Immigration and border initiatives test political alliances

Greg Nash

The front lines of political debate on immigration are shifting, as the Biden administration resets the U.S. government’s priorities on the issue.

The most drastic shift is in Central America, where Vice President Harris is tasked with reimagining U.S. policy toward the region, and figuring out how to effectively invest $4 billion in three countries with rampant corruption.

Meanwhile in Washington, groups that teamed up with the left against former President Trump’s draconian approach to immigration are now lining up behind centrist Republicans and Democrats in an attempt to redefine border security.

Last week, two Democrats — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) — joined two Texas Republicans — Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Tony Gonzales — to introduce the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act to streamline border management.

The bill drew praise from right-of-center organizations that had opposed Trump’s immigration policy, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but disdain from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, who called it an effort “to short-circuit due process.”

The bill would create structures for surge staffing at the border, while increasing access to legal and translation services for asylum-seekers, but it would also expand the role of Customs and Border Protection agents in asylum determinations.

“We’re trying to do this in a more of a middle of the road [bill], which means the far left and the far right are not going to like it,” Cuellar told The Hill.

The bill does not dive directly into legalizations of existing undocumented populations or changes into how visas, residency permits and naturalizations are doled out, a core component of the immigration debate.

“They call this an immigration bill but it’s more of a border management bill,” said Cuellar.

The border bill is one of a series of proposals that promise to change a stagnant conversation on immigration, along with two House-passed proposals that could put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship, a White House-led comprehensive reform proposal and the Central America policy.

Still, Republicans have an electoral incentive to stay on the offensive against any and all of President Biden’s immigration proposals, as polls consistently show the conservative red-meat issue to be the president’s top political weakness.

That’s one reason why Democrats are attracted to the potential to change the conversation into one about addressing root causes in the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — while improving border infrastructure.

“If we can improve lives of people in the Northern Triangle, we will see a reduction of the symptoms that we see at the southern border,” said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), who came to the United States from Guatemala when she was five years old.

While Trump demanded increased migration enforcement in the Northern Triangle and Mexico under threat of enacting economic pain, Biden’s approach seeks to improve the outcomes of the region’s inhabitants.

The Trump-Biden contrast is obvious, but Biden’s strategy also changes tack from former President Obama’s “Alliance for Prosperity” approach, which drew criticism from grassroots observers in the region.

The Alliance for Prosperity focused on creating economic development in the region, but was criticized for its focus on large enterprises, which often ended up overlooking grassroots and civil society organizations. It also, unlike the Biden plan, failed to address acute causes of migration, like hurricanes and other climate change-driven crises. 

“Moving from Alliance for Prosperity to root causes is a positive shift,” said Gordon Whitman, an academic and senior advisor to Faith In Action, a grassroots faith-based human rights organization.

A report from Faith In Action released this month found that less than 5 percent of aid to the Northern Triangle countries ended up in the hands of local organizations, with most U.S. aid going to large corporations and government agencies.

Whitman said that’s especially damaging in a region where elite groups and government officials are increasingly tied to criminal organizations, and where civil society organizations are plentiful and have the capacity to reach those most vulnerable.

“It’s not rocket science to say, ‘let’s not be arrogant, let’s recognize we haven’t played historically a helpful role in supporting elites versus working people,’ ” said Whitman.

As the Biden administration has expanded on its Central America strategy, it’s made clear that it views the region’s elites with suspicion.

In a call with reporters last week, State Department special envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zúñiga explicitly threatened potential visa and financial sanctions for corrupt individuals among the region’s elites.

“Pulling their visas and freezing assets here in the United States, I find that to be the biggest [threat] we can have when it comes to those top elites,” said Torres.

Still, the Biden administration will require quick results out of a long-term strategy to effectively change the conversation from the enforcement-centric focus on border numbers that Republicans are all but certain to drive into the 2022 midterms.

And that could mean getting full cooperation out of regional authorities, precisely the groups the root causes initiative seeks to circumvent.

Cuellar, a moderate Democrat from the border, agreed with Torres and Whitman that programs in the Northern Triangle must be tweaked to reach individuals, rather than intermediaries in the region.

But Cuellar warned that as the federal government gets better at processing asylum seekers at the border, it creates a perverse incentive for more people to come.

“That means you gotta get Mexico, Guatemala — I know the vice president is making phone calls — but you gotta move a little faster on this because every day you’ve got people coming in and the faster you get them out the more of an incentive [you create].”

Tags biden administration border security Donald Trump Immigration Joe Biden John Cornyn Kyrsten Sinema Norma Torres Northern Triangle

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