E.g., 04/24/2024
E.g., 04/24/2024
The Limits of the Go-It-Alone Approach: U.S. Migration Management Increasingly Requires Other Countries’ Cooperation

The Limits of the Go-It-Alone Approach: U.S. Migration Management Increasingly Requires Other Countries’ Cooperation

President Joe Biden in Mexico City.

President Joe Biden in Mexico City. (Photo: Adam Schultz/White House)

Even if federal courts clear Texas authorities to arrest and return unauthorized immigrants under a contested new state law, the policy's effectiveness will turn in significant measure on an actor that has received little attention: the Mexican government. Mexico is making clear it will refuse to accept migrants that Texas intends to push back across the border if the law, known as SB 4, ultimately survives legal challenge. “Mexico will not accept, under any circumstances, repatriations by the state of Texas,” the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs said last week. The country has a “legitimate right to protect the rights of its nationals in the United States and to determine its own policies regarding entry into its territory.” In a rare move by a foreign government, the Mexican government also has filed an amicus brief criticizing the law with a federal appeals court.

The statement and the amicus brief underscore a crucial and yet underappreciated reality of U.S. migration management: Increasingly, the United States cannot by itself dictate what happens at the border or how effectively it can remove and return migrants found ineligible to remain in the country. While presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has promised “the largest deportation operation in American history” and President Joe Biden said a now-discarded Senate bipartisan border measure would allow him to “temporarily shut down the border,” neither could occur without the acquiescence of Mexico and other countries that must agree to accept returned migrants and cooperate in halting the movement of others to the U.S. border. This is particularly the case given the dramatic diversification of nationalities arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border over the past three years.

More generally, leaders in Mexico City, San Salvador, Quito, and many other capitals play key roles in shaping migration before it reaches the United States. Cooperation with other countries is critical both to deter migrants from arriving without authorization and for the U.S. government to return people who cannot legally remain. Without migration controls by the governments of Mexico and other countries, U.S. border authorities would surely be confronted with many more irregularly arriving migrants than even the current record number. And the U.S. government is unable to deport or return large numbers of migrants found removable, in part because their countries of origin will not or cannot accept them. For example, the United States has limited diplomatic relations with governments in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela; some governments, such as in China, have long sharply limited their willingness to accept deportees; and as Haiti spirals further into chaos, international organizations have called on the United States and other countries to halt returns of Haitians.

More than any other country, Mexico can enhance—or undermine—U.S. border enforcement. Farther away, lax or restrictive visa policies in places such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua can create or eliminate steppingstones for would-be migrants from elsewhere to get closer to the U.S. border, impacting not only the United States but also other transit countries. Migrants transiting the Western Hemisphere have stretched immigration and humanitarian systems, especially since these systems in most Latin American countries are far more nascent than those in the United States. National policies to limit or speed migratory movements may be shaped by U.S. pressure, but countries are also driven by their own internal politics and capacity challenges.

Some governments work in cooperative ways with the U.S. government to manage migration. Beyond assistance in halting irregular movement and accepting returnees, some also have worked with the United States to consider ways to make migration more orderly, such as by bringing protection options closer to migrants’ homes.

This article looks at the important role that other countries play in actualizing or curbing U.S. immigration enforcement. In a presidential election year for both the United States and Mexico, the future of this cooperation both between the two governments and throughout the region is uncertain and yet all the more important.

What If Mexico Says No?

Mexican migration to the United States is longstanding, and in fact Mexicans comprised most irregular crossings until the 2010s. But formal cooperation on migration management between the two countries began in earnest only in 2007 with the Merida Initiative, a multifaceted program aimed at addressing increased drug trafficking through Mexico to the U.S. southern border. The initiative included U.S.-provided training and technological support for Mexico’s immigration enforcement, in order to bolster its southern border with Guatemala and prevent drug traffickers and other illicit actors from entering Mexico in the first place.

