New International Migration Agreement May Not Do Much

Leaders across the Western Hemisphere signed on Friday the “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration,” a robust new international agreement designed to buttress economies in Central and South America in order to prevent waves of new immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Biden Administration celebrated the announcement, as it has always made the issue of root causes and mitigation of migration a priority. “Today the leaders on this stage to join together to make what is almost an overused phrase…to make a historic commitment,” Biden said. It was signed by 20 countries.

However, experts in migration were much more optimistic. Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), an independent research institute, stated in a statement that this declaration is not binding. He said it will only apply if the next initiative is initiated. “It is, of course, hard to know how the Los Angeles agreement will be implemented in practice,” he adds. “Like many other international declarations, it creates a set of shared proposals that governments agree they would like to pursue but leaves the actual details to later negotiations…The Los Angeles Declaration will be successful if it is the first, not the final, word on migration cooperation in the Americas.”

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Top leaders from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela—nations that collectively account for most emigration to the U.S.-Mexico border—did not even attend the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles this week, and most were not expected to sign the declaration at all. Without those leaders’ buy-in, the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration mostly only impacts countries that have already received migrants. According to the White House the U.S.A., Mexico and Canada have so much of the responsibility for expanding legal pathways to migration.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who is spearheading the Biden Administration’s effort to address root causes of migration, said in a June 8 speech at the Summit on Thursday that private sector investment is necessary to achieve longterm goals in Central America. “When I think about all the challenges we face in the Western Hemisphere, I know they will require new and innovative coalitions between the public and private sectors,” she said. “We continue to see corruption, migration flows, and democratic backsliding, and violence. These issues effect all of us, and the solutions then must involve all of us.”

Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at MPI, who spoke to TIME from the Summit in Los Angeles, said the Administration’s project, which has been underway for more than a year, can claim some success. More than $3.2B has been made by forty companies and organizations to support the Northern Triangle in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. Businesses and other organizations that are making investments in Central America plan to create jobs, expand internet connectivity throughout the region and improve financial infrastructure to allow more people to have bank accounts.

But even billions in private investment won’t have much of an effect, Ruiz Soto warns, if the governments of the countries with high rates of emigration lack the political will or ability to work with other nations to address the root causes of migration. “Investment is great,” he says. “But it’s not enough alone.”

‘Friction points’ before the summit even began

The Biden Administration announced that, despite hosting the Summit, the U.S. did not invite leaders from Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba because they were anti-democratic. Protesting, El Salvador’s, Guatemala’s, and Honduran presidents declared that they wouldn’t attend. Others from lower levels of government attended their places. “To many of us, the absence of the highest levels of government from these countries represents a lack of political continuity and will,” Ruiz Soto says.

Honduran President Xiomara Cuba decided to not attend the summit. This was especially surprising as she had been in regular contact with Vice President Harris for the purpose of the root causes initiative. Castro spoke with Harris May 27th, but Castro reiterated the importance of speaking on May 28th. Twitter that she would only attend the Summit if “all the countries of the Americas are invited without exception.” On June 6, she shared that the Honduran foreign minister would attend the Summit in her place, and added “My government maintains good relations with the U.S.”

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Leaders from El Salvador and Guatemala pose greater challenges for the U.S. than other Latin American countries. Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei is tied up in controversy for reappointing Maria Consuelo Porras as the attorney general, who essentially banished the country’s anti-corruption investigators. International organizations such as Human Rights Watch have raised concerns about her appointment. International concerns have been raised about El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele, who has been accused of allowing the country to slip into authoritarianism. Bukele has repressed free media in the last few months. Bukele launched an anti-gangs crackdown that led to over 30,000 arrests, raising concerns at the United Nations that—while acknowledging the prevalence of gang violence in El Salvador and that it has contributed to the flight of Salvadorans leaving the country—El Salvadoran police may be violating international law and making arbitrary arrests, including 5,747 who were arrested without a warrant.

These issues were clearly “friction points” for the U.S. prior to the start of the Summit of the Americas, Ruiz Soto says.

‘Historic and unprecedented rates of irregular migration’

Nearly 1.3 Million people have encountered the U.S. border with Mexico so far in this fiscal year. In Fiscal Year 2021 encounters exceeded 1.7million, a record high rate. The majority of people who have encountered the U.S. border with Mexico this year are from Mexico, Cuba and Guatemala. People fleeing Central America or Venezuela have made large numbers of migrants to Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia.

“The Western Hemisphere, as a region, is undergoing historic and unprecedented rates of irregular migration. Nearly every country has been impacted,” a senior Biden Administration official said on Thursday evening. “There’s certain countries that, I think, feel the pain and recognize the value in coming together, working on responsibility sharing, and…exploring new tools that we can employ to better bring the situation under control.”

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The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection includes efforts to achieve economic stability in migrant communities that have already arrived in countries like Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Belize; expand legal migration pathways in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., including resettlement and family reunification programs for Haitians and Cubans; implementing “humane border management policies”; and coordinated emergency response.

“The bottom line is this: the Western Hemisphere is home for all of us,” President Joe Biden said during Thursday remarks at the Summit of the Americas. “Over the past decade our region has changed, the challenges we face have changed, and so our policies and solutions have to change as well.”

The Biden Administration’s focus on addressing root causes of migration follows in the footsteps of the Obama Administration, which invested more than $1.6 billion in Central America in an effort to stem migration. It was not met with much success. The Biden Administration’s efforts, which also include anti-corruption efforts, are more expansive than Obama’s, Ruiz Soto says, but need to take place while governments of those regions also take steps to mitigate migration.

The nations met in Los Angeles last week. However, thousands of migrants from Venezuela, Central America and other countries formed a caravan in southern Mexico to begin the trek north to reach the U.S.

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