While U.S. attention on immigration has been focused mostly on the large number of Central Americans arriving at the southwestern border over the past few years, the biggest migration flows in the hemisphere are actually happening farther to the south. As the arrival of thousands of Haitians in Del Rio, Texas, last month showed, the United States may well start seeing many more migrants from countries outside the Northern Triangle nations of Central America.
Over one million Haitians live in other countries in the Americas. More than 300,000 of them moved to Brazil and Chile after the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, largely attracted by the prospect of jobs and legal status offered by those countries. Almost five million Venezuelans have moved elsewhere in the Americas since 2015 as their country’s economy imploded and political conflict intensified; there are now more than 1.7 million in Colombia, a million in Peru and almost a half million in Ecuador and Chile each.
Over 500,000 Nicaraguans have settled in neighboring Costa Rica, many arriving after a round of repression that started in 2018. And Cubans have been emigrating for years, setting down roots wherever they can.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has hit South American economies particularly hard, tens of thousands of migrants who had settled are on the move again, many looking north. In the case of Haitian migrants, rising hostility to immigrants in Brazil and Chile also prompted some to strike out for the United States.
With migration increasing throughout the Americas, border policy is no longer a sufficient means to control immigration. The United States must enlist other countries in the hemisphere to become partners in measures to prevent recurrent political and humanitarian crises that force people to flee their homelands.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Colombia’s foreign minister, Marta Lucía Ramírez, convened a hemispheric conversation last week to begin this process. In his opening remarks, Secretary Blinken acknowledged that “the migration challenge that we’re facing in our hemisphere is not one country’s problem — it’s our shared problem, and it cannot be solved by any one country.”
The temptation will be to create a new regional arrangement to make borders harder to cross by increasing enforcement and deportations. However, since Haitians and other migrants are already risking their lives to cross the Darién Gap, a jungle on the Colombia-Panama border so forbidding that no one has tried to build a road through it, deterrence is likely to be futile.
And cooperation around deterrence is particularly hard to sustain among countries with varying capacity to welcome migrants and distinct concerns about migration. Europe tried such an arrangement with the Dublin Regulation in 2013, which largely required migrants to apply for asylum in the first country they reached. But that agreement fell apart two years later, when the Syrian refugee crisis overwhelmed the countries of first entry. It is hard to imagine how the Americas, which do not have a history of cooperation on migration or other issues, could achieve what Europe could not.
But that does not mean the countries in the region should not aspire to reach a common understanding of what cooperation around migration means. However, these almost certainly have to be broad principles rather than specific agreements, which will have to be negotiated around much more specific issues with countries that share similar concerns and approaches.
For example, legal pathways tend to take pressure off irregular migration by giving people alternatives they can aspire to, a key starting principle. The United States, Mexico and Canada have been jointly trying to expand short-term labor visas for Central Americans to give them another option besides irregular migration. The Cuban parole program also did this by allowing a certain number of Cubans to travel legally to the United States each year.
The U.S. government might also think about opening up a special parole program — an express legal entry — for a limited number of Haitians who want to move to the United States and reopening the one for Cubans, which has been suspended in practice for four years. If some Haitians living in Chile and Brazil were eligible for entry into the United States under this approach, many would decide to avoid a dangerous journey through the Darién Gap.
Such a program would also make it easier for the U.S. government to negotiate the return of Haitian migrants who reach the border to these countries, where many have lived for years, instead of to Haiti. This is another useful principle: the idea of returning people to countries where they have been settled for many years, rather than back to countries of origin that are in deep crisis.
Another principle might be burden sharing. The United States and Canada have already been trying to expand their resettlement efforts for imperiled Central Americans. Speeding up this process and extending it to Venezuelans and others would provide another important alternative to irregular migration for those in imminent danger.
Meanwhile, U.S. policymakers could also do much more to help countries in the region get back to economic health, starting by donating far more Covid-19 vaccines. And the international community can provide additional resources to host countries with large migrant and refugee populations so they can accelerate access to legal status, education and health care, all of which remainmajor issues in integrating recent arrivals.
By working together, the countries in the region could begin to create more orderly and far safer migration flows, and provide a measure of hope as a bulwark against the despair that so often drives people to take dangerous journeys.
Andrew Selee is the president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that seeks to improve migration policies, and the author, most recently, of “Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together.”
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