By Diego Maloney
As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to stifle prosperity in much of the world, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to migrate north through Central America en route to the United States (US) in the coming months. In 2021, more than 1.5 million people crossed the southern US border for the first time, a 20-year high, and the trend is expected to continue in 2022. With the expectation that this influx will coincide with warmer weather, immigration authorities across the region have increased efforts to interdict migrants; Mexico saw a daily high of 1,266 apprehensions on 16 February.
These record-breaking numbers are a result of several longstanding and relatively new issues affecting vulnerable populations. Drawn-out economic crises and lack of basic amenities as a result of the pandemic as well as more systemic issues of violent criminal organisations and lack of upward social mobility or opportunity all contribute to the migrant crisis, particularly in Central America. Also in recent years, more erratic weather patterns have devastated communities that lack the resiliency or capacity to deal with climate change impacts on agriculture.
In the US, though the Biden administration has nominally shifted away from Trump administration immigration policies, deterrence-based policies used by both administrations have so far been ineffective in addressing the root causes of mass migration. The changing profile of detainees, represented by a shift from families and unaccompanied minors to single adults, and debate over how to implement current legislation present major challenges.
The Biden administration has maintained many measures implemented by the Trump administration, in particular, the public health emergency for COVID-19 that has been used to expeditiously deport migrant arrivals since 2020. (Other measures, such as the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, have been maintained following court orders to do so).
Externally, foreign governments at the state level have refused to receive certain types of migrants marked for deportation, namely Mexico’s Tamaulipas, while discussions with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where the large majority of migrants originate, have been stalled by contentious diplomatic relationships. (Increasing numbers of migrants from Haiti and Brazil, fleeing due to political instability and environmental degradation, are also being expelled.)
Major economic and security-related concessions are needed from the US for its southern neighbours in order to effectively deal with this trend of mass migration. Some such concessions were delivered in the form of COVID-19 vaccines to Guatemala last year while pandemic relief funds are currently on the way for Honduras.
Multilateral coordination among immigration authorities has also begun but government bodies concerned with this initiative are not yet equipped to handle the sheer number of migrants traversing the region due to a lack of resources. The US and its regional allies will need to collaborate more closely through a collective, unified strategy in order to address the crisis.
The US has so far made incremental progress by reimagining how to best move forward regarding immigration policy. However, several major hurdles await in the future making it imperative that the Biden administration hasten their approach to addressing the crisis where it exists, before people are forced to leave their homes.
Mass migration to the US through Latin America is steadily rising annually with record numbers of apprehensions of migrants in the past year. Environmental degradation, economic depression, insecurity and social inequity all play significant roles in the recent uptick in northbound migration and will need to be addressed before progress can be made.
Diego Maloney is a US-based political and security risk analyst.