Paul Angelo, fellow for Latin America studies at CFR, provides background on immigration policies and context for the rise of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Dianne Solis, senior immigration reporter at Dallas Morning News, speaks on best practices for reporting on immigrants themselves and the policies governing their status. Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, hosts the webinar.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalist webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As you know, CFR’s an independent nonpartisan organization and think tank focusing on U.S. foreign policy. This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalist Initiative, created to help you draw connections between the local issues you cover to national and international dynamics. Our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues and provides a forum for sharing best practices. This webinar is on the record and the video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact at CFR.org/localjournalists.
Today we’ll be talking about reporting on immigration policies and migration with our speakers Paul Angelo, Dianne Solis, and host Carla Anne Robbins. We circulated their bios, so I will just share a few highlights.
Paul Angelo is a fellow for Latin America studies at CFR. His work focuses on U.S. Latin American relations, transnational crime, violent actors, military and police reform, and immigration. He was formerly an international affairs fellow at CFR and in this capacity he represented the U.S. State Department as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras.
Dianne Solis is a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, where she covers immigration and social justice issues. Prior to her twenty-two years at the Dallas Morning News, she spent thirteen years as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Mexico City and Houston. And she was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.
And Carla Anne Robbins is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR. She is also faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. And previously she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal.
Welcome to you all. Thank you very much for being with us today. I’m going to turn it over to Carla to have the conversation with both of you, and then we will turn to everyone on this call for their questions, comments, and to share best practices. So, Carla, take it away.
ROBBINS: Thank you so much, Irina. And thank you, Paul and my old friend Dianne. It’s so great to see you again. I’m not going to talk about how many decades it’s been since we went to Nieman summer camp together. And thank you, everybody, for joining us and for doing the extraordinary work that you do as local reporters. It’s incredibly important and an incredibly challenging time in local journalism. So with that, I’m sure everybody has a lot of questions for our experts. So I’m not going to get in the way much, but I am going to take the prerogative and pitch some questions.
So, Paul, I’m going to start with you, because you’re the policy wonk. And I’m going to ask a policy wonkish question of you. So why is there such a surge? And the surge is enormous with Biden, of course, but it predates Biden. Just a few recent stats, you know, border patrol agents apprehended a million people in the first nine months of the fiscal year, which is an enormous number of people. Nearly 56,000 family members and 15,000 unaccompanied minors in June alone. Those are really big numbers. But it’s not just all Biden, despite what President Trump would suggest. You know, what’s the push factor here? And when did it start?
ANGELO: Thanks, Carla. And I’d like to thank Irina for the opportunity to join all of you today. I’m looking forward to hearing from all of our local journalists, seeing that so many of you have your finger on the pulse of the border beat. Unfortunately, I’m located in Washington, D.C., so I don’t get down to the border as much as I’d like. But I look forward to hearing your perspectives. And it’s also a real honor to be on the panel with Dianne and Carla.
So, you know, turning our attention to the border, of course we have a new administration in the United States. And among the first foreign and domestic policy challenges that the Biden administration faced was on the migration front. For me and for people who have been watching the border, like many of you, this isn’t surprising. For anyone who’s been paying attention to the border in recent years we could have all predicted this. And there are a handful of reasons that stand out to me from the get-go.
The first is that this surge is a natural evolution of an ongoing trend. We look over the past decade, the year with the highest spike in migrant apprehensions at the U.S. border was 2019. And this is when President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, migrant protection protocols, the safe third country agreement with Guatemala and the asylum cooperation agreements with Honduras and El Salvador were all in full swing. Despite all of those measures, migration was at a ten-year peak in 2019. 2020, with the pandemic, we saw a bit of a reprieve for the U.S. government due to COVID-19 restrictions on movement that were imposed in places like Mexico and Central America. But once national governments reopened their borders, all that pent up demographic pressure was going to result inevitably in an increase in migration.
Second thing I would say is that the Trump administration very much was kicking the ball down the court. Asylum cooperation agreements, for instance, were more symbolic than they were substantive. Places like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador never had robust asylum systems, nor do they have the resources or interest in developing them. And so it was more of a symbolic measure than it was one that was actually going to push asylum applicants to the Northern Triangle, rather than to Mexico or the United States. Likewise, we always see an uptick in migration at the beginning of a calendar year due to seasonal labor and weather patterns. And similarly, on the eve of Joe Biden’s election—excuse me—I meant the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration, we had more than 42,000 asylum applicants or candidates camped out on the Mexican side of the border due to programs like migrant protection protocols and metering.
And so inevitably the Biden administration’s decision to reactivate our asylum system, to bring the U.S. in compliance with its international humanitarian legal obligations was inevitably going to result in more asylum requests. And then there were other things, particularly the conditions—or, what we call the root causes of migration in Central America—that have, you know, been fueling migration from that region and southern Mexico for much of the past decade. Most immediately I would say that back-to-back category five and category four hurricanes in the fall, which killed off 140,000 livestock, 90 percent of Honduras’ bean and corn crops, in an economy that is largely subsistence in rural spaces, fueled migration. But moreover, what we’re seeing in Central America is an acceleration of democratic backsliding.
