Democracy in Central America appears to be in decline.
In Guatemala, an anti-corruption judge went into exile on March 21 amid death threats after presiding over cases involving senior Guatemalan officials, including the country’s president, Alejandro Giammattei.
In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele arrested hundreds of people in response to a spike in homicides, including a series of gang-involved murders last weekend that left dozens dead. Bukele’s crackdown has raised fears that he is trying to further consolidate power and trample on civil liberties.
In Honduras, former President Juan Orlando Hernández faces extradition to the United States under a cloud of accusations of colluding with drug cartels to ship tons of cocaine to the United States in exchange for support financial to his political party.
This all happened in the space of two weeks.
Ricardo Zúniga, the Biden administration’s special envoy for the region, spoke about the challenges in Central America and how they are expected to lead to increased immigration from the region, during his visit to Los Angeles for an event at the Summit of the Americas earlier this week. .
“All we’re trying to do now is stop the slide” of democracy and accountability, Zúniga said in an interview with The Times, “so we can have a place to build on.”
Zúniga spent most of her three-day stay meeting with Angelenos who are part of the Latin American diaspora.
His visit comes just days before the Biden administration announced Friday that it plans to end by the end of May a controversial policy that has barred most migrants from seeking humanitarian protections at the U.S. border.
The policy – often referred to as Title 42 – has been invoked by the Trump administration, referring to a rarely used 1944 public health law that allows for the rapid deportation of migrants to Mexico or to their home countries. Trump administration officials have spoken of the need to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Over the past two years, border officials have used Title 42 to deport migrants in about 60% of encounters — more than 1.7 million deportations — while allowing others with humanitarian exemptions. But as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic shifted in the United States, officials began plotting an end to the policy.
Biden’s decision to overturn Title 42 is a potentially risky move as the midterm elections approach. Right-wing immigration hardliners are certain to pounce if the policy reversal leads to an exodus from Central America.
Zúniga, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the United States in the Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said State Department officials had been preparing for months to implement the policy reversal.
Speaking to The Times on Wednesday, Zúniga, who is also the administration’s special envoy for the Northern Triangle countries, spoke about the continuation of Central American relations, starting with the lifting of Title 42, a decision that a number of Republicans and at least one prominent Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, quickly attacked on Friday.
Once the policy changes, the number of arrests along the US southern border will initially appear to decline, Zúniga said. But that’s because for some time the data has been collected in a deceptive way.
After then-President Trump implemented Title 42 in March 2020, the administration authorized border officials to quickly deport migrants seeking admission to the United States without much processing. There really were no repercussions to crossing illegally, so the same person would often try to cross multiple times.
This is one of the reasons Border Patrol moved away from calling this data apprehensions and calling it “encounters.” Encounters can mean multiple crossing attempts by one person, a classification that has artificially inflated the numbers.
For several months, the Biden administration had hinted at lifting Title 42 but stopped short of doing so, drawing criticism and increased pressure from immigration advocates and progressives.
Zúniga believes that after Title 42 is canceled it will deter some people from trying to cross more than once as there will now be consequences – such as jail time – attached to such attempts.
“But what we are preparing for is the expectation of increased numbers” of migrants overall, he said.
People will continue to come to the United States for the same reasons they always have, Zúniga said. Many Central Americans do not believe that economic conditions will improve, as democracy, the rule of law and the security situation continue to deteriorate.
“What’s different about this moment isn’t just that it’s about Mexican and Central American immigration — although that’s important,” Zúniga said. “It’s Venezuelan. It’s Nicaraguan. It’s Cuban. It’s Colombian and to some extent Ecuadorian. We see many communities at once because the displacement caused by the pandemic is so widespread. »
Misinformation and misinformation about the administration’s policy reversal is another concern for Zúniga. He believes that misperceptions and misinformation could lead to a significant increase in immigration.
“They’re going to be sold an impression that now, ‘The border is open. There are no more restrictions. Title 42 is gone. You won’t be fired,'” he said. how to make sure people understand and get the real information up front that the implications are real.”
As in the past, State Department officials are working on messaging to stem the possibility of a sudden exodus from Central America. They are in conversation with Central American leaders about what lifting the policy means and how they plan to enforce immigration law and pursue several border crossings.
They plan to run ads on regional radio stations in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, urging would-be immigrants to stay put and warning them of the dangers of illegal immigration, Zúniga said.
Additionally, State Department officials spoke with Central American government leaders about preparing consular services to provide timely access to documents, including passports, to those who find themselves in immigration detention. Americans and expelled from the country.
But Zúniga knows that word of mouth is likely to have the biggest impact on immigrant perceptions.
“We can do all of these things, but it will take real cases of people with real experience of going through this process for people to understand that there is going to be a process.
“We have to implement it as efficiently as possible, so that’s people’s experience, and that’s what they’re reporting – ‘That’s what mi primo dice‘ — ‘That’s what my cousin says.'”
Los Angeles Times