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Biden, Latin American leaders sign migration declaration

June 10, 2022 Updated Fri., June 10, 2022 at 9:04 p.m.

President Joe Biden speaks at the Summit of the Americas opening plenary session at the LA Convention Center on Thursday, June 9, 2022, in Los Angeles. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/TNS)  (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
President Joe Biden speaks at the Summit of the Americas opening plenary session at the LA Convention Center on Thursday, June 9, 2022, in Los Angeles. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/TNS) (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
By Courtney Subramanian and Cindy Carcamo Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – No nation should alone bear the responsibility of managing a historic surge in migration across the Western Hemisphere, President Joe Biden declared Friday as he and 19 Latin American and Caribbean leaders signed a much-anticipated pact to expand legal pathways for migrants and refugees and provide new funding to assist countries in hosting them.

“Each of us is signing up to commitments that recognizes the challenges we all share, and the responsibility that impacts on all of our nations,” Biden said as he joined a group of regional leaders to sign the so-called Los Angeles Declaration.

The signatories to the agreement, announced on the last day of the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, included Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – four countries whose commitments were in doubt after their leaders boycotted the conference over the U.S. decision to exclude several countries it considers to be antidemocratic.

Mexico is a key player in the region, and its cooperation is essential to stemming the flow of migrants to the U.S., while the three Northern Triangle nations of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras –produce a large share of the region’s migrants.

Although their leaders’ absence had cast doubt on how comprehensive migration talks at the summit would be, Biden administration officials maintained that the pact would include a diverse group of countries coping with the surge in migrants across Latin America.

Migration patterns in the Western Hemisphere have shifted as the region has grappled with a pandemic-fueled economic crisis, exacerbated by political upheaval, violence and environmental disasters. Biden pointed out that millions of migrants who fled Venezuela now make up as much as 10% of Costa Rica’s population.

“(Our) economic futures depend on one another…. And our security is linked in ways that I don’t think most people in my country fully understand – and maybe not in your countries as well,” he said.

The pact includes commitments from Mexico to launch a temporary labor program for 15,000 to 20,000 workers from Guatemala. The country will expand eligibility for that program to include Honduras and El Salvador “in the medium term,” according to a fact sheet provided by the White House.

The Biden administration plans to dole out $314 million in humanitarian aid, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department, as well as provide billions in existing development bank funding to help promote new programs to accept migrants and refugees in countries such as Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The U.S. also will provide H-2B nonagricultural seasonal worker visas to 11,500 nationals of northern Central America and Haiti.

Biden also announced stepped-up efforts in conjunction with other countries to combat human smuggling.

“If you prey on desperate and vulnerable migrants for profit, we are coming for you. We are coming after you,” he warned.

Other countries will also be taking steps to address the jump in the number of migrants traveling to the United States. Border officials encountered more than 1.7 million migrants along the U.S. southern border in 2021 and more than 1.3 million in the first seven months of this year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Canada, too, will provide $26.9 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year for migration management and humanitarian aid. Spain will pledge to double the number of labor pathways for Hondurans.

In an email, Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank, characterized the declaration as “a big deal” that “shows how important the issue of migration is to many countries in the Western Hemisphere, not just the United States.”

“If it was just about us, it wouldn’t happen,” she wrote.

But she cautioned about the challenges ahead in implementing the declaration’s provisions and working out the details.

“Our immigration systems are already overtaxed and overburdened – everything from border operations, to USCIS asylum and legal visa adjudications, to immigration courts, to visa offices abroad, all have serious, record-level backlogs and no end in sight,” she continued. “We must address that for any of this to be workable in the short term.”

The declaration caps off a week of meetings among foreign dignitaries, advocates and more than 20 heads of state who convened in Los Angeles to discuss regional challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling climate change, economic inequality and migration.

Diplomatic cracks over the Biden administration’s decision to exclude the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have splintered the conference, which is being held in the U.S. for the first time since its inaugural meeting in Miami in 1994.

On Thursday, the leaders of Belize and Argentina criticized the U.S. decision to leave out some leaders in the region as Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris looked on nearby. Belize’s Prime Minister John Briceno called it “inexcusable” that some leaders were not present.

Among additional actions featured in the migration pact, the Biden administration will pledge to resettle 20,000 refugees from the Americas during the next two years and in coming months resume family reunification parole programs in Cuba and Haiti, which allows U.S. citizens and permanent residents to apply for parole for their family members in those countries.

Costa Rica plans to renew a special temporary complementary protection scheme for migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

The declaration commended efforts by Colombia and Ecuador, which have enacted policies to welcome some of the more than 6 million Venezuelans who have fled their country in recent years. Colombia will pledge to legalize permits for an additional 300,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees by the end of August.

Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso, who praised the “political will” of the heads of state and delegations participating in the agreement, said it was important to promote development opportunities in the countries of origin but also to assist the countries receiving the migrants and refugees.

Savi Arvey, policy adviser on the migrant rights and justice team at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said the declaration included some “positive initial steps,” and advocates are hoping participating countries will follow through on their pledges.

“These are good, initial steps, but as countries work together, we’re hoping for bigger bolder action, especially on international protection,” she said.

Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine with expertise in immigration, said that the declaration’s labeling of migration as a regional challenge and responsibility is important both substantively and symbolically.

It “has the potential to slowly reshape migration patterns in the medium- and long-term future in important ways,” he said. But DeSipio believes that while the declaration outlines a multilateral, region-wide approach to migration, rather than the bilateral, largely piecemeal strategies of the past, in the short term that will “probably be of little solace to Latin American migrants in the United States and their family members trying to migrate to the U.S.”

“President Biden’s support here is primarily financial, but several Latin American leaders are making substantive contributions by creating new migration opportunities,” DeSipio said. “Over time, if these early efforts are successful … this could create the foundation for more routine labor migration within the Americas, or at least South America.”

Since he took office, Biden has struggled to deal with domestic blowback over a record increase in the number of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Republicans have seized on the issue to paint Biden as weak on border security, while progressive supporters are frustrated by what they have seen as a lack of progress on implementing more humane immigration policies.

Tyler Mattiace, an Americas division researcher with Human Rights Watch who closely followed the declaration’s drafting process, said that this type of multilateral approach is long overdue to assist “the millions of people all across the continent who have fled their homes either because of violence or persecution or human rights abuses.”

“They often face serious abuses that are many times the result of the fact that government either tries to prevent them from seeking protection or make it difficult for them to obtain legal status or implement enforcement strategies to lead to them taking dangerous migration routes where they suffer abuses,” Mattiace said.

Mattiace said the declaration is a departure from what’s happening on the ground at the U.S.-Mexico border, where immigration enforcement officials keep expelling asylum-seekers under Title 42, a COVID-19-related health measure first implemented under then President Donald Trump and maintained by Biden. The measure is tied up in the courts.

“The declaration is a major step forward, but it could be meaningless unless Biden immediately does everything possible to restore access to asylum at the U.S. border and ends other abuses, other anti-immigration policies,” Mattiace continued. “The U.S. also has to stop focusing immigration policy on efforts to outsource immigration enforcement to other governments in the region.”

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