And you know, I think if we look to where Central America was even five years ago, there was—there was still a lot more hope for the region. There were—you know, the anti-corruption crusade was in full swing in places like Guatemala and Honduras. But during the Trump administration, a lot of those priorities took a backseat for U.S. policy in Latin America. And so now what we’re seeing is a real sense of malaise or frustration that these are political systems and economies that no longer—or, that don’t take into account the needs of their people. And this is precisely what’s fueling this recent surge in migration.
ROBBINS: So that’s all very cheery. Thank you, Paul, for starting it off. (Laughs.)
So, Dianne, to continue on with the policy perspective, so President Biden ran promising to address the Trump administration’s, well, frankly, abusive immigration policies—separation of families, denial of asylum rights which are under international law, his constant demonization of immigrants. You know, has he? Is he? Is it any better at all, from what you’re seeing on the ground?
SOLIS: I think there’s a real pivot in language. But on a practical level, the change has been really slow. The biggest change that hasn’t happened is with the policy from the Trump era related to the pandemic called Title 42. And that’s put a tourniquet on asylum at the border—largely put a tourniquet on asylum. And it’s a big challenge. Biden has to decide whether he’s going to end it or not. It looked like he probably would have this summer, but then we had this new surge in COVID cases and, you know, the monster Delta variant. So it’s slow change.
On DACA there’s been a lot of support—
ROBBINS: So just a minute, 42, which probably everybody knows, is the CDC, which allows them to just remove anybody or deny entry to anybody based on health reasons.
SOLIS: Right. And it’s named after its location in the—in the immigration code, I believe.
SOLIS: Not in the immigration code, but in the general federal code. It’s in the area that’s called Title 42 and deals with health policy. And that’s still in place, except for unaccompanied minors. And they can come across. That’s a big change that he made—that Biden made, the Biden team made. And we’re seeing a surge in those numbers. Most notably in the increase of people coming, one should note that it’s really hot right now. And yet, there’s an increase. And that’s not normal. And it indicates that there are serious problems back in the home countries, and a belief that things will change under the Biden administration.
And also, some of the people that are coming across are repeat crossers. The government estimates that 33 to 40 percent of those who come across are repeat crossers. So it’s not an increase or spike in individuals who come across, but it’s an increase in what the government now calls encounters.
ROBBINS: So one of the things that was most horrifying about the Trump administration policy—I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to use words like that—which was the separation of children, and separation of families, the treatment of unaccompanied minors. That is a difference with Biden, in both the way they’re dealing with people in the near term, in the first forty-eight hours, or whenever the term is, as well as supposedly, you know, they’re trying to find housing and dealing with family members. What do you think about that? Are they dealing with these kids any better? And do they—you know, have they come up with a plan? Is the housing OK? Are they dealing with their schooling? I mean, this a pretty fundamental issue of humanity here.
SOLIS: Indeed, it is. And it’s one that I think troubles people perhaps most deeply, because these are really vulnerable children. Some are teens, but they’re still quite vulnerable, still quite young. Some are, you know, very young—eight years old, for example. And in Dallas, we were faced with all these migrant teens in downtown Dallas, in our convention center, when an emergency pop-up housing site was placed, I believe, in April. And as many as 2,200 migrant children were placed there. And it didn’t have the same licensing that the normal shelters have in the state of Texas and around the nation. And so there wasn’t the same kind of scrutiny for health and safety procedures.
And we started hearing a lot of bad things about children being clustered in one big room, and the children being depressed, and crying, and complaints about the food. And it proceeded to get a little bit better, and then it went on to decline. And recreational activity was minimal during some periods of their time in Dallas. Eventually—
SOLIS: Oh, sorry.
ROBBINS: So overall it means—yesterday they announced that they were returning to a policy of expedited removal. Which means that asylum officers can interview families in a fast-track screening process to determine if they have, what, a credible fear of persecution. Is this an act of desperation call on their part? And should we just have more faith that the Biden administration is going to deal with this in a responsible way? You certainly don’t want to have people hanging around indefinitely, and one of the complaints about the asylum process more generally under the Trump administration is that it took—for the people who did get in, it took forever. And for the people who were waiting, they couldn’t even get their number called.
But, you know, the complaints for the people who did get called up is that basically they, you know, walked in, and somebody, you know, banged out a gavel, and they were out again. You know, desperation on their part, political pressure? Or is there a sign that this might be done in a more responsible way?
ANGELO: Yeah, I mean, I think that in terms of determining credible fear, the burden of proof is actually quite light. And so for families that don’t necessarily meet what is a fairly minimal threshold, I think that this is a policy that necessarily incents. I also think that the Biden administration is attempting to move in the direction of in-country refugee processing, so as to prevent people from trying to make the dangerous journey across Central America, across Mexico—where they can fall into the hands of traffickers. The idea would be to process these individuals in places in Central America—Costa Rica, for instance.
