Administration discusses militarized enforcement strategy in Mexico and Central America—04-16-21

Immigration news, in context

This is the seventy-fifth edition of BORDER/LINES, a weekly newsletter by Felipe De La Hoz and Gaby Del Valle designed to get you up to speed on the big developments in immigration policy. Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at

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This week’s edition:

  • In The Big Picture, we take a look at the Biden administration’s strategy of working with police and military in Mexico and Central America to prevent migration.

  • In Under the Radar, we discuss Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit attempting to have the MPP program reinstated.

  • In Next Destination, we examine Biden’s reluctance to raise the current fiscal year’s refugee cap, despite a promise to do so.

The Big Picture

The news: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced this week that the United States had reached agreements with the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico to beef up border militarization and stop migration north. After those governments denied that new agreements had been signed, Biden officials clarified that they were referring to ongoing coordination and not new deals.

What’s happening?

The notion of pushing the border south is a long-term enforcement strategy of both Democratic and Republican administrations. It’s taken several forms, which we will get more deeply into later, but at its most basic it involves extending the militarized enforcement apparatus southward, through both the deployment of U.S. immigration enforcement personnel as advisors and participants in ostensible anti-trafficking and anti-narcotics operations and the use of foreign military and police. The latter presents a tantalizing opportunity to U.S. administrations and policymakers, in that it effectively outsources their enforcement objectives, creating the veneer of collaborative international management of the migration “problem” and providing some insulation from the domestic political backlash that heavy-handed immigration enforcement can trigger. For the U.S. public, out of sight is often out of mind.

A perfect example of this is the deployment of thousands of Mexican National Guard troops to border enforcement functions right after the force was created in 2019. For the Mexican and Central American governments engaged in this cooperation, there are a few key incentives to do so: typically, the U.S. does provide some logistical support that’s intertwined with support for other policy priorities, like combating the drug business. While the mainstream press tends to think of migrants as an undifferentiated Latin American mass, these governments often have their own internal immigration enforcement operations, and conduct their own deportations. Mexico in particular has long harbored an ambivalence and occasional hostility to asylum seekers from Northern Triangle countries moving north through its territory, and is happy to work with the U.S. on enforcement. The U.S. always also has both the carrot and the stick; officials were reported to have been offering Mexico surplus COVID vaccines in tacit exchange for more border enforcement, though the administration has denied this.

In this most recent iteration, Psaki announced that Honduras had agreed to deploy 7,000 police and military officers to disperse migrants presumably traveling into Guatemala; Guatemala itself had sent an additional 1,500 police and military to that border along with various checkpoints; and Mexico would maintain a deployment of 10,000 troops for border enforcement purposes. The immediate takeaway was that some type of new agreements had been signed, but Guatemala almost immediately put out a statement claiming nothing had been inked and the deployment referenced had been in place since January. U.S. Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zúñiga (best known for having been point person in the normalization of relations with Cuba) clarified in a congressional hearing that the statements weren’t in reference to specific, formal agreements but rather an indication of the administration’s continued intent to work with these nations on enforcement.

This muddies the waters a little bit; the absence of particular accords with specific stipulations leaves the nature and limits of this cooperation a bit open-ended, and does not inspire much confidence in the missions’ commitments to upholding internationally-mandated standards of humanitarian migration. It’s not clear what if any oversight exists to ensure that these types of transnational efforts are respecting the rights of migrants being taken into custody or blocked from traveling, including the fundamental and long-recognized right to seek protection from danger.

The emphasis on this joint effort also highlights that a key part of the Biden administration’s attempt to address the “root causes” of migration will center not only on investment and support for raising the standard of living in Mexico and Central America, but using force to prevent would-be migrants from ever arriving at the border. Whereas other restrictionist agenda items, like leaving the Title 42 order in place, are couched in language about the ongoing pandemic and processing capacity issues, it’s not what clear what rote reasoning can be utilized to justify initiatives to prevent people from leaving their countries of origin or traveling to the U.S. to seek a legally protected avenue of immigration.

