Senior White House officials are visiting Mexico and Guatemala this week in a bid to curtail a surge of migrants at the U.S. southern border that is raising pressure for the Biden administration to take more aggressive measures.
The high-level meetings to discuss migration and development in southern Mexico and Central America come as apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border are on pace to hit highs not seen in 20 years.
“Expectations were created that with President Biden’s government there would be a better treatment of migrants,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said during his daily press conference on Tuesday. “This has caused Central American migrants, and also from our country, to want to cross the border thinking that it is easier to do so.”
The Biden administration is now leaning more on Mexico’s authorities to turn migrants back before they can reach the U.S. border. The government of Mr. López Obrador announced last week restrictions on nonessential travel across its border with Guatemala, a measure it said was to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.
But a parade conducted on Friday by hundreds of Mexican immigration agents and National Guard officers near Mexico’s southern border showed that the enforcement efforts were focused on stopping migrants from reaching the U.S. before they come close.
Mexico’s latest enforcement campaign comes as the Biden administration agreed to supply its southern neighbor with 2.7 million doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, a request that represented a priority for the Mexican government, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said last week. “The U.S. also has common concerns with us,” he added, referring to migration.
U.S. Border Patrol agents made about 97,000 arrests of migrants crossing the border illegally in February, the most since 2019 when there was also a surge in U.S.-bound migration. Record numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing the border have posed the greatest problem for U.S. immigration authorities.
The government has apprehended an average of 523 unaccompanied minors a day over the past three weeks, according to an internal U.S. Customs and Border Protection document seen by The Wall Street Journal. At that rate, March would be a record month with some 16,000 encounters.
“It’s clear that the center of the U.S.-Mexico relationship focuses on migration and enforcement,” said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the nonprofit Washington Office for Latin America. “What’s missing from this conversation is how both countries are going to ensure access to protection for people at risk.”
The Biden administration has rejected requests from reporters and photographers, including from The Wall Street Journal, to visit shelters housing unaccompanied children. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D., Texas) released photos this week from inside one such facility in Texas showing makeshift, crowded conditions.
“More has to be done to address this growing humanitarian crisis,” Mr. Cuellar said on Twitter Monday. “These migrant children need our help right now. Not later.”
Mexican authorities had encountered around 4,200 unaccompanied minors since January when the government launched last week’s border operation, which includes “public health checkpoints” at roads and airports, as well as the use of drones and night-vision equipment. Over the weekend, authorities said they found 329 Central Americans, including 114 unaccompanied minors, crammed into trucks near the border with Guatemala. Eight unaccompanied minors were among 95 people who arrived without immigration papers in the northern city of Monterrey on domestic flights from southern Mexico.
In mid-2019, the Trump administration struck a deal with Mexico—after President Donald Trump threatened to impose escalating tariffs on Mexican imports—to strengthen migration enforcement throughout Mexico. The Mexican government deployed more than 25,000 members of the National Guard in a crackdown that contributed to a sharp drop in apprehensions across the U.S.-Mexico border.
To dissuade migrants from entering the U.S., the Trump administration also sent asylum seekers to other countries while their cases were processed in U.S. immigration courts. As part of its migration policy overhaul, the Biden administration has begun to slowly let in people who were in the Remain in Mexico program, officially known as Migrant Protection Protocols, which required asylum seekers to stay in Mexico for the duration of their proceedings.
The U.S. delegation is led by Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and the White House’s top adviser on border issues, and Juan González, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere. They met with Mr. Ebrard and senior Mexican Foreign Ministry officials to discuss topics related to international cooperation for development and mechanisms for “orderly and safe” migration flows in the region, including the protection of migrant children, the ministry said in a statement.
Mr. López Obrador has long pushed for financial aid in Central America’s Northern Triangle, a region that includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, to foster development, lower rampant violence and economic pressure to migrate north.
The White House said Mr. González will then travel to Guatemala with Ricardo Zuniga, the State Department’s Northern Triangle special envoy, to meet with senior Guatemalan government officials, and members of civil society and nongovernment organizations “to address root causes of migration.”
In a telephone conference with Central American reporters on Tuesday, Messrs. González and Zuniga said that the U.S. government plans to create a task force to combat corruption, drug trafficking and money laundering in the region.
The Biden administration is seeking to work with Central American governments to strengthen the work of prosecutors, “who sometimes lack the necessary support” to conduct their work, Mr. González said.
It can also take specific actions through the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to sanction individuals involved in corruption, human rights violations and money laundering, he added.
The trip comes as the Biden administration is facing calls from both parties on Capitol Hill to do more to address the situation at the border, with Republicans saying that Mr. Biden’s policies have led to the surge at the border and border-state Democrats calling for more administration help.
On a call Monday evening with Senate Democrats, Sen. Mark Kelly (D., Ariz.) asked Mr. Biden for a timeline for additional resources, facilities and coronavirus-testing protocols at the U.S. southern border, according to a person familiar with the call. The Arizona senator, who faces a potentially tough reelection race in 2022, said he was concerned that his state could be strained by the current situation, the person said. Mr. Biden responded that his administration was aiming for long-term reforms and to leave behind what he called the cruelty and chaos of Mr. Trump’s policies, another person familiar with the call said.
Biden administration officials have been repeating the message that the border is closed and that migrants shouldn’t attempt the journey—aided by radio ads the government has been placing across Latin America, in Spanish, Portuguese and six indigenous languages, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday.
The administration hurt its own case in early days, however, by offering migrants a mixed message: While they shouldn’t attempt the journey now, help would be on its way. That nuance was lost on most migrants, experts say, as desperate conditions pushed them to leave and friends and relatives in the U.S. encouraged them to come, pointing to other migrant families and children being allowed into the country.
“You’ve got to be unambiguous,” said Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D., Texas), who represents a district along the border. “’Don’t come now, come later?’ What kind of message is that?”
—Eliza Collins in Washington and Juan Carlos Rivera in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, contributed to this article.
Write to Santiago Pérez at email@example.com
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