It happens again. As the number of encounters at the US-Mexico border increases, the belief that people will stop coming if the borders are made harder to cross has taken hold again, this time deporting Venezuelans who try to enter. between entry points under controversial public health policy. ordinance known as Title 42.
To understand the likely end futility of this and what might work instead, it helps to see the hemisphere’s unprecedented human mobility from a place like Canaán Membrillo in Panama, a ramshackle town of more than 300 indigenous residents welcoming between 1,500 and 2,000 new migrants, mostly from Venezuela, every day, as I did earlier this month.
Watching beleaguered men, women and children drag themselves through slippery mud and sweltering heat and humidity, the scale of the systemic failure – and the need for a different approach – is staggering. Decades of hardening the US-Mexico border and seeking its externalization by encouraging our neighbors to adopt visa requirements and border restrictions are crumbling under the weight of a hemisphere reeling from failed state regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti, not to mention the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented levels of food insecurity and the accelerating effects of the climate crisis.
Venezuelan after Venezuelan told me that the 6.8 million Venezuelans forced to flee since 2015 had largely settled elsewhere in South America or, in relatively small numbers, had flown to Mexico hoping to make it to the United States. Today South America is less hospitable to migrants and Mexico requires visas. Yet these Venezuelans, and others, are on the move despite the treacherous journey — a haunting rebuke to those who believe migration can be deterred if made more difficult.
To its credit, the Panamanian government gives more humanitarian attention to migrants in transit than many of its neighbors, although this is more an indictment of others than cause for celebration. From Canaán to the outskirts of David near the Panamanian border with Costa Rica, the Panamanian state briefly and lightly embraces people on the move, providing them with food, space to camp, minimal healthcare and contract transport (subsidized by the migrants themselves) to ensure that they continue their journey.
There is still a lot to do. All countries in the hemisphere must coordinate and intensify their efforts to stabilize, regularize and integrate migrants and would-be emigrants while protecting those on the move. Unless and until they do, countless lives will be lost in the Darien without the pressure on the US-Mexico border diminishing.
Fortunately, even if the border-hardening instinct proves difficult to weed out, the Biden administration is also leading a new historical approach to hemispheric migration. We have seen progress recently when ministers gathered in Lima to discuss the implementation of the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, signed by 21 countries at the Summit of the Americas this summer, and in a pilot humanitarian parole program for 24,000 Venezuelans announced last week which is to be rapidly expanded to cover those in need of humanitarian protection from Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti. We’ve also seen progress in last week’s expansion of the H2-B temporary work visa program. These types of legal channels are essential for a better approach to migration management.
Serious resources – fiscal, political and bureaucratic – must also be devoted to implementing the commitments of the Los Angeles Declaration on the regularization and integration of displaced communities; enhanced protection and legal pathways to mobility; and better coordination among countries across the hemisphere.
Panama, for its part, should work closely with Colombia to strengthen the state’s security presence in the Darien in order to at least reduce the informal gap in which human trafficking networks thrive. Panama should also work with international organizations and non-governmental actors to provide more and better support to people on the move. It should, for example, quickly allow the presence of Doctors Without Borders in all migrant reception centers to extend the triage care available to the most vulnerable in its territory – at no additional cost to the Panamanian state.
It should also take no less urgent steps to provide formal status, including the right to work, to a largely unrecognized migrant population that already lives there and to those who wish to remain in this country.
Beyond these types of individual country-level actions lies the need for a massive push to stabilize migrant and potential migrant populations across the region. The necessary financing will only be available by reforming the lending practices of the multilateral development banks to facilitate favorable financing for the middle-income countries that predominate in the Americas and by coordinating the actions of these banks to disperse the funds much more quickly.
As countries in the region choose a new president of the Inter-American Development Bank, they have a unique opportunity to prioritize the bank’s role in mitigating, managing and ordering migration in the Americas. No IDB presidential candidate should be considered serious without a clear plan of action to help revitalize COVID-shocked hemisphere economies, strengthen migrant-hosting communities, and stabilize people who would otherwise be on the move.
For hundreds of years, the Darien Gap served as a nearly impenetrable physical barrier to human mobility in the Americas. Today is a flashing signal that a new approach – on a large scale – is urgently needed.
Dan Restrepo served as Special Assistant for Western Hemisphere Affairs to President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2012.
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