And we’ve already seen, from the very earliest days of the Biden administration, reactivation of something known as the Central American Minors Program, which allows children who have family members in the United States, and who themselves are vulnerable to things like gang recruitment or who are victims of violence or repression, to apply for refugee status in their countries of origin. And so I think that that—I mean, it’s a proof of concept for where the Biden administration might like to take asylum refugee policy in the future.
I would also note that on the issue of children—I don’t know if this needs to be said, but I think just to make sure that we’re all clear—something that the Biden administration was emphatic in doing in differentiating itself from the Trump administration is that it stopped separating children from their parents and guardians at the door. And in fact, it facilitated the reunification of those children who were previously under the Trump administration separated from their parents and guardians at the border.
But more broadly speaking, when we—when we look at some changes that are taking place to immigration policy during the Biden administration, we saw that under intense public pressure the Biden administration quadrupled the refugee cap to 62,000—62,500, excuse me. We also saw that the Biden administration sought to demarcate a difference between itself and the Trump administration by revoking the travel and immigration limits that had been imposed on thirteen countries, many of which were Muslim-majority countries from Africa. The Biden administration has also extended temporary protective status to vulnerable populations like Haitians, Venezuelans, Burmese, Yemenis.
And more—I think also symbolically, but also practically, the Biden administration has halted the construction of the border wall. And just in the past couple of weeks we’ve seen House—the House appropriations bill for fiscal year 2022 providing zero funding for that border wall, and instead focusing on nonintrusive image technology for ports of entry as a way of curbing illegal activities along the border. And so I think, you know, for as much as we’ve seen some continuity, there have been significant changes that have taken place. But, again, as Dianne said, I think the Biden administration is just waiting to see what’s going to happen with this Delta variant before it takes any rash decisions about, you know, what its policies specifically at the border are going to look like.
ROBBINS: So, Dianne, there has been major personnel changes. You know, the sort of chaos at DHS and all these people who never got confirmed and people who were pretty strong ideologues when it came to migration. And Trump got a very strong endorsement from the unions, from the Customs and Border people, and felt that, you know, they really had his back. And there were very, very strong ideological statements there. Does it feel better on the ground from the people who are doing the enforcement? You know, is this—do you find, as a reporter, you have a better relationship with them? Do the people who are being stopped feel that they’re being treated better? Has the word drifted down from Washington that we want to have a kinder and gentler face? Or is it basically the same?
SOLIS: I think there is a change on the ground. I go most frequently to the Rio Grande Valley. And in the relationship with CBP I think for the press, from my view, is much improved. But having said that, on the ground—physically on Highway 83, which goes east to west through the Rio Grande Valley, there’s so many—so much law enforcement now, from Texas Public Safety, to constables, and to of course the Border Patrol, and others. And it seems a little chaotic. And regular folk don’t like it. You know, they feel very over-surveilled. So that’s different. And depending on your point of view, different in not a good way. Maybe if you’re a rancher, and it’s your property that’s being litter nightly, maybe you’re more unhappy. But if you’re a regular citizen, I don’t think you’re happy with all this surveillance.
ROBBINS: And there is—what’s the—what’s relationship between—you know, Abbott called on people to come from around the country to go and reinforce the border to make up for, you know, what is allegedly being pulled back by the Biden administration. Are there tensions between these different—you know, between the Feds versus the locals? Or is that—are they being deconflicted? Or is there not all that much happening as what Biden claims is happening? Is it all hat and no cattle, as we hear people from the east think you people in Texas say? (Laughs.)
SOLIS: You know, it’s a great question. And it’s one that I’d like to explore in my next trip down there, what is it really like with this handful of states that are sending people to the border? I don’t know. I don’t know the question. I don’t—I know the question, but I don’t know the answer yet. I think it’s an important one. But now—
ROBBINS: I mean, it seems like a potential for, you know, conflict, particularly if you’re sending National Guard people, people who are less—you know, who are less than full-time, you know, disciplined soldiers. It potentially to me seems a little scary.
SOLIS: There is an important legal conflict. Federal immigration law is the purview of the Border Patrol. They’re the ones in charge of apprehending people. So one wonders, well, what does a constable do then? You know, do they hold people? And how long do they hold people? And when does that become not just holding somebody but a full apprehension? And these are legal questions that I think need to be addressed, and probably will be addressed in the future, maybe in the courts.
ROBBINS: So that’s one sort of area of coverage that I—as a consumer of news—I would love to read more about. And I think that’s one of the things we always try to do in these meetings is start thinking about stories that we could be doing.
Paul, as a consumer of news, what do you want—you know, we’ve got a lot of good journalists on this call. What do you want to be reading from people who have the opportunity to do what you and I can’t do, which is to get out of the major metropols right now?
ANGELO: Yeah. You know, something—a story that I think would be really fascinating, I think we’re starting to see some hints of this percolate in the news—is because normally we see a reduction in migration during the hot months of June, July, August, and this year we’re seeing the opposite. The migration levels are increasing or stabilizing. You know, and already taking into account that this has been among the most lethal years in the past thirty years for migration to the United States. I would love to see more coverage of people who are taking very significant risks—I mean, they risk drowning, heat exposure, dehydration, animal attacks, and whatnot. And profiling individuals who may have deceased on their journey to the United States, knowing that the deadliest months of the year have not been accounted for yet in this fiscal year.
