Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #19

This is a good time of year to talk to legislative staff about what we’re working on. I’ve had a few meetings and other interactions lately with people who work for relevant congressional committees or for concerned members of Congress, mainly about what I’ve seen on my recent trips to the U.S.-Mexico border. There will be more during February and March.

What do we say when we sit down with legislative staff? First, you want to start with bullet points so clear and concise that they fit on a powerpoint slide. Here’s the slide I’ve been using for the border work. If the staffer wants more details, they can ask.

Second, you don’t want to waste everyone's time. We don’t ask for meetings with congressional offices whose views of the border and migration overlap with white supremacy. There’s not too many that go that far, but when a member of Congress follows the Trumpian view, you have to look closely at where his or her willful blindness to human suffering on the border comes from.

Far more often, we talk to offices who generally share our view and  want information about what’s been happening in the field, suggestions for doable initiatives, or ways to frame positions. But “people who generally share our view” come in several flavors. The disagreements on what to do next will emerge if a Democratic president somehow manages to beat Trump and take office next year. Views in the Democratic caucus (plus a few moderate Republicans) range from the “people shouldn’t cut the line” crowd all the way over to the “abolish ICE” crowd, with a large contingent of “I agree with you but we don’t want a Democratic president dealing with a tidal wave of migrants in early 2021.”

I can work with that. Start with three suppositions:

  • From Venezuela to Cuba to the northern triangle of Central America, human mobility in Latin America is going to be “a thing” for a while. It’s normal and you can’t sweep it under the rug.
  • Large numbers of asylum seekers reveal sending countries to be in severe crisis. But for the United States, they are just an administrative challenge.
  • The solution starts in Central American communities, follows all along the migrant trail, and ends in U.S. communities.

From there, we come to five things that the U.S. government—all of it, the State Department, USAID, the departments of Homeland Security and Justice—need to do, as soon as possible.

  1. Work with reformers in Central America to address the root causes of violence, corruption and lack of economic opportunities driving irregular migration from the region. Target assistance first to the communities sending the most migrants.
  2. Recognize Mexico’s role in supporting Central American migrants and asylum seekers, and help Mexico punish smuggling, assaults on migrants, and related corruption.
  3. Expand and modernize our land ports of entry to improve drug interdiction and streamline processing of asylum seekers. Expand processing capacity in every border sector to eliminate the need for “waitlists” in Mexico, and hire or contract civilian personnel to handle processing.
  4. Implement effective, inexpensive, and non-intrusive alternatives to detention programs while asylum seekers await hearings inside the United States.
  5. Reduce that wait time in the United States, to the minimum time that due process requires, by investing in an independent immigration adjudication system with enough judges and courts.

We unpack these 5 proposals much more in a WOLA commentary published last April.

There is no one piece of pending legislation that covers all of this; if there were, it would have to go through several committees because it involves so many parts of the executive branch. But several different bills out there address much of it. None of them have any hope of passing both houses and gaining presidential signature in 2020. The hope is that, should a new president take power in January 2021, his or her legislative allies will already have come together on workable proposals like these, rather than lose crucial time dithering over the right approach post-inauguration.

These five points aren’t sexy proposals. They don’t have the same bumper-sticker ring as “build the wall” or “abolish ICE.” But that’s because, as I said, what’s happening at the border isn’t an emergency, it’s an administrative challenge. The United States already built up its border security apparatus in a gigantic way after 9/11. The challenge now is to retool all of that for a much different, much smaller, much more vulnerable population of migrants.

On the back side of that powerpoint-slide handout are four bullet points for things that the U.S. government should be doing less of. Today’s humanitarian crisis at the border is entirely man-made. To stop aggravating it:

  1. Stop construction of border walls, especially in rural and wilderness areas where they offer no significant tactical advantage.
  2. Pull back the active-duty military and National Guard deployments. Instead, improve salaries, conditions, and incentives for CBP officers and Border Patrol agents (while improving accountability over them) so that those agencies may attain their legally mandated, Obama-era staffing levels, which they’re significantly below right now.
  3. End “Remain in Mexico,” “metering,” “safe” third country arrangements, the HARP and PACR programs, the transit ban, and other measures that have all but eliminated the legal right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  4. Relieve CBP and Border Patrol of border migration management responsibilities like holding and processing, allowing those agencies to focus on terrorism, drug interdiction, and other security and law enforcement threats. Assign border migration duties to another, civilian agency.

