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U.S. seeks help controlling flow of migrants

June 10, 2022 Updated Fri., June 10, 2022 at 9:05 p.m.

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a plenary session of the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, California, June 9, 2022. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)  (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a plenary session of the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, California, June 9, 2022. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images/TNS) (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Jacqueline Charles and Nora Gámez Torres Miami Herald

LOS ANGELES – The Biden administration wants countries along a dangerous migration route running through South and Central America to commit to expanding their asylum system and enforcing their borders to help address the unprecedented flow of migrants at its southern border with Mexico, in a new regional partnership that will be announced Friday during the last day of the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.

“President (Joe) Biden is asking all governments along the migratory route to establish and fortify asylum processing in each of their respective countries, while more effectively enforcing their borders, conducting screenings and removing those individuals who do not qualify for asylum,” a senior administration official said.

The current rates of irregular migration are unprecedented, U.S. officials have said, and affect nearly every country in South and Central America, as well others in the Caribbean.

Under the declaration, governments will commit to expand temporary worker programs to address labor shortages while reducing irregular migration. The commitments also call for the expansion of other legal channels for migration, including refugee resettlement and family reunification.

The senior official said the administration will increase funding to help countries that host large numbers of migrants and refugees, like Colombia, and work with international financial institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank to help middle-income countries better cope with the burden of welcoming displaced people.

The United States is also committing to help countries “combat and root out” human smuggling networks that prey on migrants through a large-scale law enforcement effort aimed at dismantling networks across Latin America.

“The Los Angeles Declaration on migration and protection is centered around responsibility sharing and economic support for countries that have been most impacted by refugee and migration flows,” said a senior administration official. “It sets forth a framework for a coordinated and predictable way for states to manage migration.”

While the administration official described the declaration as “ambitious,” it is not known how many countries will sign it or how they are expected to fund increased border security and other initiatives. Several countries that are among the largest emitters of migrants like Cuba, Venezuela and several Central American countries, were not invited to the Summit or did not send their heads of state.

The U.S. official also said that some of the proposed measures, like expanding legal pathways for migrants, would likely require Congress’ approval.

On Friday, the administration also announced it was resuming the expedited family reunification programs for Cubans and Haitians, expanding refugee resettlement and increasing funding to respond to the Venezuela crisis.

The State Department said the United States will resettle 20,000 refugees from the Americas over the next two years, “a three-fold increase over projected arrivals this fiscal year.”

But the resettling number is small compared to the commitment of receiving 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and given the large influx of people displaced in the region, among them more than 6 million Venezuelans. USAID also announced $314 million in new “humanitarian, health, economic, and development assistance” for Venezuelan refugees and vulnerable migrants across the hemisphere.

Also among the commitments, the administration said it will provide $25 million to the Global Concessional Financing Facility (GCFF) to prioritize support for countries in Latin America, such as Ecuador and Costa Rica, to support programs benefiting refugees and asylum seekers. The GCFF is a World Bank fund created in 2016 to provide financial support to middle-income countries around the world impacted by refugee crises.

Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera, who served as president of Costa Rica between 2014-2018 during which his nation became a land bridge for migrants, said addressing the historic flows will require more than money but also new laws in the United States “to use the human capital that migration provides in more intelligent and humanitarian ways.”

“Yes, migration laws must be enforced, but this can’t be done violating human rights as some politicians in Texas and Florida suggest,” he said.

Solis said the Biden administration has correctly identified the structural causes of migration in the Northern Triangle of Central America, which includes the countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“It has also expressed its willingness to contribute with significant financial and technical resources to ease those causes ($4 billion), as well as to support new investments for an additional $3 billion coming from private sources,” Solis said in an email to the Herald. “This is no small thing and should be welcomed and acknowledged.

“Yet, all these efforts will not stop the human flows and therefore require other measures both in U.S. as well as in Central America,” he added.

A United Nations study, citing the government of Panama, said that last year more than 133,000 people irregularly crossed the border between the Central American nation and Colombia.

The region, known as the Darien Gap, is one of the world’s most dangerous migrant trials. Nearly 90,000 of those who crossed in 2021 were Haitian nationals, many of whom had been living in Chile and Brazil in the years after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.