Something else that I think, you know, bears some exploration is the increasing trend of asylum applicants preferring to file their asylum applications in Mexico instead of in the United States. Mexico is no longer being seen as a transit country for migrants, but also a destination. And we’re particularly seeing this for populations like Haitians and Cubans. And so Mexico’s highest year historically for asylum applications was 2019, when it received some 30,000 asylum applications. But this year it has already received 51,000. And so I think that those are—those are stories that could really use some more texture, and we would benefit from some personal profiles of individuals who are affected by these trends.
ROBBINS: So I want to throw it open to the group but, Dianna, I want to ask a question about that. Which is, is that a success of the Trump administration? That, you know, he kept saying, you know, why aren’t these people going to Mexico? I’m going to cut a deal with the Mexicans. They stay there, maybe they want to end up staying there. I mean, you see that on the one hand. At the same time, we’re also seeing certain states in Mexico that aren’t letting—aren’t letting people be pushed back. They’re just saying, no, forget it. You know, I think Tamaulipas is. I mean, there are certain states that just saying: Forget it. We’re not taking you. So, you know, where are the Mexicans in this? What role do they play in it? And how much did the bullying from the Trump administration help or hurt, versus what the Biden administration is doing?
SOLIS: Help or hurt whom?
ROBBINS: Good question. (Laughs.) Very good, my dear. Please jump in anywhere. (Laughs.)
SOLIS: (Laughs.) OK. So there’s the relationship—the huge financial relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. And my dear colleague Alfredo Corchado just had a series of interviews in Mexico City at the Foreign Relations Ministry. And it seems like they’re working well with the Biden administration, and some of the Biden administration policy is really, frankly, the same as the Trump administration. And you raise a really good point about asylum applications in Mexico increasing. It reminds me a bit—going way, way, way back, I think, to the ’70s or ’80s—when there were a lot of Central Americans who came to Chiapas and had—there were huge camps there.
And some of them must have settled out in the area, or else they were there for a time. And there are parts of Mexico that are really beautiful and are relatively safe. Granted, there is the other half of the nation—the other half of the states, where our U.S. State Department has travel warnings out. A very dangerous state is Tamaulipas, which is in the highest category for danger for our U.S. State Department, and where migrants cross the most. It’s the quickest route. I also think that the smugglers have something to do with that too. They push people through there—through that migratory route into the Rio Grande Valley.
ROBBINS: So we want to, you know, throw this open to the group. You guys must have questions or, you know, give us some insight into the challenges you’re facing, stories that you’re trying to do, interested in doing. So please raise your hand or write it into us, into the Q&A. Because if not, I’ll just keep going. Or I’ll call on you. I have enough of a professor in me that I—(laughs)—started off calling on people. But while you compose your questions, I’m going to ask another one.
Which is, you know, immigration policy is a lot like climate change, in the sense of nothing can get fixed easily or quickly. These are generational challenges. And at the same time, the suffering is immediate. And so you know, to deal with the push factors—you know, Vice President Harris charged with the notion of going down to El Salvador and Honduras and saying, you know, we’re going to try to help fix your problems so so many people don’t want to leave. I mean, it’s the right impulse. It absolutely should be. I mean, you talked in the beginning about the push factors there.
Do they have an idea? The Obama administration had an idea for Central America. They allegedly invested a bunch of money in Central America. I mean, do you have a sense that they have an idea that, A, will try to deal with some of the, you know, backsliding democratically with all the terrible economic troubles that are going on there, to make up for the—speaking of, the economic devastation that happened from the weather, which is only going to continue? And do any of these things going to have any impact at all on migration in the near term? So, Paul, I’ll start with you and then, Dianne—Dianne’s looking very skeptical. (Laughs.)
ANGELO: I’d love to. (Laughs.) So I will say that when I was an international affairs fellow with CFR I was on sort of the implementing end of the Obama administration’s Central America strategy, which was being shepherded by then-Vice President Joe Biden. And so President Biden has a real intimate knowledge of the challenges that are faced, particularly in the Northern Triangle region. And I think that the Biden administration’s initial instincts are to go back to what we know works. I will remind everyone that in 2019 the Trump administration froze all of the assistance—the development and security assistance that was being administered to the Northern Triangle countries, some of which had been approved during the last year of the Obama administration.
And a lot of that assistance was to fund programs that were ongoing. And one of those programs is the program that I worked on, known as the place-based strategy. And it was a citizen security crime and violence prevention strategy that was being implemented in the homicidal neighborhoods of the biggest cities in the Northern Triangle countries. And two of the neighborhoods where I was working, we saw reductions of homicide in just over two years by over 60 percent. It’s a model that works, but it’s a model that also requires that you continue to build on the momentum in a geographic sense. And when the Trump administration pulled the rug out from underneath that program, when the Trump administration froze U.S. assistance to the region, a lot of that momentum was lost.