I cheated a bit here: that fourth point is more of a proposal for a new thing to do than something to stop doing, though it’s got bit of both. Either way, the point stands: we need to reverse the terrible error of putting border security and border-zone migration management under the same agency. I should also add a fifth: stop coddling corrupt leaders in Central America. If you represent the United States, stop taking your photo with them for heaven's sake.

So that’s where our messaging is on border alternatives, as we work with all who are willing to listen. It’s much more “rolling up your sleeves, getting under the hood, and fixing what’s broken” than “threatening people and hyperventilating on Twitter.” Call me old-fashioned, but this is how normal people still do politics and policy.

A podcast about the SOTU

Anyway, speaking of hyperventilating and politics, President Trump gave his State of the Union address last Tuesday. And he said several things relevant to Latin America. Now that WOLA has staff in charge of building up our digital communications capacity, we were able to get a few of us together first thing Wednesday morning and record a podcast reacting to the president’s messages. Thanks to our new director for digital strategy, Lisette Alvarez, for making that happen.

The podcast mp3 file is here. Here's the blurb from WOLA's page:

Our team recorded a roundtable discussion at WOLA the morning after this year's State of the Union, focused on what the president's words and actions mean for human rights and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

Adam Isacson (Director for Defense Oversight), Maureen Meyer (Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights), Geoff Ramsey (Director for Venezuela) and Marguerite Rose Jiménez (Director for Cuba) discuss the appearance of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the president's comments on Cuba, and the toxic business-as-usual attitude towards migrants and immigration policy.

32 years of coca cultivation in the Andes

I graphed this out for a talk I gave last Tuesday. It combines data from six U.S. government sources listed at the bottom of the graphic.

There’s no need to comment further, is there. The image tells its own story about the wisdom of relying so heavily on forced crop eradication. Since the 1980s. And now the U.S. government is about to push Colombia into re-starting a suspended program of spraying herbicides from aircraft over coca-growing households.

By the way, last week I mentioned WOLA would be releasing a big analysis about the aerial herbicide fumigation program in Colombia. That’s ready to go, but I told our communications team, “it’s not time-sensitive, put it up when there’s a day without other urgent messages to get out,” so it’s still in the queue. Should go out this week.

  • The Washington Post produced the most thorough mapping you'll ever see of where, when, and how all sections of Trump's border wall would be built.
  • Several reporters at Colombia's La Silla Vacía produced a deep dive into the more than 180 demobilized FARC combatants who have been murdered since the 2016 peace accord. The ex-guerrillas interviewed place a surprising amount of blame on the security forces, who are directly alleged to be the perpetrators of only a handful of cases.
  • At ProPublica, Dara Lind reported on the slapdash, disorganized, and shockingly dehumanizing way that CBP and Border Patrol are carrying out the Trump administration's efforts to dismantle asylum. Border Patrol agents "wield nearly unchecked power over the fate of migrants" because the whole system is a mess.
  • The Fronteras Desk reported on security conditions in Sonora, Mexico. Sonora had been relatively less violent than other border states, but in the post-"Chapo" era, the Sinaloa cartel's dominance over criminality is slipping and homicides are surging.
  • A Human Rights Watch report identified 138 people who were murdered in El Salvador after being deported from the United States, just since 2013. (HRW also produced shorter research this week on abuses in Venezuela's illegal gold mines and evidence tampering in a 2019 police massacre in Rio de Janeiro.)

Monday, February 10

  • 4:00–5:30 at the Wilson Center: Sorting Out the Mixed Economy: The Rise and Fall of Welfare and Development States in the Americas (RSVP required).

Wednesday, February 12

  • 12:30–2:00 at the Wilson Center: Chile’s Changing Political Landscape: A Conversation with Chilean Congressman Giorgio Jackson (RSVP required).
  • 5:00–7:00 at WOLA: Peace Accord Implementation from an Afro-Colombian Perspective (RSVP required).

Thursday, February 13

Also, here are 5 U.S. government reports relevant to Latin America that came out in late December or January. My whole reports archive is here.

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Jamie Larson