A new strat­egy to block mi­grants

A Trump team will pres­sure Mex­i­can and other lead­ers to hold back their cit­i­zens.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Tracy Wilkin­son TRACY.WILKIN­SON @LA­TIMES.COM

WASH­ING­TON —Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and three mem­bers of Pres­i­dent Trump’s Cab­i­net will meet lead­ers from Mex­ico and sev­eral Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries Thurs­day at a con­fer­ence in Mi­ami to press them to pre­vent their cit­i­zens from mi­grat­ing to the United States.

Of­fi­cials de­scribe the ef­fort as a part­ner to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s push to in­crease de­por­ta­tions of im­mi­grants in the coun­try il­le­gally and to boost bor­der se­cu­rity.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pears to be shift­ing the fo­cus of its poli­cies on Cen­tral Amer­ica away from po­lit­i­cal and so­cial im­prove­ments that gained trac­tion un­der Pres­i­dent Obama and more to­ward law en­force­ment, es­pe­cially stop­ping il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and crack­ing down on drug traf­fick­ing.

Crit­ics worry about a re­turn to a mil­i­ta­rized, “drug war” ap­proach in Cen­tral Amer­ica that would put law en­force­ment ahead of other con­cerns. They say money is needed to re­duce the so­called push fac­tors, es­pe­cially vi­o­lence and poverty, that pro­pel Cen­tral Amer­i­cans and Mex­i­cans to flee their coun­tries.

The White House has pro­posed cut­ting over­all State Depart­ment fund­ing for Cen­tral Amer­ica to $460 mil­lion next year — a 39% re­duc­tion over 2016. Its crit­ics say those cuts, if ap­proved by Con­gress, will un­der­mine ef­forts to keep im­pov­er­ished fam­i­lies from head­ing north.

State Depart­ment of­fi­cials say the two-day con­fer­ence in Mi­ami — which will also be at­tended by Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, Sec­re­tary of Home­land Se­cu­rity John F. Kelly and Sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury Steven T. Mnuchin — shows the U.S. com­mit­ment to the re­gion.

“In terms of U.S. en­gage­ment and sup­port in the re­gion, the fact that we have a con­fer­ence of this mag­ni­tude in­volv­ing the vice pres­i­dent, three U.S. Cab­i­net mem­bers and nu­mer­ous other U.S. gov­ern­ment agen­cies and U.S. of­fi­cials shows our con­tin­ued com­mit­ment to Cen­tral Amer­ica,” said John Creamer, a deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of State for Mex­ico and Cen­tral Amer­ica.

Also sched­uled to at­tend are the pres­i­dents of Gu­atemala, Hon­duras and El Sal­vador, coun­tries that make up the so-called North­ern Tri­an­gle of Cen­tral Amer­ica, which suf­fer from soar­ing homi­cide rates, ex­treme poverty and cor­rupt gov­ern­ments.

“We have asked them [North­ern Tri­an­gle coun­tries] to ask their cit­i­zens to not waste the money and head north, do not get on that ter­ri­bly dan­ger­ous net­work,” Kelly said in tes­ti­mony to the Se­nate last week, “stay where they are, be­cause if they come here, this is no longer an il­le­galalien-friendly en­vi­ron­ment.”

Kelly, a re­tired Marine gen­eral who pre­vi­ously headed the South­ern Com­mand re­spon­si­ble for U.S. mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in Cen­tral and South Amer­ica and the Caribbean, has long ex­pe­ri­ence with in­ter­dic­tion and crime-busting in the re­gion.

Un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and in re­sponse to an abrupt flood of mi­nors cross­ing into the United States in the sum­mer of 2015, Con­gress al­lot­ted more than $1 bil­lion for the North­ern Tri­an­gle over a two-year pe­riod.

Un­der Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, the ad­min­is­tra­tion teamed with the three Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries to form the Al­liance for Pros­per­ity, which would match the U.S. funds and was tasked with show­ing re­sults.

The money helped fi­nance se­cu­rity and so­cial projects, in­clud­ing anti-cor­rup­tion pro­grams, po­lice train­ing, ju­di­cial re­form and youth lead­er­ship. Homi­cide rates did drop some, and there were spo­radic ad­vances in pros­e­cut­ing cor­rupt of­fi­cials.

With Kelly tak­ing a key role deal­ing with Latin Amer­ica, many ad­vo­cates who long worked in the re­gion worry that U.S. at­ten­tion and money is too nar­rowly fo­cused on law en­force­ment, mi­grants and drugs.

“You can see the pen­du­lum start to swing back,” said Eric Ol­son, an ex­pert on Cen­tral Amer­ica at the non­par­ti­san Wil­son Cen­ter think tank in Wash­ing­ton.

The first day of the Mi­ami con­fer­ence will fo­cus on pros­per­ity but in­cludes pri­vate sec­tor groups. The sec­ond day fo­cuses on se­cu­rity and will be held at South­ern Com­mand, with Kelly lead­ing dis­cus­sions. Tiller­son will not par­tic­i­pate.

“While pri­vate sec­tor in­vest­ment can help ... the U.S. must con­tinue to lead by ex­am­ple in sup­port­ing this al­liance to ad­dress root causes of mi­gra­tion from Cen­tral Amer­ica,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who has made sev­eral fact-find­ing trips to the re­gion, said this week. “I hope that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will re­con­sider its pro­posal to dra­mat­i­cally cut fund­ing to our part­ners in the Al­liance for Pros­per­ity.”

Kelly has de­manded that Mex­ico do more to se­cure its bor­ders and stop mi­grants from head­ing north. In 2015, Mex­ico ar­rested more Cen­tral Amer­i­cans try­ing to cross Mex­ico than U.S. author­i­ties ar­rested Cen­tral Amer­i­cans at­tempt­ing to cross into the United States.

But the Mex­i­can ar­rests have led to an in­crease in re­ports of abuse, beat­ings and rapes of mi­grants by Mex­i­can sol­diers and blan­ket de­nial of asy­lum claims.

Mex­ico wants to co­op­er­ate with the United States to im­prove its own bar­gain­ing po­si­tion with a hos­tile Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

In shift­ing part of the fo­cus back to the drug war, U.S. of­fi­cials have been care­ful to rec­og­nize the United States’ role. U.S. drug de­mand, Kelly said last month, “gen­er­ates all the prob­lems.”

But even that, crit­ics say, min­i­mizes the in­sti­tu­tional flaws that crip­ple good gov­er­nance in Cen­tral Amer­ica.

“Weak in­sti­tu­tions helped fuel the vi­o­lence and in­se­cu­rity that cre­ates the im­mi­gra­tion flow,” said Ge­off Thale, pro­gram di­rec­tor at the Wash­ing­ton Of­fice on Latin Amer­ica, an ad­vo­cacy and re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion. “Go­ing back­ward from pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions’ com­mit­ments will do lit­tle to ad­dress those un­der­ly­ing causes.”

Shawn Thew Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

MEX­I­CAN and U.S. Cab­i­net of­fi­cials Miguel An­gel Osorio Chong, left, Luis Vide­garay, Rex Tiller­son and John Kelly dis­cuss crime in May.

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