I think some of the things that the Biden administration will do differently, I think there’s an increasing sense that climate change is to blame for a lot of the migrant flows that we’re seeing in the past decade—things like coffee rust or black sigatoka, which ravaged banana and plantain crops, you had bark-eating beetles which, in Honduras, affected the timber industry. All of these things put people who work in the agricultural space out work. And many of them ended up moving into cities where they found that their skills were not valued, where they could not find meaningful work, and where they were probably at greater risk of violence or crime being committed against them.
And it was at that point that many of them would then decide to emigrate northward. And so to the extent that the Biden administration will seek to build climate resilience as part of its broader strategy to help combat climate change globally, I think that this will be a valuable pillar that Vice President Harris will structure as part of her engagement with the countries of the Northern Triangle. Likewise, something that we’re seeing differently this time around, as opposed to what we saw in—during the Obama administration.
As I mentioned initially, the Obama administration benefitted from the fact that many of civil societies and democratic institutions in the countries of the Northern Triangle were engaged in an anti-corruption crusade. Well, that’s no longer the case. And so now the Biden administration has decided that it’s going to condition the dispersal of U.S. assistance to the countries of the Northern Triangle on anti-corruption progress. Still not very clear how that’s going to work in practice, but to the extent that the United States cannot partner with public officials or institutions in the countries in question, then it has decided that those resources really ought to be divided amongst civil society—things like universities, NGOs, journalists, whatnot. You know, in many ways to serve as the kind of anti-corruption watchdogs that the region absolutely needs.
ROBBINS: That worked well in Haiti. You can see all the capacity building that happened for thirty years of not dealing with the government—or, fifty years of not dealing with the government. But OK. (Laughs.) So we’ll go—we need to go back to this. It’s, as Dianne said, a very tough question. It needs to be dealt with.
And there’s a question here, Alex Nussbaum was asking: For those of us not at the border much of the debate still centers on ICE and the treatment/deportation of detainees. Can you talk about how that agency is changing, or not changing, under Biden? And, Alex, before Dianne jumps into that, you’re in New Jersey. I mean, is ICE—it’s a huge issue in local communities in New Jersey. And has that gone down? I’m going to ask Alex a question first. Has that declined since the—since the Biden administration came in, or is it still a fierce political issue?
Q: It is—thank you for letting me take part in this. It is definitely an issue for immigration activists here in New Jersey. I think what we found is that during the pandemic a lot of the numbers of detainees actually went down quite a bit in this area, as ICE and the local jails they work with tried to reduce the population because of COVID. And a number of the local jails that worked with ICE have been convinced to say they’re going to end their relationships at some point soon. But there is still a lot of pressure from activists to free or stop transferring those detainees out of the area. And it’s a major political issue up here, even though in absolute numbers the number of detainees may have actually been going down—at least, you know, around here.
ROBBINS: Great. Thanks. So, Dianne. Is it different?
SOLIS: The thing that’s quite different is that the number of detained migrants has gone down. It’s less than half what it was. And a lot of that is because of the pandemic. But to me, it raised the question: Do you really need to detain all those people for a civil offense? And I think therein is a legitimate story that needs to be explored by journalists. ICE has a huge budget for enforcement and for detentions specifically. And there are these agreements with jail-like facilities around the nation that, to some extent, put money in the coffers of municipalities. And we should ask as a nation, do we really need it? I was going to say we should ask as a nation, post-pandemic, if we really need it. And I caught myself from saying that—unfortunately, very unfortunately. But, you know, we are incarcerating about half the amount of people we incarcerated previously.
ROBBINS: Is there—is there a sort of prison industrial complex in immigration the way there is just more generally in prisons in the United States? I mean, how much of these ICE detention centers and how much—including the new centers that are being built by the Biden administration to deal with—that aren’t centers, but they’re for housing children and all—how much of these are being built by private contractors who have an interest in keeping people in them because—and then they have an interest in paying off politicians because it becomes what people refer to as the prison industrial complex? I mean, is that the same thing in the world of immigration?
SOLIS: Absolutely it’s the same thing in the world of immigration. And we saw it as well in all these emergency influx sites. That’s the government’s word—emergency influx sites and in the contracting of private industry to run these places, and then get subcontracts. And many of them didn’t have much experience in dealing with children.
ROBBINS: And so do you have the same—I mean, you say that it’s easier to deal with Border Patrol now. Do you find that you’re also having better relations with ICE? And are they more willing to deal with the press than they were in the Trump administration?
SOLIS: I’ve been at this a while. (Laughs.) I mean, so I have relationships with different people within ICE. And I had it during the Obama years, and the Trump years, and they continue today. And I guess, given the depth of that relationship, things are as they were before. I know that they’ve—some of them feel whiplashed by the changes.
ROBBINS: So if I were a reporter, which I am, but if I were a reporter covering this beat, and I worked in Washington but I needed to get out on the ground and reality test, which is always very good thing, where should I go and what should I see? Because there’s always this huge gap between what people in Washington think the policy is versus what the reality is. So I’m going to start with Dianne, and ask her what they should see on the border, and what you think the best places are to go to understand what the policy is now. And then I’m going to go to Paul to ask where they should go in the region to understand what the push factors are.
