On February 23, the Biden administration published a “notice of proposed rulemaking” to refuse asylum to migrants who did not first seek protection in the countries they traveled through to reach the US southern border. The change effectively resurrects Donald Trump’s asylum ban, rendering nearly all applicants ineligible for protections.
Even with the low bar for reform set by the Biden White House, the announcement is a betrayal. It’s a cruel, needless decision that will cause harm and suffering to thousands or perhaps millions of people seeking survival in the United States. The United States received over 202,000 asylum affirmative applications in 2022 alone, plus another 68,300 defensive claims from migrants in deportation proceedings.
Biden’s asylum ban appears to be another instance of the Democrats’ cherished strategy of losing to the Republicans by implementing slightly weaker versions of the latter’s policies. But the bipartisan war on migrants points to a more profound crisis, indicating the destabilization of the conditions that, for decades, have structured the uneven movement of capital and labor across the US border.
Changing Enforcement Logics
US recourse to migrant containment, border militarization, and mass deportation is nothing new. In the decades prior to the global financial crisis, however, these methods were deployed more in the service of exploitation than expulsion.
Mass migration has been constitutive of neoliberal restructuring on both sides of the border. The fallout from US-imposed structural adjustment and free trade displaced vast sectors of the Mexican and Central American working class, peasant, and indigenous populations, whose devalued labor fueled the deindustrializing US economy. Migrant remittances, in turn, came to represent up to a quarter of GDP in countries like El Salvador.
In this context, the progressive criminalization of migration since the 1980s did not serve so much to expel or exclude migrant workers as to ensure they would be more severely exploited in segmented US labor markets.
Until recently, this arrangement suited capital just fine. Companies were free to reap extraordinary surplus from criminalized migrant labor in services, construction, and agriculture in the United States, while those workers’ remittances supplemented the poverty wages paid out to their families back home by the multinationals exporting palm oil or subcontracting to the region’s maquiladoras and call centers.
But in the extended period of instability and crisis since the 2007 market crash, this asymmetrical but mutually sustaining relationship between the United States and its neighbors has been unsettled. In the wake of the financial crisis, US deportations have reached unprecedented heights, and Democratic and Republican administrations alike have advanced policies to fortify what Mike Davis called the “Great Wall of Capital” between the United States and its neighbors.
Changing Migrant Populations
The last fifteen years has seen dramatic changes in the material conditions in which working people make their lives on both sides of the border. These transformations are reflected in the numbers, composition, and strategies of migrants arriving at the US southern border.
The Great Recession and its aftermath had a disproportionate impact on the labor markets that long relied heavily on the exploitation of racialized and criminalized migrant labor, such as construction and hospitality. The service sector, especially restaurants and hospitality, took another devastating hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many Mexican migrants, especially undocumented workers, left the United States during the recession. As Mexican migration declined, however, migration from elsewhere in Latin America began to climb, propelled by converging crises of economic downturn, ecological collapse, and the global pandemic.
As a result, the population intercepted at the US-Mexico border is no longer dominated by single, job-seeking Mexican men. Instead, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data is increasingly made up of asylum-seeking women, children, and families from Central and South America and the Caribbean.
CBP euphemistically registers those detained or turned away at the border as “enforcement encounters.” “Encounters” with people from the northern Central American nations of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, on the rise since 2011, surpassed those from Mexico for the first time in 2017. From just under sixteen thousand “unaccompanied minors” intercepted in 2011, CBP registered over seventy-six thousand in 2019, 83 percent of them from northern Central America. Women, who comprised 13 percent of southwest border “encounters” in 2011, made up 63 percent in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic further destabilized these trends. Overall numbers spiked, with CBP interceptions topping 2.3 million in 2022 — up from 1.7 million in 2021 and 850,508 in 2019.
The makeup of migrant populations has also shifted in the pandemic’s wake. In 2022, northern Central Americans comprised just under 23 percent of “encounters,” with Mexicans at 34 percent. The largest group, 42.6 percent, came from elsewhere, led by asylum seekers from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, where US sanctions have multiplied the destructive effects of the pandemic and impeded recovery.
Two Steps Back
These evolving material realities form the backdrop against which the struggle over US immigration policy has played out in recent years. Each concession wrung out of the government by movements for migrant justice has been accompanied by an uptick in repression at the border.
Title 42 is a case in point. Over 2.5 million asylum seekers have been turned away or deported since the Trump administration initiated Title 42 expulsions under public health pretenses in March of 2020.
The Biden administration worked half-heartedly to terminate the emergency mechanism, finally setting a date for its expiration this spring. Title 42 is scheduled to end on May 11, but now it will be replaced with something more permanent: Biden’s new asylum ban takes effect the same day.