In 2014, amid a rise in migration of Central Americans, Mexico used Merida Initiative funding to implement the Programa Frontera Sur (Southern Border Program) to dramatically increase enforcement at its border with Guatemala, set up checkpoints countrywide, monitor migrants’ use of railways (particularly the famed La Bestia lines often used by Central Americans), and increase its deportation capacity. The Mexican government paired these enforcement efforts with investments to bolster its asylum system and create opportunities for orderly immigration through labor and other legal pathways. Under Programa Frontera Sur, Mexico increased apprehensions of Central Americans, ultimately aiding U.S. interests, though critics also alleged human-rights abuses by Mexican officials.

Under the Trump administration, relations with Mexico took a different tone. In 2018 and 2019, heightened unauthorized migration from Central America challenged Mexican and U.S. immigration systems alike. Under threat of tariffs, the Mexican government agreed in 2019 to cooperate with the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, more commonly known as Remain in Mexico), a U.S. effort under which certain migrants seeking asylum in the United States had to wait in Mexico until the determination of their court case. This was the first formal agreement in which Mexico accepted returns of non-Mexican migrants from the United States and marked a turning point in U.S.-Mexico border cooperation. Between 2019 and 2022, when MPP was terminated, more than 81,000 individuals were enrolled in the program, which was heavily criticized by advocates for lacking due process and forcing migrants to wait in often dangerous areas in northern Mexico without access to basic necessities.

In 2021, the U.S. government and the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador developed the Bicentennial Framework to replace the Merida Initiative. The two countries have since cooperated extensively as U.S. border encounters of migrants from far-off countries has increased to record levels over the last three years. Between fiscal year (FY) 2020 and FY 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encounters of nationalities from beyond Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras rose from 12 percent of all encounters to an unprecedented 51 percent.

In addition to increasing enforcement and building capacity in its immigration system, the Mexican government again recently agreed to accept returns of certain non-Mexicans. In conjunction with a novel U.S. parole program rolled out in stages beginning in October 2022, the Mexican government agreed to accept the return each month of up to 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans intercepted at the U.S. border, the same number as can be admitted to the United States through parole. The U.S. government has had difficulty returning nationals from these four countries because of tenuous diplomatic relations with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as well as the crisis in Haiti. While the United States had admitted 386,000 individuals under the parole program as of the end of February, just 17,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans had reportedly been sent to Mexico between May and October 2023, falling well short of initial expectations.

Notably, the Mexican government is not a passive partner in this cooperation. It has leveraged migration cooperation strategically to suit its own needs. Unlike the European Union, which has explicitly traded billions of euros in economic development and other funding in exchange for migration assistance from transit countries including Morocco and Turkey, the U.S.-Mexican relationship has been much less openly transactional, and it is typically unclear what is being offered and delivered.

There have been times, though, when Mexico has visibly flexed its muscle. Beyond indicating its vocal opposition to accepting returns carried out by Texas, Mexico has made clear it will not cooperate in any resumption of MPP. And during the implementation of Title 42, a U.S. public health authority used during the COVID-19 pandemic to summarily expel migrants without a hearing, authorities in Mexico’s northeastern Tamaulipas state refused to accept expelled families with young children. This forced U.S. authorities either to allow those families to enter the United States to undergo court proceedings or spend money and time to transfer them to be expelled into Mexico along other parts of the border.

While the Mexican government at times has been content to allow migrants to pass through, it too is being affected by the recent unprecedented scale of migration, prompting domestic support for its enforcement efforts and rethinking of humanitarian programs.

With numerous governments in the Americas increasingly recognizing the need for regional coordination on migration, Mexico has also solidified its role as a regional leader. Because it maintains diplomatic relations with countries that the United States does not, the Mexican government is able to curate discussions such as an October summit in southern Mexico featuring leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, among others unlikely to ever be hosted at the White House. While the United States remains on the outside of these meetings, it nonetheless benefits from increased regional coordination.