SOLIS: OK, the best place to go on the border would be the Rio Grande Valley, I think, and then perhaps El Paso-Juárez. You really get a sense of the challenges when you’re there. And it’s relatively easy to talk to people on the Texas side. And if you’re willing to take the risk of going across into Reynosa or Matamoros, you know, you can—you can do so. And you’ll really get an eyeful and an earful of the dangers that people go through, their desperation. I think if you go to El Paso-Juárez, you’re going to see more of the shades of gray. And when I think of underreported stories, one of the topic areas is shades of gray topics.
And I wonder, you know, if every single border crosser is really an asylum seeker with a credible fear of persecution. And how many of them are just Mexicans who need to provide for their families, or want to provide more amply for their families? And therefore, that becomes a prism from which we can look at the need for work visas, so that people can come across with greater ease. Or the need to open up the legal immigration system to people like that. And we have a lot of labor shortages, or skills mismatch going on all around the country right now. And one way to look at that might be through the prism of a visit to El Paso-Juárez.
And if you look at the data that comes from the Border Patrol, you’ll see that the largest number are single adult males, many of them from Mexico. And through that, again, you can look at, well, is this a really, truly an asylum seeker, or is this just a guy who wants to provide for his wife and two kids back in Guanajuato, back in central Mexico.
ROBBINS: So when you said the dangers of going to, would you say, Reynosa, you mean the dangers of getting mugged, is that what you mean, the dangers of getting kidnapped? You’re talking about crime.
SOLIS: I’m talking about crime.
ROBBINS: Yeah. So—OK, so I’m a reporter based in Washington, or based in Philadelphia, or based somewhere. And God bless my editor, says, OK, you’re right. I’m going to send you out there. You’ve been such a pain. You’re always telling me to send you on the ground. I’m going to send you out there. Go do a story on both sides of the border. And you have some Spanish. And how do you mitigate those risks? Who do you hire to help you as your guide? How do you do it on the ground, if you’re basically going in? But you got a week—you got a week to do it. That’s a, you know, reasonable amount of time. How do you find the people to make it safer, but so that you also don’t just end up interviewing cab drivers?
SOLIS: Right. You need to talk to people who go across regularly, to the NGOs that go to help people—either to feed people, to clothe people, to provide some legal help. You have to assess what geographic area you’re willing to go into. Are you going to stay very close to the bridge, where there is a fairly large encampment now of migrants in Reynosa, or are you going to go further in to one of the bigger shelters? And you have to know—you have to talk to people and know that if you decide to go to the big one, Senda de la Vida, that, you know, it’s right by the river, it’s not in the greatest place. It may look like it is on the map, but it’s not. And you go with somebody who knows that geography. And you have to watch what cab driver you hire. And you’ve got to be talking to people who go regularly to find out who that cab driver is that you’re going to hire, and why they believe that they’re OK, why they’re not working with organized crime.
ROBBINS: And, Paul, so I want to go to Central America. And I want to see what organizations or government officials are worth investing billions of dollars into, OK? Skeptical, you know, my member of Congress has to vote on this aid, OK? And so before the vote, my editor wants me to go down there and ask the question. If you want to give them the good and you want to show them a place that really we could build a partnership with, are there any governments in Central American right now, or local state, you know, provincial leaders, or, you know, mayors? Is there any place where you—where someone could say, OK, well, here’s something you could build on?
ANGELO: Sure. I think there are, you know, individuals or institutions with which the U.S. government has a long relationship in Central America that—you know, that still serve as a glimmer of hope for the region. I would point to the FECI, which is the special attorney general’s office for anti-corruption crimes in Guatemala. Unfortunately, one of the principal prosecutors was just forced out of the office this week by the country’s attorney general. But nonetheless, there are U.S.-trained individuals, prosecutors, investigators in that division that worked previously with the CICIG, which is the U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission in Guatemala, I think would be a very good place to start and a story that’s worth telling, because it’s something that’s worth salvaging.
But I also think that there are stories to be told from places like the dry corridor, which is a tract of territory that spans across—starting in Costa Rica and all the way up into southern Mexico. Some of the most unproductive land in Central America, but not coincidentally it’s the place where many of the region’s campesinos, over centuries of land concentration in the hands of a very few, have been pushed and have been pushed into subsistence existence. And now that we’re seeing less—you know, 40 percent less annual average rainfall than were even two decades ago, we’re seeing a region that’s been battered by hurricanes year after year, you know, I think it’s worth capturing those stories and telling the story of climate migration.
I would also say that it’s worth going to the Guatemala-Mexico border for—you know, this has been a flashpoint—geographic flashpoint over much of the past decade. You know, the Obama administration worked with the Peña Nieto administration in Mexico to implement something known as the southern border strategy, which sought to curb the flow of migrants across the Guatemala-Mexico border. The Trump administration engaged in the same—pushed the AMLO government to do the same, and to militarize the southern border. And inevitably, if the United States seeks to control the flow of migrants to its own border, it’s going to have to help Mexico get a handle on its own southern border.
