Even When Thinking Regionally, The Inertia of Migration Deterrence Remains Unstoppable

Despite a proliferation of targeted visa restrictions, the reality is that migration has continued. As the option of flights and other regular travel further north has been taken off the board, this has only pushed migrants to take more dangerous paths to the U.S. border, most infamously through the Darien Gap.


Source: CNN.

The following piece is an adaptation of a special edition of the Americas Migration newsletter, available at www.migrationbrief.com.

While migration to the United States has traditionally been dominated by Mexicans and then Northern Central Americans, the last few years have seen new trends in increasing migration from South America, the Caribbean, and extracontinental migrants from Africa and Asia. This has both highlighted the regional—and global—nature of migration and increased the number of countries—and borders—between home countries and the United States. 

Despite the changes in migration dynamics over the years, the U.S. Congress has yet to pass any level of immigration reform for decades. Amid a stagnant legislative framework, the Executive Branch has had to be creative to develop policy and respond to migration. Recent years have seen a newfound regional approach to thinking about migration from Washington, with the Trump administration collaborating with partners across the Americas in an effort to restrict migration and asylum. In contrast, the Biden administration has sought to employ a dual approach focused on both deterrence and the expansion of legal pathways to the country for both labor and protection.

Excluding perhaps the Obama administration’s Alliance for Prosperity Plan for Northern Central America, the Trump administration implemented some of the first real regional migration policies from the U.S. government. Coordination with Mexico on border enforcement deployment and asylum-restricting policies such as metering and the Migrant Protection Protocols (often called the “Remain in Mexico” program) represented a greater collaboration with the next-door neighbors across the southern border. Moving further afield, the move to establish Safe Third Country Agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras was historic in terms of expanding to a more regional approach on migration, albeit squarely focused on deterrence and preventing would-be asylum seekers from reaching the U.S. border.

The Biden administration, by contrast, has broadened the scope of a regional migration policy from Washington and has even looked to set up regional processing centers across the region to facilitate access to migration pathways while reducing pressure at the U.S. border. New pathways for migration that help prevent dangerous and unregulated irregular migration include a humanitarian parole program for up to 30,000 total Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans per month; expanded temporary labor migration visas for Central Americans and Haitians; and expanded family reunification pathways for select nationalities. Finally, the refugee cap has increased significantly from the record lows set during the Trump administration.

This new way of approaching migration and thinking regionally has had many benefits, including increased coordination and information sharing between stakeholders, expanded regular migration for both those with protection needs and those seeking better job opportunities alike, stronger initiatives to promote integration in receiving countries across the hemisphere, and improved efforts to clamp down on human and sex trafficking. 

Even still, deterrence has remained the underlying status quo. The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, signed in June 2022 under the leadership of the Biden administration, was a historic recognition of the regional and multifaceted nature of migration across the Americas. Since the declaration’s signing, however, the clearest follow-through at a regional level has been the expansion of hardening border enforcement measures and efforts to halt migrants in transit in their tracks, as highlighted in late May by reports of senior Biden administration officials looking to send U.S. troops to the infamous Darien Gap jungle that separates Colombia and Panama.

Nowhere is the deterrence-oriented approach to regional collaboration more evident than with the implementation of visa restrictions.

Thinking regionally has brought increased coordination on these border enforcement efforts. The four countries that have received the most attention of late for their migration to the United States are Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Using the tools available without congressional reform, the Biden administration has implemented an innovative humanitarian parole policy for these four countries and sought to expand their family reunification pathways; it has also pushed for countries along the route north to introduce visa restrictions in an effort to deter asylum seeking at the U.S.-Mexico border. Less than a decade ago, Venezuelans could enter Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama without a visa en route to the United States. Today, Venezuelans must go through laborious and expensive processes to enter those same countries. 

One example that slips under the radar but is emblematic of the policy approach is that of Belize, where new visa restrictions have been implemented for Haitians and debated for Jamaicans due to their use of the country as a landing point before continuing on by foot to head north. Per the Caribbean Community’s CSME and the Treaty of Chaguaramas, both Haitians and Jamaicans should generally have visa-free entry for up to six months in Belize.

These maps are available in closer detail and for download here.

Visa restrictions also act as a deterrent for extracontinental migrants. Migrants from Africa and Asia are increasingly looking to seek asylum at the U.S. border, but most are pushed to fly to South America—often Ecuador or Brazil—before taking off on foot heading north. The trend has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic but began as far back as 2013

Despite a proliferation of targeted visa restrictions, the reality is that migration has continued. As the option of flights and other regular travel further north has been taken off the board, this has only pushed migrants to take more dangerous paths to the U.S. border, most infamously through the Darien Gap. Over one hundred and twenty thousand migrants crossed the Darien Gap between January and April 2023—six times more than over the same period last year. And even though the Biden administration announced new deterrence measures following the expiration of Title 42 that have been labeled an “asylum transit ban,” migrants have continued to make the trek north. 

Relying solely on deterrence policies has consistently proven to be ineffective in preventing migration, whereas the opening of legal pathways has facilitated safe, orderly, and regular migration to the U.S. While the Trump administration focused solely on the former, the Biden administration’s dual approach has proven more constructive, albeit still prioritizing a deterring approach to regional collaboration. Washington is now thinking more regionally about migration, but the question becomes where its priorities lie and where they will head as we approach the 2024 presidential election and beyond.

Jordi Amaral is the author of the Americas Migration Brief newsletter and a freelance researcher and writer specializing in Latin America and the Caribbean, migration, and politics. He has worked with Hxagon, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), among others.

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