WASHINGTON – The deaths of at least 53 people discovered in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas, has put a spotlight on the Biden administration's lack of progress in stemming migration and tackling corruption in Central American countries.
Authorities suspect that the victims, many of whom were from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, died at the hands of smuggling networks.
"The tragedy in San Antonio once again proves that the U.S. – or the U.S. outsourcing its immigration control policies to others, in this case Mexico – cannot enforce its way out of a migration crisis,” Arturo Sarukhan, former ambassador of Mexico, told USA TODAY.
Almost a year and a half after the Biden administration launched a broad strategy to take on the causes of migration, the White House has increasingly grown quiet when its "reliable partners" in the region crack down on investigators, prosecutors and civil society working to weed out corruption. Several former diplomats told USA TODAY that the reason for the hands-off approach is that Biden administration officials want to avoid jeopardizing cooperation on migration enforcement.
But the strategy raises the question: Has one priority taken a backseat to the other?
“Enforcement-centric policies will only create greater incentives for transnational criminal organizations to muscle their way into the business of smuggling migrants and trafficking vulnerable people, mainly women and children,” Sarukhan said.
Biden has defended his administration’s policies targeting human smuggling and vowed to “do everything possible to stop human smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people who are seeking to enter the United States between ports of entry.”
On Thursday, the Supreme Court handed the Biden administration a victory by allowing it to end the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols. Known as “Remain in Mexico,” the policy forces migrants from other countries who are seeking asylum to remain in Mexico as they await their immigration court hearing.
But former officials and experts are warning that without serious engagement and confronting corruption head on, tragedies similar to the deaths in Texas will almost certainly happen again.
Stephen McFarland, a retired diplomat and former ambassador to Guatemala from 2008 to 2011, said the Biden administration needs use the entire range of the U.S. government to lean on countries to do better.
"Until they do that, they're not going to get any traction," he said.
The White House declined USA TODAY's request for comment.
Does the United States have reliable partners in the region?
Vice President Kamala Harris, the Biden administration's point person for tackling the root causes of migration, traveled last June to Guatemala and Mexico, where she announced the creation of task forces to address challenges in the region, such as stemming trafficking, improving governance and promoting human rights.
Part of her mandate is to identify a reliable partner in the region with whom the United States could spearhead policy initiatives.
Mexico had been stricken from the list because of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's cozy relationship with the Trump administration. López Obrador skipped out on the Summit of the Americas earlier this month in Los Angeles. López Obrador will meet with Biden July 12.
Given the animosity to the United States from populist Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and because then-Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who was extradited to the U.S. in April, was already being singled out for suspicion of drug trafficking, the only option left was Guatemala.
But Guatemala wasn't reliable, either.
"The Guatemalan government is not a real partner. They have no interest in fighting the real causes of migration," said Alvaro Montenegro, co-founder of Justicia Ya in Guatemala, which fights against impunity and pushes for increased government transparency. Montenegro met with Harris last year.
Rising migrant deaths: Migrant deaths along U.S.-Mexico border continue to rise as access to asylum remains blocked
Last year, prosecutors opened up an investigation against Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei over allegations that he took a bribe from Russian businessmen to secure a dock at one of the country’s main ports.
Juan Francisco Sandoval, who led the Special Prosecutors Office Against Impunity and oversaw the investigation, was fired by Guatemala’s attorney general, María Consuelo Porras. Sandoval’s firing stirred widespread protests and calls for Giammattei to step down.
In the past year, roughly two dozen prosecutors, judges and magistrates have fled into exile out of fear of government prosecution for their anti-corruption crusades.
The Biden administration has sanctioned Guatemalan officials. In May, State Department spokesman Ned Price criticized Giammattei’s decision to keep Porras in her post, saying it was a “step backward for Guatemalan democracy, transparency and rule of law.”
“You can't you can't resolve the problem by working with the same people who are causing the problem,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group.
Burt noted the Biden administration could hammer down on presidents and leaders who continue to work with corrupt officials.
“These are countries that are being governed by very corrupt, inept and, in some instances, criminal leaders and their allies,” Burt said. “And in an effort to stem migration, we're sort of turning a partially blind eye.”
Giammattei is in Washington meeting with senior Cabinet officials such as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. He has also made himself available for conservative media interviews.
"Guatemalan President Giammattei sells himself as the democratic option in Central America," Montenegro said. "But behind their backs he makes deals with the Russians, pushes out judges into exile and meets with the most radical faction of the Republican Party."
US needs to move past working with political elites
The Biden administration's initiatives to stem migration in the region build off a strategy that presidents such as Barack Obama have used in the past.
As vice president, Biden traveled to Central America, including Guatemala, to address human smuggling after a rise of unaccompanied migrant children coming to the U.S.-Mexico in 2014. At the time, Biden presented initiatives and funding to reduce risk factors in the region such as gangs and drugs.