And so, you know, I think that going to the Usumacinta River, which is where a lot of the river crossings happen for migrants, is a good place to go and get stories and, you know, a place as well that you’ll be able to capture not just the dynamic as it pertains to the migrants, but also the other illicit economies that tend to exist in these borderlands, which I think are, you know, certainly worth documenting and reporting on.
ROBBINS: So I’m going to throw a question out to the participants. And I hope that we’ll get more people to jump in here. So how big a deal is migration in your local communities? How much pressure is there? I mean, if you look at the polling data, consistently President Biden has incredibly stable approval numbers and, you know, pretty good numbers even now on handling the economy, handling of—handling of COVID. One thing that he consistently gets negative numbers on is handling of the border and migration issues. So as I always like to say to people, to my students who study polling, I always say to them: Don’t look at the poll—look at the straight numbers on the polls. Look at the salience issue, which is it’s not just what people feel, it’s whether or not they’re going to vote on it, you know, are they willing to spend money on it, are they willing to vote on it? How important is it to them?
So how salient is this issue in your local community? If you live—as Dianne said—if you live near the border and you’re a rancher, obviously it’s a salient issue. So you guys showed up for today. How salient is this in your communities? Alex talked about immigration activists. And we certainly know this was a huge issue when the ICE detention facilities were overflowing. But I’m just wondering how salient this is and how much this—potentially this issue will have an impact on the midterm elections if Biden can’t get this under control? So we have a chance to actually do a little bit of polling for local reporters.
So come on, you guys. I want somebody to jump in here. I’m pleading with you because I want to know the answer, too. So while you formulate your answers, Dianne, obviously, in Texas this is, you know, a hugely big deal, but maybe not as straightforward an issue as everybody thinks, as everybody caricatures. I mean, Abbott is taking his positions but, you know, what’s the politics of it right now inside the state?
SOLIS: We just did a poll on that. And it showed it was a huge issue—immigration was a huge issue. But if you delved into the data, it showed that it was very different depending on whether you were a non-Hispanic white or Hispanic. And we saw a divide, and quite a distinct divide. And I would imagine that it’s like that in other places, but it’s very important to look at that in a state like Texas or California, where Hispanics do vote and are a large voting bloc. And—
ROBBINS: Although, we’ve seen intolerance among—or, shall we say—refer to it as the lifeboat syndrome, but there is a certain lifeboat syndrome quality to it—from certain Hispanic voting blocs of, you know, certainly, you know, anti-open borders and—you know, Trump did get a reasonable amount of votes from Hispanics. I mean, voting maybe on immigration, certainly on more conservative cultural values. You know, so that maybe becomes a salience issue. But some of the people who analyzed it thought it also had to do with immigration. Do you think that’s not right?
SOLIS: I think that that’s correct for certain regions of Texas. For the border, I think that is true that a large number of folks voted for Republicans, voted for Trump. And I wrote about that. And in tight elections, that little sway matters. It matters a lot. But when you compared the Rio Grande Valley, the four counties that people generally talk about of the Rio Grande Valley, to a place like Dallas, you know, it was much different—you know, much more likely to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket in Dallas, compared to Hidalgo County, which holds the largest population. It’s where McAllen is.
ANGELO: And, Carla, I would just say, in terms of the Trump candidacy’s appeal to Latino voters, you know, a lot of that—you know, in terms of the slight uptick that we saw in terms of his approval and his popularity among Latino voters happened in Florida. And this issues in Florida are very, very distinct from the debate that we’re having about immigration. I mean, there it really was a misinformation campaign that was targeting the Biden campaign with the baseless accusation that Biden was a socialist and was going to turn the United States into a socialist country. And it was toying with the trauma of people who had fled socialism from places like Cuba, Florida—excuse me—Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela to Florida that really tipped the election in favor of Trump’s candidacy. And so I would say that, you know, it’s really sort of difficult to generalize about Latin voting across the nation because—(inaudible)—vote differently.
ROBBINS: It’s not a generalized bloc.
ANGELO: But I would say, on the issue of how salient this issue nationwide, I mean, we saw a poll in June that was conducted by Reuters that only 10 percent of Americans ranked immigration as a top priority, which was down 5 percent from where it was in April. And we even saw that number plummet against people who identify as Republicans from 29 percent to 19 percent. So, you know, it seems to be that in the United States, as immigration or the border crisis has dropped out of the news, people appear to be caring less about immigration than they did in the early months of the spring.
ROBBINS: I think it’s interesting. I mean, is this a crisis? And that raises a really interesting question for us as reporters about how we—the language that we use when we write these things. I mean, what makes something a crisis? Is it a crisis because it’s defined by politicians as a crisis? Is it a crisis because it is a crisis for the individuals who are experiencing it? You know, we have a very large country. We can certainly absorb lots of people. So what made this a crisis, other than the political definition of a crisis? And you’re right, dropped out of the news, or certainly gone—you know, become—it’s certainly less frontpage news itself. And it would be interesting to track to see, you know, the language versus the polling data on that, which I think that is—which is why I sort of threw the question out about the salience issue.
