it would prevent undocumented Mexicans who had been living in the United States for many years (with their families) from legalizing and about increased criminalization, conditions of detention, and summary expulsions of Mexicans under the new law. The Mexican government also expressed concern about a provision in the law allowing for the return of people arriving from Mexico to await proceedings there—the very “contiguous territory” provision at issue in this year’s Remain in Mexico case. In 1997, the United States responded that it did not anticipate substantial use of the provision and promised to discuss its use with Mexico. 

U.S.-Mexico Relations and Migration in the Hemisphere Today 

In the last decade, migration patterns in the hemisphere have changed dramatically. Increasing numbers of children and families from Central America have been coming to the U.S. border and, especially in recent years, were joined by a growing number of asylum seekers from South America and the Caribbean, as well as Africa. In 2019, when the Trump administration bullied Mexico into agreeing to the return of more than 70,000 asylum seekers (mostly from Central America and Cuba) to await their hearings in U.S. immigration court under the Remain in Mexico program, Mexico itself received more than 70,000 applications for asylum—and received almost double that in 2021. Indeed, the number of migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean have more than doubled since 2005 to 15 million in 2022. Many countries in the hemisphere—including Mexico—now serve as sending, receiving, and transit states.

This year’s Summit of the Americas reflected these shifts. Rather than tackling migration through trade, the major approach was through aid and financing to help stabilize and integrate migrants in receiving countries and through temporary labor migration programs. This approach is meant to help the United States defer its status as a receiving country to others in the region. For instance, the United States promised funding through the World Bank and through development and humanitarian aid to 17 countries hosting Venezuelans in the region. But while such promises are politically expedient, they will likely take many years to materialize. They are also promises that are increasingly difficult to keep with border crossers fleeing combinations of violence, war, hunger, extreme poverty, and climate change, among other factors. How the United States and Mexico will address the Venezuelans who continue to migrate—through the Darien Gap and in caravans towards the U.S. border—is unclear, though the United States committed to resettling 20,000 refugees (presumably some of them Venezuelan) from the Americas through the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program in 2023 and 2024.  

The Way Ahead 

The Biden administration now has an opportunity to go beyond regional migration policies driven by the desire to stem migration and to recognize the ways that cooperation on migration control and border enforcement can imperil migrants. The Supreme Court decision is a first step, giving the Biden administration a chance to end the Remain in Mexico policy that consumed relations between the two countries and had terrible human costs. The same is true about U.S.-Mexico collaboration on enforcement and deportation under the Title 42 policy

Yesterday’s bilateral meeting between President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador was a missed opportunity to discuss not only labor migration, but also protection pathways. The two countries can begin by coordinating the winddown of the Remain in Mexico program such that those waiting in Mexico can pursue their asylum cases in the United States. They can continue by discussing not just modernizing port infrastructure but the orderly processing of asylum seekers at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. Not just “investment led” efforts to promote renewable energy, but the creation of legal migration pathways for those displaced by climate change. They should focus on increased funding and support for the Mexican asylum system and the possibility of processing refugees for resettlement in the United States from southern Mexico.

If new migration trends and protection needs are ignored, and collaboration to prevent asylum seeking continues, we are at risk of repeating the mistakes of the past three decades. President Lopez Obrador spoke yesterday of “history as the master of life.” But in his recounting of the history of Mexico-U.S. relations in the first half of the twentieth century, he neglected to mention the mass repatriation of Mexicans from the United States in the early 1930s and that the bracero (guest worker) program did not prevent unauthorized migration from Mexico to the United States. Most important, much has changed over the last thirty years, partly in response to enforcement measures both countries have adopted since the 1990s. Mexico and the United States must focus on developing innovative solutions to address forced displacement and migration trends in the hemisphere in the twenty-first century.   

Dr. Yael Schacher is the deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International. 

Kimberly Beaudreau is an intern at Refugees International. 

Cover Photo: A Customs and Border Protection officer questions immigrants in Rio Grande Valley sector of the Texas border on Aug. 20, 2019. Photo by Jinitzail Hernández/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images