'The Border Is Not Open': Biden Administration Seeks Foreign Aid To Slow Migration

Mar 10, 2021
Originally published on March 11, 2021 12:49 am

Updated March 10, 2021 at 5:45 PM ET

The Biden administration is making a new push to address the causes of migration from Central America as it faces a surge at the southern border.

President Biden wants "explicit commitments" from Central American governments that they are fighting corruption as part of that effort. Therefore, his administration's proposed $4 billion in U.S. aid to the region wouldn't go to government leaders if approved by Congress, but to communities and international organizations to address economic opportunity, climate change mitigation, inequality and violence.

Amb. Roberta Jacobson, the White House coordinator for the Southern Border, made the announcement on Wednesday as the administration has been under increasing pressure – especially from the right – to do something to stem the thousands of migrants rushing to the United States border fleeing violence and poverty.

Customs and Border Protection senior official Troy Miller told reporters Wednesday that border crossings spiked by 28 percent last month to more than 100,400 people.

The number of unaccompanied children stopped along the border has tripled in the last two weeks, according to multiple outlets.

President Biden was briefed on the border situation Wednesday by officials who visited some of these facilities where minors are being held, according to press secretary Jen Psaki. She said they mostly discussed steps to expedite the process of getting kids out of U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities, into shelters with better accommodations and welfare services and eventually into homes that have been vetted.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has accused the Biden administration of downplaying a growing "border crisis." He said he will deploy 500 National Guard troops "to fill the gap" left by the federal government.

After four years of Trump's enforcement-focused policies, the Biden administration is focused on "changing to a more humane and efficient system," Jacobson said. But that has drawn criticism that the administration's policies are drawing people to the border.

"When you look at the issue of mixed messages, it is difficult at times to convey both hope in the future and the danger that is now," she said. "And that is what we're trying to do. I will certainly agree that we are trying to walk and chew gum at the same time. We are trying to convey to everybody in the region that we will have legal processes for people in the future."

One of those ways is to develop more legal avenues to seek asylum so that migrants don't feel they have to choose the "irregular route." Jacobson said, for example, that the Biden administration is re-starting the Central American Minors program to reunite children with a parent who is legally in the United States. She says when the Trump administration ended the program there were around 3,000 children approved for travel left stranded.

But Jacobson stressed that people should not try and migrate to the United States across the border, for now.

"La frontera no esta abierta," she said, repeating multiple times in Spanish that "the border is not open."

The steps being taken are not expected to have an immediate impact, but Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former senior adviser on immigration in both the Bush and Obama administrations, said that if the administration wants fewer migrants to come, they must help them be able to stay where they are.

"You can't just look at immigration as either push or pull factors, and which is more important," she said. "The answer is, it's all part of a decision that a migrant makes. They have agency. They go on the information they have and their hopes and dreams."

But she said their first decision is, "I have to leave."

The problems in Central America are far reaching. Chronic poverty in Guatemala Honduras and El Salvador has only worsened amid the pandemic and two devastating hurricanes that left hundreds of thousands displaced last year.

Leon Fresco, a former deputy assistant attorney general during the Obama administration, called the moves announced Wednesday a "first draft" to try to explain a long term plan for how the administration is going to address individuals trying to enter the United States through the southern border.

He noted that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will be on Capitol Hill next week to testify before lawmakers and will likely want to have a more defined answer as to their processes.

"The absolute challenge this administration is facing is whether there is a way to mitigate the numbers of people who will seek to enter the U.S. through the southern border while humanely processing people and not simply excluding them or otherwise making the process overly draconian," Fresco said.

The move also marks a dramatic shift from the Trump administration policies toward the leaders of the Northern Triangle, including El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. President Trump, in line with his "America First" policies, paid little attention to the ongoing issues of corruption in the region.

"We also think it's really important that these countries make commitments, really explicit commitments to advancing on anti-corruption, and in some places that will be hard to do," Jacobson said.

The Honduran and Guatemalan governments undercut international anti-corruption efforts, and Guatemala forced into exile a former attorney general running for president on an anti-corruption platform.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez is suspected of drug trafficking, and the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, has repeatedly ignored supreme court rulings for exceeding the limits of his power.

Benjamin Gedan, who served as National Security Council director for Latin America during the Obama administration, said it will be impossible to improve the investment climate in Central America and create jobs without controlling corruption.

"Central American leaders got a free pass from the Trump administration, and that legacy is plain to see," he said. "Foreign aid is not bags of cash handed to foreign leaders."

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The Biden administration is trying to deal with a crisis - a crisis unfolding right now at the southern border - while simultaneously addressing the deep problems in Central America that are causing people to flee to the U.S. Today, border patrol officials announced a nearly 30% increase in border crossings over the last four weeks. The number of unaccompanied children stopped at the border has reportedly tripled in the last couple of weeks. White House coordinator for the southern border repeated this message today.


ROBERTA JACOBSON: The border is not open.

KELLY: That's Ambassador Roberta Jacobson announcing a new effort to slow down illegal migration and develop new legal paths to come to the U.S. Here with more is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Hey, Franco.


KELLY: So this, it goes without saying, is a huge issue, a complicated issue. But that message - the border is not open - is pretty unambiguous. What are the new plans to address the migration crisis?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, there are basically two parts. First, as you noted, is developing more legal ways to come to the United States. One example that they announced today is that the administration is restarting a program called the Central Americans Minors Program, and that program reunites children with parents who are in the United States legally. Ambassador Jacobson actually said that when the Trump administration ended that program, there were around 3,000 children approved for travel who were left stranded.

Another way is fighting the push factors that lead migrants to leave countries like El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala. Jacobson said they are seeking $4 billion in U.S. aid to fight poverty, inequality and climate change. But one key thing is they said the money is not going to go to government leaders but civil society groups that work on the issues. She said the administration wants explicit commitments from the government leaders that they are going to fight corruption as part of this effort.

KELLY: Now, I know during this White House briefing today, Ambassador Jacobson was asked pointedly, is the administration sending conflicting messages, you know, on the one hand saying, hey, don't come, on the other hand, promoting these more humane policies? How did she answer that?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Jacobson acknowledged that the messages were mixed, but she said they're trying to do multiple things at the same time. Here's how she put it.


JACOBSON: It is difficult at times to convey both hope in the future and the danger that is now. And that is what we're trying to do, and I will certainly agree that we are trying to walk and chew gum at the same time.

ORDOÑEZ: She said they will have legal processes for people in the future. But she repeated that the border was not open, even saying it in Spanish several times to make sure people back home in the region heard it. The White House has been under a lot of pressure to send that message. Republicans are accusing Biden of downplaying a crisis, and the Texas governor said he's even going to send National Guard troops to the border.

KELLY: But to circle back beyond the messaging to the actual plan, how does the White House plan to address? How would they actually solve what, as we noted, is this very urgent, real situation unfolding at the border right now?

ORDOÑEZ: It is a real situation. President Biden was briefed on that situation today. I spoke to Theresa Cardinal Brown, who was a senior adviser for both Bush and Obama. She told me there are a host of issues of why people migrate and when.

THERESA CARDINAL BROWN: You can't just look at immigration as either push or pull factors and which is more important. The answer is it's all part of a decision that a migrant makes. They have agency. They go on the information they have in their own situation and their hopes and dreams.

ORDOÑEZ: But, Mary Louise, she emphasized that the first decision people make is, I have to leave my home country. And that is what these efforts are trying to tackle.

KELLY: NPR's Franco Ordoñez - thank you, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.