And Republicans do not seem to be pushing this with the same enthusiasm. At the same time, we don’t hear—I mean, after the ruling on DACA, which was, what, late last week, you didn’t, unless I missed it, was the White House out there really pushing back? You know, we’re going to make this—we’re going to get this legislation through, we’re going to—we’re going to champion it? I mean, they don’t seem to be, you know, pushing this in a—they seem to, I think, maybe—shall I be cynical about it? If nobody’s talking about it, they were happy to not talk about it. Do you get that impression as well? That’s certainly my impression. Dianne.
SOLIS: I doubt—they reacted the next day. It came out on a Friday.
ROBBINS: They did?
SOLIS: On Saturday they reacted, yeah. And they said they plan to appeal. MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, also I think will appeal. And I think we’ll be hearing about that soon. And I think there is a shift in news focus right now on the immigration beat to a reconciliation measure that might provide legalization for so-called DREAMers and other categories. It depends on who’s pushing how big this will be—whether it will be only two million people, or whether it will be as large as five million. And yesterday we saw more than eighty mayors say that they back this effort.
ROBBINS: So Cindy Carcamo from the L.A. Times has precisely this question: Can you talk about DACA and what you think will need for some sort of DREAMer legislation to pass? It seems like CIR is dead. OK, now you’ve so beyond my level of competence I don’t even know what that is, but I’m sure that Dianne or Paul will explain it. But what about something just or DACA recipients? Oh, comprehensive immigration reform. I got it. Yay. OK. I did understand. So thank you, Cindy. I did get it before you said it. (Laughs.) Thank God. So can you guys both in the remaining few minutes we have, give us a little bit more of a deep dive into the possibilities of DACA and broader immigration reform?
SOLIS: Well, I think the reason that what’s happening this week with this reconciliation effort in this particular bill is so interesting is it is a smaller group. And I think that it is going to be very hard to see something that will cover more people. There are eleven million people who are undocumented in the U.S.—roughly eleven million. And I think it’s doubtful that what you’re going to see, you know, is something for ten million of them, and much more likely that we’re going to see something small. Whether it would be DACA-specific, I don’t know because—I kind of doubt it, because the DREAMer movement themselves has leadership that doesn’t support something that is for them alone. They want more people on board.
ANGELO: Yeah, I would—I would agree with Dianne on this. I mean, the Biden administration, you know, out of the blocs prevented a comprehensive immigration reform bill to Congress that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the approximately eleven million undocumented immigrants in the United States. And, you know, that’s a pipedream, frankly. Depending on the poll, anywhere between 57 and 69 percent of Americans support the measure, but there doesn’t appear to be that kind of support in either chamber of Congress for comprehensive reform. So I think that, you know, the House is leading the way by considering smaller bills related to assistance for dreamers or, you know, more quotas for agricultural workers, temporary agriculture workers, to come into the United States and work for a time.
And sort of this piecemeal approach is, like, the most feasible way of getting essential relief as quickly as possible. I would note that any kind of legislation that’s going to pass through Congress is going to have to see border security initiatives baked into the text. And that will be a common theme for anything related to immigration reform that we see coming out of Capitol Hill.
ROBBINS: And who are the wizards to pull this off, the people to watch on the Hill? I mean, is this a—is this a priority for Pelosi, or is this just going to be pushed by the White House?
ANGELO: I mean, I think the White House is going to have to assume the protagonism in this. You know, I think the space for consensus on Capitol Hill right now is so limited that it’s going to require sort of the bipartisan spirit that Joe Biden brought to the ticket, and what made him an appeal or attractive moderate candidate to many voters, to get something like this taken care of by—on Capitol Hill.
SOLIS: And I’d like to add, because of that I think you need to watch for policy changes within the White House, and whether or not they come up with a new version of DACA. And it’s also very significant I think to look at something called TPS, which stands for temporary protective status. And it covers folks who already are in the U.S. and got here because of some national disaster or some great civil unrest. Under the Biden administration, he’s quietly increased the countries that have that kind of protection. It doesn’t put them on a pathway to citizenship, just like DACA doesn’t put them on a pathway to citizenship. It puts them in kind of a limbo, but it’s something.
ROBBINS: Yeah, it’s a—it is this weird half position, you know, which means that we’re all going to be waiting for some great amnesty somewhere down the road, when sanity returns to Washington.
This has been a great conversation. Thank you, Irina, for bringing us together. Thank you, Dianne, so great to see you again. Thank you, Paul. Thank you, Alex. Thank you, Cindy. And thank you everybody else. And I’m going turn it back to Irina.
FASKIANOS: I echo your thanks, and just want to encourage you all to follow our speakers on Twitter. Carla, @robbinscarla; Paul, @paul_ange; and Dianne, @disolis. And of course, please visit CFR.org, ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and ForeignAffairs.com for the latest developments and analysis on international trends and events and how they’re affecting the United States. And as always, we encourage you to send us your suggestions for future webinars. Email us at [email protected]. And I hope everybody says cool and safe and well. So thank you all again.