The Trump administration has seen more than 400 executive actions set out to tighten the US migration system. It has slashed protections for refugees and asylum seekers, caged children and separated families, forced people into squalid camps in northern Mexico and detained more migrants than ever before. They have also cut aid to Central America whilst simultaneously forcing regional governments to receive asylum seekers when they do not have the resources to offer them safety and are at risk of serious human rights abuses. However, in a bid to return America to its great status as a nation of migrants Joe Biden has promised to rescind the draconian policies of the Trump era that has left a crisis both in Central America as well as for asylum seekers within the US. Biden offers hope but it is unclear whether his promises will be enough to offer the necessary protection for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in the region.
The Biden Plan for securing values as a nation of immigrants– Key promises:
- Put an end to the separation of children from their families at the border as well as creating a task force to reunite the 545 children with their parents
- End prolonged detention
- Halt the building of the wall at the Mexico border
- Reinstate the DACA program which offers a route to citizenships and the right to work for undocumented migrants who were bought to the US as children as well as offers protection for their families
- Rescind the ban the ‘Muslim ban’
- End workplace raids and focus enforcement efforts on those who pose a serious threat to national security
- Restore asylum eligibility for domestic abuse victims
- Double the number of immigration officers
- Raising the refugee admissions target to at least 125,000 refugees a year
The Biden Plan for Central America – Key points:
- A four-year, $4 billion regional strategy to address factors driving migration from Central America
- Mobilises private investment by working with multilateral development banks, bolstering microfinance, and modernising power grids
- Improves security and the rule of law by supporting reforms to fight corruption, and backing violence reform programs and job training schemes
- Prioritise poverty reduction by addressing food insecurity, strengthening US investments in reintegrating returning migrants, providing technical assistance to support tax reforms, and create a regional strategy to deal with the climate crisis.
Is it enough?
When Biden was announced President the sense of relief for many migrant communities across the US and at the Mexican border was clear. Promises to overhaul the asylum system, halt the building of the Mexican border wall and return the focus of ICE to serious offenders inspired hope that after 4 years of inhumane treatment migrant communities would be safe and fairly treated once again. This is not the first time Biden has been directly involved in migration policy. In 2014, the then President-Elect Barrack Obama named Biden the White House point person for the ‘immigration crisis’ the US was facing. Biden has made clear that his brand will not change, and he wishes to make a return to the golden era of the Obama administration. But was the Obama administration successful in protecting migrants and supporting Latin American development? Further, can a simple return to old ways overhaul the damage done by the Trump era?
Biden’s pledge to raise the refugee resettlement target to 125,000 with a promise to admit a minimum of 95,000 refugees a year has been lorded as a welcome return to the bipartisan tradition of welcome. This is certainly a massive improvement on the record low target of 15,000 that Trump had set out for 2021. However, there are concerns that although raising targets should not face any real challenge the practicality of admitting these raised numbers of refugees may pose a substantial problem. Trumps’ Muslim Ban created increased vetting and paperwork requirements for asylum seekers traveling from Syria and Yemen as well as many other Muslim areas that face conflict and high levels of persecution.
In addition, Trump altered the priority categories for refugees to give precedence to Christians rather than those most in need. These policies have created delays and a backlog of admissions that may take months if not years to reverse. Also, the sheer drop in limits has taken resources away from the infrastructure that processes admissions exacerbating delays and creating further logistical problems for raising the target numbers. To overcome these challenges resources, need to be redirected to reopen resettlement offices and re-establish resettlement workers that had been deployed to other areas. With COVID 19 putting a huge financial strain on the country, including the highest domestic unemployment rates, the large number of resources needed to regain the capacity required to reach these targets is unlikely to be of high priority. There is a real risk that these targets may become pipe dreams with no real attainable results.
