On June 10, 2022, the White House announced the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, a hemispheric agreement with sign on from 21 governments throughout the Americas that aims to create conditions for safe, orderly, humane, and regular migration and strengthen frameworks for international protection and cooperation. The declaration was met with praise from international agencies and policymakers, though some expressed concern about follow-through on its implementation. New dynamics and trends in Western Hemisphere migration, demonstrated most clearly at the U.S.-Mexico border, have added urgency to the White House’s implementation of the agreement, with the White House holding a meeting on September 26, 2022, dedicated to the implementation of the declaration. Nineteen countries, all signatories to the declaration, met to reaffirm their commitment to implementation, put in place a plan for implementation, and appoint special coordinators for each country.
In this blog, we delve into the reasons behind this declaration, details of the declaration, and how it measures up to expectations.
There has been a shift in demographics at the border in the last few years, specifically a rise in the “other” category of migrants—migrants from countries other than Mexico or the northern triangle of Central America—which have comprised a large majority of encounters for most of the last decade. The category notably includes migrants from South America, the Caribbean, and from other continents. With this shift comes an increasing recognition by the Biden administration and other world leaders that a hemispheric approach to migration is necessary. Migration at the U.S. southern border has diversified with higher numbers of migrants from Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela especially (with Haitian migrants accounting for another increasingly large flow). Venezuela’s collapse has strained neighboring countries in the region since 2014, when the exodus of Venezuelans began in earnest. As of August 2022, about 6.8 million Venezuelans have left the country. Colombia hosts the most Venezuelans (2.4 million), and the majority have settled in other Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Figure 1: Venezuelans Encountered at the Border by U.S. Border Patrol (FY21-FY22TD)
Encounters of Venezuelans at the U.S.-Mexico border began increasing steadily starting in March 2021, peaking at nearly 25,000 encounters in December 2021, as seen in Figure 1 above. Mexico imposed a visa restriction on Venezuelans in January, prohibiting Venezuelans from flying to Mexico as tourists. Encounter numbers at the border dropped steeply in February 2022 after the visa requirement was implemented, but rose sharply again in June 2022 and have risen steadily since, until August 2022, when more than 25,000 Venezuelans were encountered at the border again. Reports have indicated that Venezuelans are now making more dangerous journeys to the border, with huge increases in the number of Venezuelans traveling through the Darien Gap and Panama and arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border by land. The Biden administration announced on October 12 that it would admit 24,000 Venezuelans with pre-existing ties to the United States via a parole program through ports of entry, granting them a narrow legal pathway into the U.S., but would expel other Venezuelans that don’t qualify to Mexico under Title 42. This decision followed a bilateral agreement with the Mexican government and will again change dynamics at the border for Venezuelans, who, until now, have mostly been released into the United States, as Venezuela will not take back deportees. The policy’s impact on the number if Venezuelan arrivals is unclear, but short-term crisis responses and policy fixes have not deterred Venezuelans from making the journey so far.
The worsening region-wide crisis, the increasing strain on hosting countries, and the long-term change in trends at the border pressures the United States and countries in the hemisphere to begin serious work on implementing the Los Angeles Declaration. The increasing migration of Venezuelans in the region was a topic of discussion at the September 26 meeting, and at another October 6 ministerial meeting in Lima dedicated to the formal launch of the declaration’s implementation. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also mentioned the declaration when discussing increasing migration across the hemisphere, saying there is a “genuine sense of shared responsibility across the hemisphere for dealing with the migration challenge.” This combination of factors, but especially the increase of migrants arriving at the border from “other” countries like Venezuela, has likely increased the Biden administration’s desire concretize the declaration and the commitments made in it.
What’s in it?
The declaration begins with an expression of shared values around migration, underlining the idea that migration should be voluntary and not a necessity to escape negative conditions in countries of origin. Signatory countries affirm their commitment to protecting the safety and dignity of all migrants, and to the principle of non-refoulement (i.e., not sending migrants back to places where they face persecution). They underscore the necessity of a regional approach to migration, recognize the benefits of welcoming migrants, and commit to strengthening institutions responsible for migration management. The value statement underlines the need for collaboration and solidarity with neighboring nations, a principle that has become even more relevant with the increase of Venezuelan migrants in the hemisphere in the past few months.
The declaration itself is built around four key pillars: stability and assistance for communities, expansion of legal pathways, humane migration management, and coordinated emergency response. Each of these pillars is supported by concrete commitments from signatory countries.
The first pillar, stability and assistance for communities, focuses on economic stabilization and support, and calls for a rethink of multilateral development finance, arguing that though many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are no longer classified as low-income, their need for development assistance remains substantial, especially in countries supporting large numbers of migrants. It stresses the importance of integration and protection, and reiterates a commitment to address root causes.
