Immigration Roiling Politics Globally
Those seeking to escape the global south are facing resistance from DC to London to Paris.
AP (“Jungle between Colombia and Panama becomes highway for migrants from around the world“):
Once nearly impenetrable for migrants heading north from Latin America, the jungle between Colombia and Panama this year became a speedy but still treacherous highway for hundreds of thousands of people from around the world.
Driven by economic crises, government repression and violence, migrants from China to Haiti decided to risk three days of deep mud, rushing rivers and bandits. Enterprising locals offered guides and porters, set up campsites and sold supplies to migrants, using color-coded wristbands to track who had paid for what.
Enabled by social media and Colombian organized crime, more than 506,000 migrants — nearly two-thirds Venezuelans — had crossed the Darien jungle by mid-December, double the 248,000 who set a record the previous year. Before last year, the record was barely 30,000 in 2016.
Dana Graber Ladek, the Mexico chief for the United Nation’s International Organization for Migration, said migration flows through the region this year were “historic numbers that we have never seen.”
None of this is particularly surprising. The flow of illegal migrants from Latin America seeking to escape poverty for a better life in the United States has been a controversial political issue for as long as I can remember—well over four decades now.
But the AP headline belies the larger context of the report:
It wasn’t only in Latin America.
The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean or the Atlantic on small boats to reach Europe this year has surged. More than 250,000 irregular arrivals were registered in 2023, according to the European Commission.
A significant increase from recent years, the number remains well below levels seen in the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than 1 million people landed in Europe, most fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Still, the rise has fed anti-migrant sentiment and laid the groundwork for tougher legislation.
That refugee flow, of course, helped lead to the rise of right-wing parties across Europe and certainly contributed to the Brexit disaster.
Earlier this month, the British government announced tough new immigration rules aimed at reducing the number of people able to move to the U.K. each year by hundreds of thousands. Authorized immigration to the U.K. set a record in 2022 with nearly 750,000.
A week later, French opposition lawmakers rejected an immigration bill from President Emmanuel Macron without even debating it. It had been intended to make it easier for France to expel foreigners considered undesirable. Far-right politicians alleged the bill would have increased the number of migrants coming to the country, while migrant advocates said it threatened the rights of asylum-seekers.
In Washington, the debate has shifted from efforts early in the year to open new legal pathways largely toward measures to keep migrants out as Republicans try to take advantage of the Biden administration’s push for more aid to Ukraine to tighten the U.S. southern border.
The U.S. started the year opening limited spaces to Venezuelans — as well as Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians — in January to enter legally for two years with a sponsor, while expelling those who didn’t qualify to Mexico. Their numbers dropped somewhat for a time before climbing again with renewed vigor.
While I generally support expanding the number of legal slots for entry into the United States, I’m always amused when they come with expiration dates that we have shown time and again we can’t or won’t enforce. And “expelling those who didn’t qualify to Mexico” is a sad joke; they’ll simply return as many times as necessary.
After some personal anecdotes, we get this:
In October, Panama and Costa Rica announced a deal to speed migrants across their countries. Panama bused migrants to a center in Costa Rica where they were held until they could buy a bus ticket to Nicaragua.
Nicaragua also seemed to opt for speeding migrants through its territory.
So, essentially, these countries are facilitating illegal immigration to the United States. Indeed, on a global basis:
After discovering that Nicaragua had lax visa requirements, Cubans and Haitians poured into Nicaragua on charter flights, purchasing roundtrip tickets they never intended. Citizens of African nations made circuitous series of connecting flights through Africa, Europe and Latin America to arrive in Managua to start travelling overland toward the United States, avoiding the Darien.
Adam Isacson, an analyst tracking migration at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras grant migrants legal status while they’re transiting the countries, which have limited resources, and by letting migrants pass legally the countries make them less vulnerable to extortion from authorities and smugglers.
Then there are Guatemala and Mexico, which Isacson called the “we’re-going-to-make-a-show-of-blocking-you countries” attempting to score points with the U.S. government.
For many that has meant spending money to hire smugglers to cross Guatemala and Mexico, or exposing themselves to repeated extortion attempts.
Unable to detain many migrants, Mexico instead circulated them around the country, using brief, repeat detentions, each an opportunity for extortion, said Gretchen Kuhner, director of IMUMI, a nongovernmental legal services organization. Advocates called it the “politica de desgaste” or wearing down policy.
But, of course, while there’s both the show-making and potential for exploitation, the US-Mexico border is huge and porous. It’s certainly not in Mexico’s interest to expend huge resources to stop the outflow—especially not when the folks in question aren’t even Mexican to begin with.
On the US side, the options are terrible. Border enforcement is wildly expensive, yet ineffective. Enforcement much beyond the border is expensive, ineffective, and almost always results in racist profiling.
The vast majority of the migrants in question are economic, not qualifying for refugee status or asylum under international law. But that doesn’t stop them from claiming asylum status and overwhelming the system. Successive administrations have used extraordinary—and arguably illegal and inhumane—practices to get around the problem of simply not being able to resource the administration of this system.
The seemingly obvious solution is to stop the flow on the demand side, making it incredibly difficult for American companies to hire workers without legal status. But we’ve shown very limited appetite for doing that and there is, of course, a massive black market for fake documents.