The migration pact comes as thousands of refugees continue to gather at the U.S. southern border with Mexico, hoping to cross into the United States without the risk of either getting quickly expelled back to Mexico or to their home country.

The number of Haitians in Central and South America is unknown. But according to a U.N. study, as of Dec. 31, 4% of the 73,504 refugees in Mexico had Haitian nationality. Of the 157,180 seeking asylum, 33% were Haitians, who had the lowest rate of acceptance for asylum in comparison to other Spanish-speaking refugees.

Those who dare cross irregularly into the U.S. risk are being quickly expelled under the Trump-era public health policy known as Title 42, leading to criticism of Biden, who advocates say has expelled over 25,000 Haitians back to a country riddled with violence since September and facing a humanitarian crisis.

Support for Haiti

Along with seeking countries’ assistance, the U.S. also will announce new support for Haiti, the administration official said.

Though the official did not go into details on the Haiti support, sources tell the Herald that the administration has committed to increasing Haiti’s participation in the U.S.’s H-2A and H-2B seasonal, guest worker visas program, create more anti-gang fighting units inside the country’s beleaguered police force and work to relax restrictions on the purchase of arms and other equipment. The country is currently subjected to a U.S. arms embargo, which has presented hurdles in its ability to obtain certain kinds of guns, and armory to fight heavily armed gangs.

The U.S. Agency for International Development also plans to increase its food security assistance to help fight what United Nations agencies have warned is “unabated” rise in hunger. Some 4.5 million Haitians in a population of nearly 12 million are experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity, the World Food Program recently said as it noted the lower-than-expected humanitarian food assistance and the continued fallout the country continues to experience from last August’s deadly earthquake.

The brewing hunger crisis, soaring inflation, a weakening domestic currency against the U.S. dollar, deepening political instability, escalating gang violence and unabated kidnappings have all added to the migration crisis.

While over 20,000 Haitian migrants have irregularly crossed the U.S.’s southern land border with Mexico in the last 10 months, more than 5,300 Haitians have been stopped at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard since October in the largest exodus of Haitians by boat in nearly 20 years.

The majority are bound for the Florida Keys and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. But they are also washing up in unsafe, overcrowded vessels in the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos and Cuba, while also using the neighboring Dominican Republic as a springboard for Puerto Rico, Mexico and Latin America.

“We recognize the need to expand people’s pathways just in general but also specifically, countries where we are seeing high outflows that are directly related to humanitarian situations and security situations,” the administration official said. “I think the goal is to provide legal channels so that folks don’t have to take irregular means to get to safety or to reunite with family.”

The invitation to interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry to attend the summit has come under fire from some Haitians and U.S. lawmakers. But a number of individuals, including Florida Republic Sen. Marco Rubio, insisted on Henry’s presence at the summit, remarking that the country’s instability is a source of concern throughout the region.

“In Haiti, we continue to work for a transition that leads to appropriate elections that are supported by all the Haitian people,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during the summit when asked about Henry’s presence. “We continue to work to deal with gang violence that is afflicting the country and is doing terrible damage to the Haitian people. We continue to work to try to find ways to support the Haitian people, who have borne more than their share of trouble in the last years, both human and naturally made.”

Since taking the reins of power after last July’s assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, Henry has been at loggerheads with members of civil society who want to lead a two-year transition of the country. The deepening paralysis along with the kidnappings and deepening poverty are fueling despair and a new migration wave.

Record numbers of Haitians are are not just showing up at the southern border of the U.S. where they are arriving after crossing a dozen countries in South and Central America and after spending years living in Chile and Brazil, but they are also washing up on the shores of the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico after getting on rickety boats in the largest exodus of Haitians leaving by boat from the island of Hispaniola in nearly 20 years.

More than 1,400 have successfully made it to land since October after washing up in the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico by boat.

The U.S., which had a bilateral meeting with Henry on the sidelines of the summit this week, is increasingly under pressure to provide more assistance to Haiti, especially in the area of security where a weakened Haiti National Police has been unable to control kidnappings and killings by armed gangs who now control large swaths of Port-au-Prince.

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