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CRS: Relieving Central American pressures could help with immigration challenge for US

Border Marker at San Ysidro JD CNA file photo CNA Border Marker at San Ysidro JD. CNA file photo.

Immigration pressures at the U.S.-Mexico border start in Central America—and these pressures need attention in the United States’ immigration debate, an official with Catholic Relief Services said. 

“While the United States faces a humanitarian challenge at the southern border that demands political, social, and economic attention, the dialogue about the southern border must include serious discussions about the entrenched challenges in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador driving migration northward,” Dave Cronin, senior policy and legislative specialist with Catholic Relief Services, told CNA this week.

“We have to develop a long-term strategy toward the northern countries of Central America that prioritizes the push factors of migration and promotes the rootedness factors. In the absence of a long-term regional vision, these challenges will persist.

In January 2021, border patrol apprehensions of undocumented migrants stood at 78,400, increasing to about 100,400 in February—a 28% increase. These numbers include undocumented minors. 

An analysis published by the Washington Post March 23, citing U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, attributed the increase in apprehensions to “a predictable pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration combined with a backlog of demand because of 2020’s coronavirus border closure.” 

Cronin indicated the novel coronavirus and its effects will likely increase the number of immigrants. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made living conditions worse,” he said. “The pandemic has destroyed local economies, making daily life for many vulnerable families next to impossible. Put simply, COVID-19 is exacerbating the many push factors driving people to migrate.” 

Cronin said better support for prospective migrants could help them stay in their home countries. 

“Poverty, lack of opportunity, and violence have, for years, driven people in increasing numbers to leave their homes in search of a safe and dignified existence,” he said. 

“Most people do not want to be uprooted from their homes,” he added. “According to a recent survey we conducted in Guatemala, more than 75% of respondents had little or no intention to migrate.” 

Factors that help keep people rooted in their communities include access to basic healthcare and education; stable jobs—especially for young people; access to formal education or job training; access to land; and community participation and leadership opportunities that improve living conditions.  

“As we develop a new strategy toward the region, we need to invest in programs that allow people the opportunity to stay,” Cronin said. 

There is a typical increase in migration numbers each January through May, coming with the end of winter and before the summer months make desert travels more deadly. 

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The Washington Post analysis argued it was erroneous to blame Biden administration policies for the increase in migrant numbers. Similarly, when apprehension numbers drop in the summer months, any policymakers who claim success in deterring migration could be taking advantage of seasonal changes in migration. 

Cronin said that increasing vulnerable countries’ abilities to adapt to climate change can also help Central Americans. 

“For example, climate change has led to more frequent and devastating storms, like the two back-to-back hurricanes that hit Central America in November. These storms swept through the region and made living conditions even more desperate,” he said. 

Honduras suffered this “perfect storm.” It was already one of the poorest and most dangerous Latin American countries and then suffered two major strikes from Hurricanes Eta and Iota last year. 

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These storms “damaged homes, displaced tens of thousands of people and destroyed the agriculture sector,” Cronin said. “The recovery for many families will take years.”  

As the coronavirus epidemic began, the Trump administration cited Title 42 of the 1944 Public Health Act to summarily expel undocumented immigrants who attempted to enter the United States. These expulsions delayed prospective migrants, and did not deter them, the Washington Post analysis suggested. 

In the first five months of the fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, there were some 382,000 apprehensions at the border. 

About 82% of those detained were single adults, and these are predominantly men from Mexico seeking jobs. Almost all single adult migrants remained at the border after they were turned away. The Wall Street Journal said that the percentage of undocumented migrants detained at the border who had already been detained once rose to almost 40% in the last six months, compared to 7% in 2019. 

Most detained undocumented families and unaccompanied minors are from Central America. These families number about 39,000 in the first five months of the fiscal year. In 2019 over 136,000 families had been detained in the same period, a number which dropped to 37,000 in 2020. 

Space in U.S. detention centers for families is limited because of the coronavirus epidemic, and federal law bars the detention of families with children for a period exceeding about 20 days, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The Biden administration has not announced its policy changes on Title 42 action. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the current policy on the grounds that it illegally blocks migrants from seeking asylum or other protections.

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