The Complications of Migrant Removals

Not every removable migrant can be sent to Mexico. The ability to effectively deport migrants found in violation of U.S. law or who cannot establish a legal basis to remain is central to the enforcement system. Failure to remove these individuals can act as a pull factor for more irregular migration and create operational complications and backlogs for immigration agencies. However, removals require the consent of the migrant’s country of origin, which must confirm the individual’s nationality, issue a travel document, and accept their physical return.

The removal process can be complicated or made impossible if relations are frosty between the United States and the country of origin or if that country lacks a functioning government or has severely limited resources. The U.S. government formally refers to countries that refuse or delay removals as “recalcitrant,” a designation applied to 13 countries as of 2020, including China, Cuba, India, and Russia. Another 17 countries—including Algeria, Ethiopia, Israel, and Yemen—were deemed at risk of noncompliance (see Box 1). More recently, the United States negotiated Venezuela’s cooperation in accepting returnees, but the deal fell apart in February after Washington reimposed sanctions amid the Maduro regime’s failure to live up to fair election pledges. 

Box 1. Recalcitrant Countries

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may designate a country as “recalcitrant” if it fails to meet its international obligations to accept returns. It will also designate a country as “at risk of noncompliance,” if it accepts returns on only a very limited basis.

DHS determines these designations based on a variety of data, including refusals to accept charter flights with returnees and the average time in detention between removal order and return. Other factors that are taken into consideration may include a country’s experience with disaster, war, or other events that could limit its ability to accept returns.

To pressure countries to accept returns, the U.S. government has threatened tariffs and placed diplomats on no-fly lists. The Trump administration used visa sanctions against Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea, Laos, Myanmar (also known as Burma), Pakistan, and Sierra Leone, which it deemed recalcitrant. Sanctions on Guinea were lifted in August 2018 when the country agreed to receive returned migrants. Even for countries that cooperate on removals, the rate at which returns are accepted differs. In some places, limited resources may delay verification of identity documents or limit the number of flights or migrants that can be accepted.

The record number of U.S. migrant encounters, the rapid diversification of nationalities, and changing demographics have severely affected the U.S. government’s ability to carry out removals in recent years. Complicated, time-consuming, and unsuccessful removals can cause backlogs in the operations of CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and can result in extended migrant detention. While an essential part of effective enforcement, returns require negotiations and capacity-building with other countries and commensurate resources for detention and removal.

Visa Policies and Onward Movement

Visa regimes in other countries also shape migration flows to the United States. Because opportunities for a U.S. visa can be limited, would-be migrants often fly to countries as close to the United States as legally allowable and then travel overland to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. Chinese nationals for instance can travel visa-free to Ecuador and then north through the Darien Gap, a roadless stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama that has become increasing transited by U.S.-bound migrants. In Nicaragua, visa-free travel has perhaps provided an economic benefit to the Ortega regime while also allowing it to needle the U.S. government; easy access has allowed Cubans, Indians, South Americans, and West Africans to journey northward on foot, by car, or other means.

Conversely, the imposition of strict visa regimes can curb migration pressures far downstream, benefiting U.S. priorities. Between 2017 and 2022, the governments of Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama placed visa requirements on Venezuelans, likely discouraging some from onward movement and pushing others to make the dangerous trek through the Darien Gap. In October, the Salvadoran government began charging nationals from India and dozens of African countries an $1,130 “airport improvement” fee. U.S. pressure in these policies is often hinted at but rarely overt. As countries across the hemisphere grapple with changing flows, visa restrictions serve important domestic priorities for transit countries themselves and any repercussions on the United States may be unintended. Still, these policies have clear impacts on who reaches the U.S. border.

Once would-be migrants are on their soil, transit countries can play a significant role in determining whether, how, and how quickly they will pass through. For example, Colombia and Panama have some control over movement through the Darien Gap. In February, migrants’ passage was halted temporarily when Colombian authorities seized a pair of vessels and arrested boat captains in Necocli, a common setting-off point for the jungle. However, media reports have sketched how fees levied on migrants have enriched local Colombian officials and communities, making the trek through the Darien a profitable business. Beyond the jungle, Panama and Costa Rica provide bus trips that speed migrants through their countries, although they share data on migrants who pass through with the U.S. government. These policies that result in faster movement towards the United States stem from a lack of resources to handle large migrant flows. Countries such as these tend to have just a fraction of the resources at their disposal as the United States, and the policy responses they enact can have significant repercussions for arrivals at the U.S. southern border.