Bidens promise to immediately reinstate and expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides undocumented migrants bought to the US as children the right to work and a route to citizenship as well as protection for their families, has been heralded as a victory for migrant youth by the International Rescue Committee. Many of these children have limited family in the country in which they were born, do not speak their native language and a living fulfilled lives in college or as doctors, engineers, and lawyers as well as other crucial careers and the threat of deportation and the revoking of their right to work has thrown their lives into upheaval. Thus, this announcement was hugely welcomed and could be of real benefit to the 800,000 migrants already enrolled in this program. However, this program needs Congress’s approval, and a Citizenship Bill will need to be passed through the Senate to create any permanent solutions and Biden is already facing opposition.
Many states are urging Federal Judges to declare the DACA unlawful and calling for it to be phased out over the coming years. Thus, yet again political opposition may put a top to the realisation of Bidens’ promises and prevent him from overhauling the impact of Trumps’ divisive policies. Also, some activists are criticising the policy for not going far enough. Greisa Martinez Rosas, a DACA recipient from Mexico and executive director for United We Dream, an advocacy group, said at a recent news conference; “Let us be clear, protecting DACA is the floor, not the ceiling, for what Biden must do,”. Biden faces a real battle between the hopes of activists that his progressive attitude has inspired in stark contrast to the deeply divisive political ground he finds himself in.
Lastly, Bidens Plan for Central America is strikingly similar to the policies he set out under the Obama administration that were fraught with failure. The Plan focuses on improving conditions in Central America with the hope of reducing the need for migration to the US. But development can lead to more migration and is certainly no quick solution and may take years for these countries to be politically and economically stable. Yet, Bidens’ plan has no protection component that confirms people’s right to refuge nor does it offer legal routes to gain refuge in the US from Central America. The plan relies on private investment, securitisation, and militarised neoliberalism to foster economic growth and restore law and order. Biden has been using the legacy of his involvement in the Colombia Plan to advocate for increased foreign aid and military efforts in the region to gain support from development banks and encourage investment.
The Columbia Plan designed to combat the drug problem in the areas saw a US-funded army kill thousands of civilians and displace a further 7 million as well as an increase in the amount of cocaine being transported north. However, it has been seen as a success due to its impact on speeding up privatisation and neoliberal policies. The World Bank and the IMF offered loans contingent on strict austerity policies being enforced and neoliberal restructuring of the economy which led to a 10% rise in unemployment and millions of hectares of land being stolen from indigenous people. Despite these obvious failings, Biden is using it as a way to promote the use of development banks to promote investment.
Another major policy that Biden is lording as success and basing his current plan on despite its clear failing is that of that the Alliance for Prosperity. In response to the increased migration of Central American children to the US border with Mexico Biden requested a billion dollars to tackle the root causes of migration. Yet, $750 million was primarily spent on increased security at the border and militarised police forces that are known to have carried out countless human rights abuses. 2014 saw record levels of refugees fleeing Central America with numbers further increasing between 2014 and 2017 and there is no evidence that this program had any real positive impact. For example, Biden is boasting the use of development banks to improve infrastructure, but in Honduras IMF’s pressure to privatise energy, countries have seen energy prices shoot up leaving those at the bottom without power or in increased hardship. Yet, today Biden simply promises more of the same.
As Paley put it, “Biden’s plan represents the continuation of the same model of military and private sector intervention in Central America that has displaced and harmed so many.”
Is there a way forward?
Biden faces a hard battle against a conservative Senate and a divided nation. His promises offer hope for many but what he offers is a bare minimum and a return to the Obama administration certainly is not an adequate response to the crisis facing Central America. There needs to be a real effort to devise regional protective support for the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in Central America. The Asylum cooperative agreements that allow indirect refoulement to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador need to be ended and cooperation with these countries needs to move away from burden-shifting to a responsible sharing framework; including creating legal pathways to the US and increased funding to states such as Mexico to support asylum seekers. There is also a need to support governments in changing legislation to recognise internally displaced persons as well as supporting civil society to scale up protection and reintegration services to returnees.
Bidens’ plan is a start but there is much more work to be done if migrants, refugees, and internally displaced persons are to feel welcome within the US. There is a desperate need to move away from securitised neo-liberalism towards inclusive protection and support.