What’s Driving the Surge at the Southern Border?

Blaming the increase in arrivals on current immigration policy only papers over harder truths, experts say.,

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For a relatively popular Biden administration, the recent surge of migrants at the southern border has emerged as a glaring vulnerability.

A poll released today by The Associated Press and NORC found that the public was broadly positive on President Biden’s overall performance, but he was deep in negative territory on immigration issues. Among political independents, 67 percent disapproved of the job he was doing on immigration, while just 30 percent approved.

Notably, the poll results were just a touch less negative when respondents were asked specifically about his handling of “border security,” suggesting that for many voters, particularly independents, his rejection of Donald Trump’s pugnacious approach to migrants arriving from Latin America is not necessarily the source of the problem.

That result points to an inconvenient truth underlying the situation: The recent increase in migration had begun well before Biden took office, and the reasons behind it form a complex web that was a long time in the making.

While Republican commentators have painted this surge as a result of Biden’s softer stance on immigration, experts say this papers over harder truths: The main motivators of emigration from Mexico, Central America and points south are tied to climate change, violent crime and corruption — all issues that the Biden administration knows it must confront if it stands any chance of stemming the inflow of people at the border.

“It’s not possible to talk about any one particular factor, but it’s a confluence of issues that are driving the forced migration,” Vicki Gass, a policy adviser for Central America at Oxfam International, said in an interview.

Migrants have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in higher numbers over the past few months, including over 170,000 people in March alone, the largest single-month total in well over a decade. And a higher-than-usual percentage of those travelers are unaccompanied minors; the administration recently opened its 10th temporary housing facility to accommodate these young arrivals.

The most immediate cause of the immigration surge may be the series of deadly hurricanes that swept through Central America last year, part of a greater trend fueled by climate change. They destroyed crops and homes, especially in Honduras, leaving an estimated nine million people displaced. Not coincidentally, Honduras and neighboring Guatemala have accounted for most of the migrants now trying to enter the United States.

“They’ve had six years of ongoing droughts in these areas,” Gass said. “They have no food, no means for employment or livelihood, and they’re eating the seeds which they would normally save for planting. And when the seeds are gone, they don’t have much more to go on.”

On top of this, the Covid-19 pandemic has devastated both urban and rural communities in the region, and has made it doubly perilous to undertake a long journey.

Biden has said that he would seek to address the situation by setting up immigration triage facilities and shelters in these countries, so that migrants can begin seeking asylum in the United States rather than showing up unannounced at the southern border. But he has not yet released a comprehensive immigration plan, leaving close observers to speculate about what his overall strategy will emphasize.

Last month, at his first news conference as president, Biden said that he had asked Vice President Kamala Harris to examine “the fundamental reasons why people leave Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador in the first place,” listing some major factors: “It’s because of earthquakes, floods. It’s because of lack of food. It’s because of gang violence. It’s because of a whole range of things.”

But as he rolls out this plan, Biden is running up against endemic corruption in many national and local governments that may make it difficult to deliver aid directly, as he has acknowledged.

He recalled the work he had begun as vice president under Barack Obama, whose administration confronted a surge of migrants at the southern border in 2014 and 2015 that had been spurred by a confluence of gang violence and natural disasters in the region. “What I was able to do is not give money to the head of state, because so many are corrupt, but I was able to say: ‘OK, you need lighting in the streets to change things? I’ll put the lighting in,'” he said.

Experts have pointed out that while the Obama administration did take steps toward working directly with local governments and establishing accountability mechanisms, that approach was still inchoate when Trump became president and rolled back most of the new initiatives aimed at reform.

Helen Mack, who fights for justice reform in Guatemala as president of the Myrna Mack Foundation, said that it was often easier for politicians to focus on the border crisis, when in fact “the migration is just a consequence of the corruption we have in Guatemala.”

“Sometimes Americans understand the urgency of the situation at the border,” she added, but ultimately, “everything has to do with corruption and impunity.”

Last month the administration announced that it would tie most of the funding in its $4 billion Central American aid package to a strict set of conditions aimed at reining in corruption — but those metrics are new, and at best they represent an experiment.

The United States’ longtime approach to security and geopolitics in the region centered largely on the drug war, which meant that much of its aid to Mexico and other Latin American countries was bound up in supporting regimes in attempts to track down and interdict drug smugglers, and to destroy farmers’ illicit crops. But this often had the effect of deepening corruption rather than fighting it, experts said.

With the drug trade providing such a sizable share of the region’s wealth, it has often been impossible to ensure that there is separation between the politicians who profess to be against drug trafficking, and the traffickers themselves. This was underscored by the recent trial of Juan Antonio Hernandez, a convicted drug trafficker and the brother of Honduras’s president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, who has long been seen as an ally of U.S. drug-fighting efforts.

The wealth created by the drug trade is “a main resource for corruption,” Mack said. “That’s why Americans have to review the policy about drug trafficking. It’s been how many years, and it has failed.”

But problems of governance in the region go beyond the drug trade. Many governments are plagued by high levels of international debt, including El Salvador, which already spends roughly 70 percent of its federal budget on paying back international loans and is currently in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for more liquidity. Many of those same governments, Gass said, have tax structures that don’t extract much money from their wealthiest citizens.

“You have the problem of absentee governments, and governments that are more obsessed with maintaining their power and the status quo and not really investing in the community so that they can fight climate change, for example,” she said. “Not only is it a regressive tax system, but there are tax loopholes which allow people to put their capital in tax havens or not pay taxes at all. So the governments have even less resources to respond to crises.”

Of course, it’s the border crisis that consumes most Americans’ attention when it comes to immigration — and the recent surge has clearly put the issue on the front burner. In a recent Gallup poll asking Americans what they considered to be the most pressing problem confronting the country, immigration was tied for third. One in six Republicans named it as their top issue.

As recently as January, only 1 percent of the country had picked immigration when asked that question.

While Biden has sought to turn over a new leaf, he did not roll back all of Trump’s hard-line immigration policies — just as Obama did not undo all the steps that President George W. Bush had taken to crack down on border security. Even as he is trying to invest in creating systems for migrants to apply for asylum before leaving their home countries, Biden has not fully repealed a Trump policy, known as “remain in Mexico,” that forces migrants fleeing violence in their home countries to stay indefinitely in Mexico while their cases are pending.

Which invites a broader question. “How do you address the issues of people living on the ground, who will never get asylum,” Gass said, “who don’t necessarily want to leave their countries, but who are forced to leave because the governments haven’t done a good job of allowing for them to stay?”

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