U.S. Chief of Staff Antony Blinken will prepare the ground for the Summit of the Americas by attending a regional meeting on migration in Panama on Tuesday, just weeks before the United States lifts border restrictions with Mexico.
Since U.S. President Joe Biden came to the White House in January 2021, the number of migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has increased and is expected to rise further when the government rescinds in May the rule that allows migrants to be immediately expelled.
In February alone, U.S. immigration authorities intercepted 164,973 illegal border crossers, 55% of whom were eligible for removal under the Title 42 rule, which was triggered by the pandemic.
Biden defends a “more humane” immigration policy than that of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who applied a “hard line” of zero tolerance against irregular immigration.
The lack of border control is a vulnerable political flank that could become explosive for Democrats as the year-end midterm elections approach.
The Democratic president is proposing a pathway to citizenship that has met with Congressional rejection and a strategy to address what he calls the root causes of migration to stem the massive flow of migrants from Central America, a mission he has tasked Vice President Kamala Harris with carrying out.
So Blinken attends the April 19-20 ministerial meeting on migration in Panama to assess, among other things, what steps can be taken to “generate opportunities and get people to make their lives” in their countries, chief diplomat for the Americas Brian Nichols, who will accompany the secretary of state, told reporters Friday.
He will speak with representatives of some 20 countries – among which, according to Nichols, there will be no envoy of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro – about the intention of the United States to “adopt a declaration on immigration protection” at the Summit of the Americas to be held from June 6 to 10 in Los Angeles.
The White House “has not yet issued invitations” to the summit, said Nichols, who insisted on the importance of the countries of the Americas honoring “a commitment to democracy”.
In December, Biden did not invite Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala or Haiti to his Democracy Summit.
Nichols believes that progress has been made in recent months against irregular migration. He cites the commitment of $1.2 billion in private sector investment in Central America and the distribution of vaccines against covid-19, “which was a driver of migration”, as well as aid granted to communities hosting migrants in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Chile.
With eyes open
“But the challenges did not start yesterday and it will take time for us to resolve them with our partners,” Nichols stressed.
This issue, important for the Republican Party base, is very present in domestic politics now that the November mid-term elections are just around the corner and that, according to the polls, could mean Biden losing control of Congress.
In Panama, apart from migration, the U.S. will address other issues such as economic recovery and the fight against corruption, as well as the war in Ukraine.
Washington is leading the Western response against Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine and seeks the support of its allies, but many Latin American countries maintain a more neutral position, such as Mexico, Brazil or Bolivia.
Nichols said Friday that he is sure the issue of China’s growing presence will also come up and urged countries to “keep their eyes open.”
“The United States has a strong trade relationship with China. Obviously, we’re not saying don’t trade with China, what we’re saying is do it with your eyes open, (you should) understand what’s on the table, understand how China will use and how these companies will use your data,” he said.
In Panama, Blinken will meet with President Laurentino Cortizo and his counterpart Erika Mouynes, in addition to touring the Panama Canal “to review this vital component of regional and international trade,” according to a State Department statement.
He will be accompanied during his visit by Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Deputy Assistant Secretary Marta Youth of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, among others.