Guatemala City, Guatemala – Migrant rights groups in Guatemala, the United States and beyond are calling on the White House to adopt a rights-based approach to migration ahead of US Vice President Kamala Harris’s upcoming visit to Guatemala and Mexico.
US President Joe Biden tasked Harris with leading diplomatic efforts in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to help stem migration to the country’s southern border after children and families arrived in large numbers earlier this year.
The Biden administration’s focus so far has been on addressing the “root causes” of migration from Central America, but migration advocates say prioritising the use of security forces and expulsions to block asylum seekers means that years of failed US policies are continuing.
“The focus so far has been militarisation,” said Silvia Raquec, migration programme coordinator at the Pop N’oj Association, an Indigenous-focused non-profit group in Guatemala.
“The focus needs to be on regularisation mechanisms and the safety and protection of migrants,” she told Al Jazeera.
Harris is scheduled to arrive late on Sunday in Guatemala, where she will meet with President Alejandro Giammattei and other parties on Monday. She will then travel to Mexico, meeting on Tuesday with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador before returning home.
Migration and its root causes will be central to Harris’s agenda on her first official trip abroad, but officials are also expected to discuss private sector investment, aid, and economic development. In Guatemala, talks will also focus on corruption.
Alianza Americas, a transnational network of 50 migrant-led organisations, and other regional and Guatemalan groups welcome Harris’s stated interest in addressing the structural root causes of migration.
At a press conference on Thursday in Guatemala City, they presented a series of recommendations concerning the rule of law, socioeconomic conditions, multi-faceted violence, climate justice and other issues that they say need to be tackled.
Ending the use of Title 42 – a public health directive that allows the US to immediately expel most migrants and asylum seekers at the border – is an urgent priority, said Abel Nunez, Alianza Americas’ vice president and executive director of the Central American Resource Centre in Washington, DC.
The administration of former President Donald Trump began using Title 42 last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Biden has continued to use it to expel most migrants and asylum seekers at the border. The policy prevents people from requesting asylum or accessing any other US immigration proceedings.
Title 42 expulsions to Nuevo Laredo, in northern Mexico, are increasing kidnappings and violence against migrants and asylum seekers, Human Rights First and other US-based rights groups reported last month. “They are using it as a wall. It is a virtual wall,” Nunez told Al Jazeera.
Blocking asylum seekers
Biden has also continued the past US administrations’ pressure on Mexico – and to a growing extent now also Guatemala – to stop migrants and asylum seekers before they reach the US border.
“It is increasingly intensifying,” said Luis Garcia, director of the Center for Human Dignity, a migrant rights group based in Tapachula, in southern Mexico.
Garcia told Al Jazeera the Mexican and Guatemalan governments have upped mass deployments of police and military forces this year to ingratiate themselves with the new US administration, which had promised to take a more “humane” approach to immigration than Trump.
Mexico continues to rely heavily on its National Guard for immigration and border enforcement, while over the course of the pandemic, Guatemala has periodically deployed the military to stop Honduran and other migrants, officially on health grounds.
Migration slowed for months last year due to pandemic lockdown and border closures but has since picked up. The devastation wrought in November by hurricanes Eta and Iota also propelled many people to flee, particularly from Honduras.
“More and more, the [US] border is getting closer,” said Raquec, of the Pop N’oj Association. “Guatemala could be a wall, too, and that is worrisome.”
New US-Guatemala deal
Guatemalan officials have not released details of the meeting schedule during Harris’s visit this week, but a spokeswoman for the Guatemalan presidency told Al Jazeera that the Guatemalan interior and defence ministers would be participating in the talks.
“The issue of migration and all social, economic and security aspects have been permanently present in bilateral conversations,” Patricia Letona said in a written statement, when asked whether police or military deployments related to migration would be on the table.
Since he took office in January 2020, Giammattei has taken on “the commitment to strengthen border security as a strategy to confront transnational threats like drug trafficking, human trafficking, and as a preventive measure in the face of the pandemic”, said Letona.
To that effect, US and Guatemalan officials signed a new deal on Friday. The Memorandum of International Cooperation between the US Department of Homeland Security and Guatemala’s Ministry of Interior will establish a new police tactical unit. US agencies, including US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), will also provide training, equipment and technical assistance.
The new unit will “contribute to improving border security” in the US and Guatemala by “identifying and dismantling criminal organisations that profit from the trafficking and smuggling of people, narcotics, and contraband”, the US Embassy in Guatemala tweeted on Friday night.
In a brief public statement that same day, Guatemala’s Minister of Interior Gendri Reyes said the eventual deployment would be to borders “to strengthen the whole issue of migrants”. A key transit country, Guatemala shares borders with Honduras, El Salvador, Belize and Mexico.
Guatemala’s Ministry of the Interior and the US Department of Homeland Security did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the unit’s mandate in time for publication.
Migrant rights advocates say the push for police and military responses to migration demonstrates that Biden does not intend to significantly change his approach to Central American migration from that of previous US administrations.
During the Obama administration, when Biden was acting as US vice president, Guatemalan task forces against border-area trafficking also received US training and equipment, including armoured jeeps. But in 2018 the vehicles were deployed to intimidate an international anti-corruption commission, which led the US to suspend some military aid to Guatemala.
US officials are increasingly speaking about root causes of migration, including corruption, but advocates say that so far the words are different but the actions are not.
“We do have to recognise that the narrative has been a little different, and we are glad,” said Nunez at Alianza Americas, but he added that civil society groups in origin countries, Diaspora communities and the US should not be placated by discourse.
Nunez said he anticipates more security-focused measures and more campaigns telling people not to migrate. But if the US is serious about recognising the root causes of migration, he said it must acknowledge systemic change is long-term and provide protection and pathways to regularisation for people who need to flee in the meantime.
“We need to coordinate and continue to apply pressure to ensure we arrive at a migration process that centres the migrant and protects their rights,” he told Al Jazeera. “Until we do that, the truth is it is just a show.”