It’s possible that the administration won’t really need a good explanation. Initial news of the supposed agreements doesn’t seem to have generated much consternation among the president’s liberal base, who instead credited him and Vice President Kamala Harris—who has taken the border on as part of her portfolio of responsibilities—with having taken steps to work with fellow governments to block migration. As we’ve noted in the past, most U.S. immigration policy discourse stems from the same general premise, which is that this type of immigration is a problem and the disagreements are more-so about how to address this problem in a compassionate manner. So, somewhat paradoxically, even a lot of the liberal Democratic public sees preventing migrants from traveling to the U.S. as more humane than allowing them to seek protections and then be subsequently expelled or deported.

How we got here

The U.S. has a domestic and International responsibility to give anyone fleeing persecution in their home country a fair shot at obtaining asylum protections. When an asylum seeker reaches the U.S., they go through a lengthy adjudication process to determine whether their fear of returning to their country of origin is genuine and credible; whether their persecution is related to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a “particular social group”; and whether they’d face related harm upon being forced to return to their country. Anyone familiar with asylum law knows that it’s a complicated and largely flawed process. The government doesn’t give people in deportation proceedings free legal representation, so many asylum seekers argue their cases without a lawyer. The immigration courts are overseen by the Department of Justice, meaning they aren’t independent from the Executive Branch and are subject to the whims of whoever is in office. And crucially, our asylum and refugee policy is still rooted in Cold War-era ideology, even though the world—and the primary motivations asylum seekers have for fleeing their countries—has changed a lot since the implementation of the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Even if an asylum seeker manages to make it to the U.S., actually obtaining asylum is an incredibly difficult process. Despite these hurdles, the U.S.’s longstanding policy on asylum seekers has been to make it as difficult as possible for them to reach the U.S., period. After all, if they don’t arrive, they can’t make an asylum claim. The U.S. may have a legal responsibility to asylum seekers who make it to its shores, but it can claim not to have any responsibility to people fleeing persecution who never make it here in the first place.

Pushing the U.S.’s southern border further and further outward is the inevitable policy outcome of this line of thinking. This raises an obvious question: why would other countries agree to mobilize security forces to prevent their own citizens from leaving? If any other country—say, one of the U.S.’s ideological enemies—was using its regional influence to strong-arm smaller nations into doing something similar, there’d be international outcry and talk of human rights violations, and with good reason. 

Biden isn’t the first president to use the U.S.’s might to push the border south. During Trump’s time in office, many immigration reporters noted that Mexico was a de facto “wall.” The Mexican government regularly deployed security forces to its southern border with Guatemala in order to keep migrants from passing through. For example, as we noted above, Mexico sent between 14,000 and 15,000 members of its Army and newly-created National Guard to its northern border, as well as 6,500 members of its security forces to patrol its southern border in June 2019. The deployment came shortly after Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico if the country didn’t do more to limit Central American migration. That same year, the U.S., Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador reached an agreement to carry out joint police operations in Central America with the stated goal of curbing “irregular migration” to the United States.

Pushing the border south is part of a broader strategy called “prevention through deterrence,” which effectively seeks to prevent migrants from even leaving their country by making the journey to the U.S. as difficult as possible. Prevention through deterrence wasn’t designed to apply specifically to asylum seekers, but rather to all unauthorized migrants. It began in 1994 under the Clinton administration. The goal was to make crossings more difficult in urban border cities such as El Paso, Texas and San Diego, California, pushing migrants into more remote regions along the border. The idea was that since crossing the border would be more difficult, people would be discouraged from trying to do so at all. Instead, unauthorized border crossings continued—and migrant deaths in the borderlands skyrocketed. The Clinton administration’s prevention through deterrence strategy began with the border; in subsequent decades, the idea of preventing migration by making it more difficult has morphed into common-sense immigration policy despite the significant human cost.

