Put migrant protection at heart of US policy, rights groups urge | Migration News

Guatemala, Guatemala- Migrant rights groups in Guatemala, the United States and beyond are calling on the White House to take a rights-based approach to migration ahead of US Vice President Kamala Harris’ upcoming visit to Guatemala and Mexico .

US President Joe Biden has tasked Harris with leading diplomatic efforts in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to help stem migration to the country’s southern border after the large influx of children and families earlier this year.

So far, the Biden administration has focused on addressing the “root causes” of migration from Central America, but migration advocates say prioritizing the use of the forces of security and deportations to block asylum seekers means years of failed US policies continue.

“So far, the focus has been on militarization,” said Silvia Raquec, migration program coordinator at Association Pop N’oj, an indigenous-focused nonprofit in Guatemala.

“The focus must be on regularization mechanisms and on the security and protection of migrants,” she told Al Jazeera.

Harris’ journey

Harris is due to arrive late Sunday in Guatemala, where she will meet with President Alejandro Giammattei and other parties on Monday. She will then travel to Mexico, meeting President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday before returning home.

Migration and its root causes will be high on Harris’ agenda during his first official trip abroad, but officials are also expected to discuss private sector investment, aid and economic development. In Guatemala, the talks will also focus on corruption.

Alianza Americas, a transnational network of 50 migrant-led organizations, and other regional and Guatemalan groups welcome Harris’ stated interest in addressing the structural root causes of migration.

At a Thursday press conference in Guatemala City, they presented a series of recommendations addressing the rule of law, socio-economic conditions, multifaceted violence, climate justice and other issues they say must be resolved.

Harris will meet Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (right) and his Guatemalan counterpart Alejandro Giammattei this week [File: Mexico’s Presidency/Handout via Reuters]

Ending the use of Title 42 — a public health directive that allows the United States to immediately deport most migrants and asylum seekers at the border — is an urgent priority, said Abel Nunez, vice -president of Alianza Americas and executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Washington, DC.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration began using Title 42 last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Biden has continued to use it to deport most migrants and asylum seekers to the border. The policy bars people from seeking asylum or accessing any other US immigration process.

Title 42 evictions in Nuevo Laredo, northern Mexico, are increasing kidnappings and violence against migrants and asylum seekers, Human Rights First and other US-based rights groups reported last month. United States. “They use it as a wall. It’s a virtual wall,” Nunez told Al Jazeera.

Block asylum seekers

Biden also continued pressure from past US administrations on Mexico — and to an increasing extent now also on Guatemala — to stop migrants and asylum seekers before they reach the US border.

“It’s getting more and more intense,” said Luis Garcia, director of the Center for Human Dignity, a migrant rights group based in Tapachula, southern Mexico.

Garcia told Al Jazeera that the Mexican and Guatemalan governments have increased massive deployments of police and military forces this year to ingratiate themselves with the new US administration, which has promised to take a more “humane” approach to immigration. than Trump.

Mexican National Guard forces march after the country announced an increased deployment to the border with Guatemala to stem the flow of migrants heading for the United States [File: Jose Torres/Reuters]

Mexico continues to rely heavily on its National Guard for immigration and border control, while during the pandemic Guatemala has periodically deployed the military to arrest Hondurans and other migrants, officially for health reasons.

Migration slowed for months last year due to the pandemic lockdown and border closures, but has since picked up. The devastation wrought in November by hurricanes Eta and Iota also caused many people to flee, particularly from Honduras.

“More and more, the [US] the border is getting closer,” said Raquec, of the Pop N’oj association. “Guatemala could also be a wall, and that’s worrying.”

New US-Guatemalan agreement

Guatemalan officials did not release details of the meeting schedule during Harris’ visit this week, but a spokeswoman for the Guatemalan presidency told Al Jazeera that Guatemalan interior and defense ministers will attend. to the talks.

“The issue of migration and all the social, economic and security aspects have been constantly present in the bilateral conversations,” said Patricia Letona in a written statement, when asked if police or military deployments linked to the migration would be on the table.

Since taking office in January 2020, Giammattei has made “a commitment to strengthen border security as a strategy to address transnational threats such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, and as a preventive measure in the face of the pandemic. “Letona said.

To that effect, U.S. and Guatemalan officials signed a new agreement on Friday. The memorandum of international cooperation between the US Department of Homeland Security and the Guatemalan Ministry of Interior will establish a new police tactical unit. U.S. agencies, including Customs and Border Protection (CBP), will also provide training, equipment and technical assistance.

The new unit will “help improve border security” in the United States and Guatemala by “identifying and dismantling criminal organizations that profit from the trafficking and smuggling of people, narcotics and contraband,” the l United States Embassy in Guatemala.

In a brief public statement the same day, Guatemalan Interior Minister Gendri Reyes said the eventual deployment would be at the borders “to reinforce the whole issue of migrants”. A key transit country, Guatemala shares borders with Honduras, El Salvador, Belize and Mexico.

Guatemala’s Interior Ministry and US Department of Homeland Security did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the unit’s mandate in time for publication.

Same tactic

Migrant rights advocates say the surge in police and military responses to migration demonstrates that Biden does not intend to significantly change his approach to migration in Central America from that of previous U.S. administrations.

Under the Obama administration, when Biden served as U.S. vice president, Guatemalan anti-trafficking special forces in border areas also received American training and equipment, including armored jeeps. But in 2018 the vehicles were deployed to intimidate an international anti-corruption commission, leading the United States to suspend some military aid to Guatemala.

US officials are increasingly talking about the root causes of migration, including corruption, but advocates say so far the words are different but the actions are not.

Central American families sit by the side of the road waiting to be transported to a US Border Patrol processing facility in La Joya, Texas last month [Adrees Latif/Reuters]

“We have to recognize that the narrative has been a bit different, and we are happy about that,” Nunez told Alianza Americas, but added that civil society groups in countries of origin, diaspora communities and the United States should not be appeased by the rhetoric.

Nunez said he planned more security-focused measures and more campaigns telling people not to migrate. But if the United States is serious about acknowledging the root causes of migration, he said it must recognize that systemic change is long-term and provide protection and regularization pathways for people who must flee in the meantime.

“We need to coordinate and keep pushing to make sure we come to a migration process that centers the migrant and protects their rights,” he told Al Jazeera. “Until we do that, the truth is, it’s just a show.”

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