Even as it prepared to abandon Title 42, the White House expanded it in January to include the expulsion of migrants from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua into Mexico, while exempting those from Ukraine. To soften the blow, the administration simultaneously announced a two-year “humanitarian parole” program from migrants from those four countries who could claim financial sponsors in the United States. Monthly applications would be capped at thirty thousand; CBP intercepted 77,034 migrants from Cuba and Nicaragua in December alone.
This humanitarian half-measure joins programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in a patchwork of provisional executive shields from deportation for an exceptional few. While Joe Biden quietly abandoned modest immigration reform in the Senate, he expanded TPS to include qualified migrants from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Ukraine, Venezuela, Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, and Yemen and renewed the provision for those from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
TPS-holders receive lawful work permits but no pathway to legal permanent residency. A matter of Department of Homeland Security discretion, TPS must be renewed every eighteen months. Like DACA recipients, beneficiaries are subject to stringent screening and scrutiny, as well as perpetual uncertainty and instability.
For sociologist David Feldman, these trends suggest a “nascent project of militarized migration management.” This strategy couples scorched-earth tactics at the border with the designation of flexible “pools of authorized — yet ultimately deportable — noncitizen workers subject to a wide array of restrictions and surveillance” that can more rapidly adapt to the changing demands of capital.
The Root of the Problem
In this context of crisis and contradiction, US foreign policy toward Latin America is increasingly framed in terms of addressing the “root causes” of migration.
Root-causes discourse emerged in the context of the US-made Central American child migrant crisis of 2014. The media frenzy spawned a slew of policy proposals for US aid and investment in the region, each less ambitious than the last.
Barack Obama led the charge with the “Alliance for Prosperity.” The plan, which then vice president Biden called a “Plan Colombia for Central America,” incentivized foreign investment and conditioned US aid on Central American border militarization and compliance with deportations. Under Trump, these State Department–led initiatives took a backseat to explicitly military priorities.
Back in the White House again, Biden has now tasked Vice President Kamala Harris with heading up the US approach to Central America. After dispatching the vice president to Guatemala to issue her notorious “Do Not Come” mandate, the White House debuted a “Strategy to Address the Root Causes of Migration in Central America” that identified economic insecurity and inequality, corruption, human and civil rights violations, criminal activity, and gender violence as factors contributing to migration.
Under this framework, Harris’s Partnership for Central America (PCA), an NGO led by a former McKinsey partner, claims to have secured $4.2 billion in commitments for private sector investment in the region from companies like Meta, Microsoft, Nestlé, and Pepsi. PCA initiatives include a “strategic partnership” with the Canadian firm Diversio, “the world’s first AI DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] analytics platform” with the goal of furthering “gender parity in supply chains.”
These self-serving efforts fall short of the reparations due to the region for the bloody history of US counterrevolutionary violence. To the contrary, they continue to position Central America as a site for US appropriation and extraction, reproducing the isthmus’s subordinate position in a US-led globalized economy and, by extension, intensifying the very processes of displacement and dispossession that they profess to prevent.
But even the best-intentioned of Democratic policy interventions miss a critical point. Liberal development discourse identifies the “root causes” of mass migration as deficiencies located within Central American societies. This is an old story, with roots in colonization and a pedigree that runs squarely through Walter Whitman Rostow’s 1960 Stages of Economic Growth. This framing posits the conditions associated with underdevelopment as a regrettable stage prior to economic development, which can be overcome through the judicious application of the appropriate public policies.
The reality, however, is that Central America’s so-called underdevelopment is the necessary outcome of development in countries like the United States. These are inseparable histories of accumulation and exploitation that structure the uneven development of the capitalist world system. This is true of the historical relationship between Latin America’s colonization and European industrialization, but it’s also true of the patterns of mass Latin American migration that have powered the US economy throughout the neoliberal period.
Post-pandemic, Central American migrants have been outnumbered by those fleeing crises compounded by US sanctions in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. These developments suggest that any efforts to remedy the disparities between the United States and its southern neighbors must also include relief from the suffocating impacts of sanctions. The real root causes of migration lie in these imperialist relations of dependency.
The War on Migrants
Instead of the typical sixty, the Biden administration has limited the public comment period on the asylum ban to thirty days. This move has done nothing to suppress the widespread outcry from migrant justice organizations and advocates, who have unanimously condemned the ban as illegal, racist, and inhumane.
Biden might have acted on his promise to expand asylum criteria to better meet the human rights and humanitarian needs at the border. Instead, he has continued the imperialist assault on the racialized poor, while carving out temporary and contingent categories of relief for a small few.