The Trump administration kicked the idea of prevention through deterrence into high gear. Pretty much every Trump immigration policy was designed to make the process of obtaining asylum so grueling that people would either give up or not try at all—or be denied asylum even if they stuck it out. Biden’s agreements with Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are similar—in intent, not function—to the Trump administration’s so-called “asylum cooperative agreements” with the three Central American nations. These agreements essentially shipped asylum outward. For example, under the U.S.’s agreement with Guatemala, an asylum seeker from Honduras or El Salvador who asked for protections in the U.S. could be sent to Guatemala and told to file an asylum claim there instead. Critics of these agreements rightly pointed out that Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras didn’t have robust (or in some cases, existing) asylum adjudication systems, and that the three countries are largely unsafe for their own citizens. The Biden administration announced earlier this year that it’d be ending all three agreements—but instead of strengthening the U.S.’s asylum system, the administration has decided to use the U.S.’s regional might to prevent asylum seekers from reaching the country at all.

What’s next?

The broader strategy of deterring migration at its point of inception is just getting started. The Biden administration has already made it abundantly clear that this will essentially be priority number one, in what is a bit of a trade-off: it will commit to treating immigrants more humanely in the U.S., and grant them greater procedural protections, with the caveat that it will work to prevent new arrivals. For their part, the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have an incentive to play along. Biden is dangling not only vaccines, but the economic and logistical support that comes with the full “root causes strategy.” The administration is, for example, trying to get U.S. companies to invest in these countries.

This will depend not only on raw militarization, but also surveillance. While the U.S. has already built an elaborate technological dragnet along the border, including at airports, it’s likely that it will attempt to essentially export parts of this methodology south. It wouldn’t necessarily be surprising to see U.S. tech and military technology companies working with the governments to deploy technologies like facial recognition and enhanced biometric surveillance. As is the case with the border, these implements have the benefit of being less visible and therefore less prone to scrutiny than out-and-out militarization.

The strategy also dovetails with Biden’s effort to have humanitarian immigration processes begin at countries of origin, as opposed to the U.S. border. There are efforts to expand the refugee program (which is similar to asylum except that the process happens outside the country, and it’s capped; more on that below) and other initiatives to let Central Americans in particular nominally access the humanitarian immigration system without leaving. This is, of course, not necessarily feasible for people facing imminent threat to their life and health, but allows the administration to point to existing pathways as a reason to otherwise prevent migration.

Under the Radar

Paxton keeps trying to force federal policy changes with litigation

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, an anti-immigrant hardliner, has sued the Biden administration in an effort to reinstate the Migrant Protection Protocols. The program, which kept asylum seekers waiting in Mexico for their immigration cases to play out, often in squalid and unsafe conditions and with limited access to legal representation, was recently terminated by Biden, and the people in the program are being allowed to enter the country to continue their cases. 

Paxton is arguing that the administration has violated the Administrative Procedures Act, a federal law government federal government regulatory actions that provided one of the toughest bulwarks against Trump’s immigration policies when he was in office. Those claims, which are essentially that the government didn’t go through the adequate process to implement a policy, are now being repurposed by immigration opponents to argue against more lenient policies.

This marks the second time in Biden’s short presidency that Paxton has sued the federal government, with the first being a lawsuit against the administration’s efforts to institute a deportation moratorium, an initiative that was ultimately blocked in court. It’s likely there will be additional lawsuits every time Biden attempts to overturn Trump-era policies, particularly as it’s been reported that Stephen Miller is attempting to set up a legal group that will bring these suits.

Next Destination

Will Biden ever raise the refugee cap?

Earlier this year, Biden signed an executive order affirming the U.S.’s commitment to taking in more refugees and laying out a roadmap for a more robust refugee program. Since then, his administration has done little—if anything—to make that a reality. In fact, Biden still hasn’t raised the current refugee admissions cap, which Trump set at 15,000, the lowest in U.S. history. 

CNN reports that Biden hasn’t raised the refugee admissions ceiling because of political optics. Sources within the administration told CNN that Biden is holding out in order to keep his options open so he can make whichever decision suits him best politically. The Biden administration, meanwhile, claims it is committed to lifting the admissions ceiling to 62,500, but hasn’t seemed to take any steps towards actually making that happen.

As a result, this year’s refugee resettlement has slowed to a trickle. There have been several news reports of hundreds of refugees’ flights to the U.S. beingcanceled or pushed back because Biden has yet to raise the admissions ceiling. This will keep happening until and unless he does, but it’s unclear when that’ll be.