Politics & Policy

Biden Visits Guatemala to Tamp Down the Immigration Crisis

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
But the “root causes” of the immigration crisis are in D.C., not Guatemala or elsewhere.

Vice President Joe Biden will visit Guatemala Friday with the aim of addressing the “root causes” of the immigration crisis. However, the official announcement of his visit seems to admit what critics have alleged: that the Obama administration could address some of the root causes without leaving Washington, D.C.

In fiscal year 2011, about 4,000 minors arrived unaccompanied at the southern U.S. border, a number that increased to more than 21,000 in 2013. This fiscal year has already seen that number soar to about 47,000, the Obama administration reports. Americans are bombarded by images of thousands of children, mostly from Central America, tightly packed in refugee camps on the southern border.

The Obama administration created an inter-agency United Cooperation Group to help deal with the influx, which is “a problem of humanitarian proportions,” according to Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson’s statement to Congress.

Biden had already been scheduled to visit Brazil, where he was to watch Tuesday’s soccer match between the U.S. and Ghana, and then to visit Colombia and the Dominican Republic. Last Sunday, in the wake of criticism surrounding the Obama administration’s handling of the immigration crisis, the White House announced that Biden would add Guatemala, the origin of many of the young refugees, to his list of destinations.

Biden will spend Friday discussing the crisis with President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador, and Coordinator General Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro, representing the Honduran government. The vice president is expected to discourage further immigration and to correct “misperceptions” of U.S. policy that might have boosted immigration. Foremost among these is the idea that unaccompanied children who make it to the border will have immunity from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.

“The bottom line is that it’s not worth subjecting children to a perilous journey when, at the end of the day, there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” said the anonymous official who announced the visit to the press by phone.

It’s significant that the administration’s announcement emphasized the need to clarify the role and application of DACA, and that it issued a warning that there will be “no light at the end of the tunnel” for immigrants. This constitutes an admission that the crisis might indeed be exacerbated by the perception that the U.S. government treats illegal immigrants generously. In other words, the crisis might not be primarily the result of turmoil and poverty in countries of origin, as Johnson claimed before a skeptical Congress.

The hypothesis about expectation of lenient treatment neatly explains a lot of data. It explains the USA Today report that unaccompanied children at the border “squatted on the levee and awaited their arrest” rather than sneaking across in the dark of night. It also explains why immigrants would say they were primarily motivated by the perception that “permisos,” or free passes, will be issued to those who make it across the border, as Byron York notes.

Finally, it explains why the Guatemalan ambassador to the U.S., Julio Ligorria, speaking on a talk show on Univision, would reject the theory that gang violence in Guatemala created the crisis. Ligorria observed that most of the refugees come from the north of Guatemala, far away from the parts of the country where gang violence is the most intense.

The point of dispute between Obama and his critics boils down to whether — or to what degree — these perceptions of border-control leniency are accurate. Representative Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, contends that they are quite accurate. In a statement issued June 2, he said:

The recent surge of children and teenagers from Central America showing up at our Southern border is an Administration-made disaster. . . . Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration-enforcement policies, and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America.

Arguably, Goodlatte’s charge is an understatement. “Lax” suggests mere non-enforcement of the law, whereas the government appears to be actively aiding the immigrants. CNN documents illegal immigrants in Arizona being given bus tickets to the homes of relatives living elsewhere in the U.S. The report claims that it’s “unclear” whether these people will be deported later, though it strains credulity to think that the government would disperse thousands of people all over the U.S. via Greyhound if there were any serious intention of rounding them back up for deportation later.

Such practices stand in contrast to the warning in the announcement of Biden’s visit to Guatemala: that there will be “no light at the end of the tunnel” for prospective immigrants. Time will tell whether these words are mere empty rhetoric or whether they signal a policy change to address some of the root causes of the immigration crisis at home.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

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