Harris has since taken the same approach, focusing on investments from private companies in the region. Harris has garnered more than $3.2 billion in private sector investments from 40 companies, including Visa, Gap, Microsoft and Mastercard.
Sarukhan said that the declaration on migration and protections signed earlier this month at the Summit of the Americas was a “step in the right direction” but that there is much more that needs to be done to confront trafficking and smuggling operations in the region.
“Individual migration management capabilities and budgets, enhancing the rule of law and increased information sharing and coordination across borders to address smuggling networks and combat human trafficking need to be widened and deepened, first and foremost between Mexico and the U.S., but also with other continental partners,” Sarukhan said.
'All about the money': 53 dead in San Antonio reveals harsh world of human smuggling
Some Biden allies said Biden’s initiatives will create change in the region, but results won’t be seen immediately.
Tyler Moran, who stepped down as Biden's senior adviser for migration in January, said the Biden administration’s collaborative approach to migration with the Northern Triangle countries will be “enormously impactful,” but none of the policies are “fully implemented and it takes time.”
Moran said addressing corruption in the region also takes time. She said Harris’ initiatives working with the private sector are “less ripe for corruption.”
"What is challenging about migration is that the real solutions are longer-term strategies, but people get weak in the knees in the short term when we have to let these policies bear out,” Moran said. “Administrations have done enforcement only. Trump focused on cruelty and chaos. It doesn't work. The call for the return to those types of policies is insane. These policies lead to death.”
But some experts said the United States needs a radical shift in its approach to the region.
Anita Isaacs, a professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania who focused on international affairs, governance and human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean at the Ford Foundation, said the Biden administration needs to look beyond pouring development assistance into the region and instead look at the role governments and wealthy elites in the region play in fueling migration.
Isaacs said the United States could investigate and apply pressure to the elites who are contributing to corruption in the region through sanctions and removing some of their visas.
Until the United States targets the system that creates conditions causing migrants to flee, “we're going to forever have … hundreds of thousands of people who are going to embark on this incredibly dangerous, perilous and uncertain journey," Isaacs said.
McFarland said the Biden administration should use the Treasury Department's ability to investigate people and companies and bar them from using the United States' financial system, as the federal government has done with Iran and Venezuela.
“The United States needs to decide what it needs from Central America,” McFarland said. “Does it need an effort to address internally the reasons that are pushing people to the United States? If so, it should make clear to those countries and to their private sectors that if they don't do it, then they're not going to have as much access as they used to trading with the United States and using the U.S. financial system.”
McFarland said that despite cooperation to address human trafficking and smuggling, there will continue to be trafficking networks because there is a demand for them..
“You're going to have law enforcement cooperation against these trafficking rings,” he said. "And as much as you have it, it'll never eliminate all of the trafficking, and people are still going to go through and you're still going to have cases like this.”
Immigration a key policy in the midterm elections
Biden must clearly explain to voters and lawmakers what his administration has accomplished on border security and immigration reform ahead of the November midterm elections, political experts said.
“The administration has good intentions and it's trying hard and it has carried out some things that are good,” said McFarland, the former ambassador. “What it really lacks, at least publicly, is an explanation of why doing all these things is going to make a difference.”
Since Biden took office, there have been record levels of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border in part because of economic concerns in Latin America and the hope that the new administration would be welcoming.
In May, U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered 239,416 migrants at the southwest border. The agency said 25% of those encounters included people who tried to cross the border at least one time before.
Michael Shifter, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank focused on international affairs and policy in the Western Hemisphere, said that because of the high numbers, immigration is going to be a key issue in some tight races.
Beyond immigration: ICE's massive surveillance system has info on most Americans, report says
Already, some Republican lawmakers and Democrats have latched onto immigration as a top policy issue alongside inflation and the economy.
After the tragedy in San Antonio, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said discussions were renewed with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., on finding a compromise on immigration reform, according to Politico.
Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, criticized the Biden administration’s immigration policies as “anything but compassionate.”
“This is the devastating reality of the crisis at our southern border,” Gonzales said in a statement Tuesday. “They have encouraged hundreds of thousands of migrants to rely on a ruthless smuggling industry run by cartels.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who has been critical of the Biden administration’s immigration policies, said he wants to see those who were involved in the tragedy be held accountable.
Cuellar, whose district is along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, criticized the Biden administration last year for not offering more relief for border towns shouldering the costs – financial and otherwise – to address record spikes in migration.
The Democratic congressman warned the United States needs to ensure that investigators “are doing the work” to find smuggling organizations in the Northern Triangle and Mexico, as well as getting cooperation from officials in the region.
Shifter noted, however, that countries in the region are using the midterm elections as leverage because they know the Biden administration needs the support of leaders in Mexico and the Northern Triangle.
“That's kind of the political game that they're playing,” Shifter said.
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden urged to do more on migration after 53 die in smuggling accident