Biden sends officials to Mexico and Guatemala for talks on 'root causes of migration' amid 'crisis' on border

Influx of minors has created political headache for US president

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Monday 22 March 2021 17:40
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The Biden administration is dispatching senior officials – including a newly-minted State Department envoy – to Mexico and Guatemala for talks on how best to stem an increasing tide of migrants who are traveling to a largely closed US-Mexico border.

White House Southwest Border Co-ordinator Roberta Jacobson and National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzales will travel to Mexico City on Monday to "engage with government officials to continue our ongoing discussions on how to manage an effective and humane plan of action on migration," according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the officials' travel plans.

They will be joined by Ricardo Zuniga, whose appointment as a State Department Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Region was also announced on Monday. Mr Zuniga, a career foreign service officer since 1994, has extensive experience in Latin America and recently represented the US as Consul General in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Mr Gonzales and Mr Zuniga will also travel to Guatemala.

The trip is the latest in a series of meetings between US officials and their counterparts in Mexico, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries that have been the main sources of migrants attempting to claim asylum along the US-Mexico border. While the border officially remains closed to most potential asylum seekers due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, an executive order signed by President Joe Biden shortly after he was sworn in created an exception for unaccompanied minor children who attempt to claim asylum in the US.

The influx of minors, many of whom are detained at Border Patrol facilities for longer than legally-permitted times due to lack of resources, has created an unyielding political headache for the Biden White House at a time when administration officials are trying to capitalise on the widespread popularity of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package which Mr Biden signed into law earlier this month.

Many Republicans and anti-immigration advocates have slammed Mr Biden's reversal of the harshest Trump-era policies and his generally more tolerant tone when it comes to immigration, both of which they claim amount to an invitation for hordes of migrants to stream across an open border. But Biden administration officials maintain that stopping the flow of migrants heading northward is a task best accomplished by improving conditions in the countries from which they are departing, rather than implementing harsher policies at the border.

"This is an important trip and one that builds on the administration's focus work on addressing the root cause of irregular migration as a cyclical regional issue that neither starts or stops at the southern border of the United States," the official said.

Mr Gonzales and Ms Jacobson, who served as the US ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018, will meet with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and other foreign ministry officials, as well as officials from Mexico's National Institute of Migration, about the "common challenge" of irregular migration.

"Since the administration has been in office, we have been in constant dialogue with Mexico ... and we have a clear-eyed shared view about our challenge," the official said.

A second senior administration official added that the talks with Mexican officials would include discussions of a "joint development strategy along southern Mexico and in the Northern Triangle" to "explore areas where the United States and Mexico can work together to address the root causes of migration, particularly by expanding economic opportunity and addressing insecurity in the region."

Following the talks with Mexican officials, officials said Mr Gonzales and Mr Zuniga will travel to Guatemala City to meet with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and foreign minister Pedro Brolo, as well as representatives from the country’s economic and security ministries, the private sector and civil society groups.

"The majority of migrants that are coming from Guatemala, are fleeing either the humanitarian disaster caused by the two hurricanes last year, or ... lack of economic opportunity ... The only way to sustainably address the root causes of migration is to make sure that you're promoting job creation in places like Guatemala, but also making sure that ... economic opportunity is something that is widespread," the official said, adding that the "factors that compel individuals to migrate" include "including corruption, violence and economic devastation exacerbated by climate change."

The official later added that the "important steps that governments, NGOs, community organisations, faith-based networks, and the private sector can take to mitigate these drivers" will be the subject of continuing dialogue between the US, Mexico and Northern Triangle governments.

"Only by improving governance and providing a foundation for investment and economic opportunity, strengthening civilian security and the rule of law, and by changing the drivers that push families and individuals to make the dangerous choice to migrate irregularly, can we break the cycle of desperation and provide hope for families who clearly would prefer to stay in their countries and provide a better future for their children," they said.

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