Slow but Emerging Cooperation in the Region

As countries throughout the Western Hemisphere transform from being chiefly migrant-sending ones to those experiencing transit and settlement, and as migration flows have become truly hemispheric in nature, the United States and other governments are searching for collaborative approaches. The emerging U.S. strategy is to engage countries from Canada to the tip of South America on migration management. Though still in nascent stages, the approach offers glimmers of a foundation for engagement that may in the long run transform the situation at the U.S.-border.

The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, signed by the United States and 20 other countries in June 2022 (with another signatory joining later), represents a potentially significant step in this regard. The nonbinding declaration looks to build out migration management systems for signatory countries, including by providing for communities hosting displaced populations, expanding legal pathways, strengthening protection systems, and improving data sharing. The Los Angeles Declaration is happening alongside other dialogues and conversations among key stakeholders in the hemisphere.

One early result of this emerging cooperation is the establishment of Safe Mobility Offices (SMOs) in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Guatemala. The overarching goal of the SMOs is to bring legal migration pathways and humanitarian protection closer to people’s origins, thereby negating the need for them to travel irregularly across the continent to the U.S. border. While the U.S. government is the chief proponent of the SMOs, the Canadian and Spanish governments also are participating and offering legal pathways for some migrants. Each SMO is operated jointly by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and serves specific populations. For example, the SMO in Colombia serves Cubans, Haitians, and Venezuelans in the country before June 12, 2023. Between the launch of the SMOs in June 2023 and January 2024, 115,000 people applied to migrate through one of the offices, 8,000 were approved for U.S. refugee resettlement, and 3,200 were resettled. At least 9,000 individuals had also been screened for other legal avenues to migrate to the United States, but it remains unclear how many had been approved.

The targeting of smuggling networks is another area in which cooperation is being attempted. The governments of Colombia, Panama, and the United States last year announced a joint effort to target smuggling networks in the Darien Gap. Panama increased enforcement and media campaigns discouraged travel via the Darien. Still, collaboration has been uneven, with Panama accusing Colombia of not holding up its end of the bargain, and overall impacts have been minimal. Last year, more than 520,000 people crossed the jungle, more than doubling the 2022 pace.

Despite their shortcomings, emerging cooperation efforts are seen as essential by many in the region. These are starting points for regional and even hemisphere-wide cooperation, not a finish line, and could continue to evolve significantly. The Biden administration has made clear that it views efforts such as these as critical to its migration management efforts; it is unclear what would happen if they were to disappear.

Changing Migration, Changing Cooperation

The ever more global migration flows reaching the U.S.-Mexico border bring about significant new challenges. Migration developments have clearly transcended single-state or even bilateral solutions, and the ability of the United States—or any other single country—to have total control over spontaneous movements is impossible without assistance from neighboring nations and other partners. The seeds of hemispheric cooperation are developing, but disparate participation and unequal impact may threaten their potential. Early efforts to manage migration, including the SMOs, face uphill battles, and currently address just a tiny fraction of the flows.

Meanwhile, policies that might ostensibly aid U.S. efforts, such as increased enforcement or imposition of visa requirements in certain transit countries, also likely have pushed more would-be migrants to pursue dangerous routes or pay exorbitant fees to smugglers. This can not only have profound and tragic individual consequences but may also complicate broader U.S. efforts by emboldening criminal groups and granting new leverage to countries with whom Washington has unfriendly or even adversarial relations.

Changing migration patterns warrant changing cooperation strategies to ensure that regional efforts complement, rather than hinder, one another. A silver lining in this new chapter of hemispheric migration flows may be a new and shared understanding that collective action will yield better results than unilateral policies.


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