The second pillar, legal pathways and protection, recognizes that there is a need to change the way that people migrate by increasing regular pathways. It includes commitments to fair labor migration opportunities, fair and ethical recruitment practices, and portability of social benefits.
The third pillar, humane border management, emphasizes the importance of securing borders through humane border management policies, pledging to expand collaboration across the hemisphere in this area.
The fourth pillar, promoting a coordinated emergency response, also focuses on the importance of regional coordination mechanisms when responding to emergency situations.
How does it measure up?
Migration experts and policymakers have long been pushing for a migration agreement governing the Western Hemisphere. This declaration represents the first attempt at such an agreement. Increasing coordination and cooperation
Experts agree that increasing coordination and cooperation between governments in the Americas is crucial, as migration will remain a hemispheric challenge as people will continue to move. They emphasize the need for stronger networks and information-sharing, and advocate for the establishment of a dedicated international forum for migration. The declaration represents a positive step in that direction in its signaling from governments throughout the Americas, establishing a forum for discussion of migration issues, and indicating that governments in the region take migration seriously and believe the solution to migration issues is a hemispheric one. It does not establish a regular, international meeting for addressing migration issues, which could be used to ensure the implementation of long-term goals, but governments do commit to information sharing to combat migrant smuggling and human trafficking, and the September 26 meeting indicates that governments are motivated to meet regularly on their own, at least so far.
Building legal pathways
Developing legal, employment-based migration pathways is a cornerstone of a potential regional migration system, with experts arguing that not enough legal pathways for would-be migrants exist. The declaration contains a serious attempt at beginning to build legal pathways throughout the Americas, with commitments from Canada, Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, and Spain to promote legal labor migration programs for both agricultural and nonagricultural workers. There is a mix of program expansions and new programs. For long-term change, however, more expansive programs than those proposed in the declaration are needed.
Experts assert that legal pathways must also include assistance with integration into host communities. Commitments from Mexico to integrate recognized refugees into the labor market and regularization commitments from multiple countries for Central American and Venezuelan populations represent an effort to integrate migrants into host communities.
Tackling root causes
Stabilizing sending countries and investing in the region to address the root causes that lead people to leave their country is also a critical part of addressing migration in a hemispheric manner, albeit a long-term one. Both the United States and Canada committed to stabilization and root causes initiatives in the declaration, with the United States committing $314 million to stabilization efforts in the Americas and Canada investing $26.9 million to address root causes and capacity-building. These commitments from the United States come in addition to the commitments made in the U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration, released in July 2021. Though the strategy has faced hurdles, the declaration in combination with this strategy represents a serious effort by the United States at investing money in root causes and stabilization strategies in the Americas.
Addressing migration from Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba
In 2019, a Center for American Progress report discussed the possibility of mass migration events from Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba, warning that instability in these countries could lead to mass flight. The declaration responds to mass flight from these countries (especially Venezuela), with Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Belize committing to regularizing Venezuelan and other Central American migrants, and the United States increasing resettlement of Haitian refugees and resuming the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program and the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program.
Part of addressing migration crises is building a robust crisis response mechanism on migration; the U.S. commits $25 million to this in the declaration. The mechanism outlined in the declaration focuses primarily on regularization programs, which is necessary, but a coordinated crisis response mechanism must also be built—in this aspect, the declaration falls short.
Building fair, workable borders
Expert analysis, including our own, has called for a rethink and professionalization of the border. In our Redefining Border Security paper, we recommended separating border security threats from ordinary migration at the border by creating a separate system for asylum seekers at the border. Other experts have advocated for a large-scale professionalization of border and immigration enforcement throughout the hemisphere, and the creation of transparent policies and protocols for agents.
The declaration contains some of these recommendations, but ultimately falls shortest in this area. The “Sting Operation” to disrupt human smuggling networks is encouraging, and the new asylum rule being implemented at the border is an important step in separating systems, but the lack of commitment from other governments on border operations, and the lack of a real overhaul of U.S. border operations, means the Biden administration still has work to do on this pillar.
Overall, the Los Angeles Declaration is a serious effort by the United States and other governments to begin building a hemispheric approach to migration in the Americas. There are areas in which the declaration falls short, especially when it comes to border management, but it represents a valuable step in building migration cooperation throughout the continent. As the recent meeting makes clear, however, commitment and implementation are not the same thing. Developing mechanisms for continued collaboration and action plans for following up on the declaration are needed. The urgency to better manage growing migration, in a humane yet orderly way, should encourage countries to meet their commitments
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