Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.


Central America

Video: Migration Dynamics: Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities in the Northern Triangle

(Not sure why I’m making that facial expression.)

Many thanks to New York-based Network 20/20, an organization “that bridges the gap between the private sector and foreign policy worlds,” for inviting me to participate in a virtual panel last Thursday. With Elizabeth Oglesby of the University of Arizona and Diego de Sola of Glasswing International, we talked about the causes of migration away from Central America, and the good and bad of U.S. policies, past and present.

Immigration Opponents’ Falsehoods May Be Attracting Migrants

According to an America’s Voice-commissioned poll of 600 people in Central America:

  • 27% recall having heard or seen a US official or politician say “the border is open” within the last 6 months.
  • Among people who report they have heard politicians say “the border is open,” 35% state they believe with Title 42 ending, the Biden administration is cheering people on who cross the border. (Of those who haven’t heard US politicians say this, only 17% think that’s true.)

WOLA Podcast: The Complexity of Engaging with Central America

The birds in my backyard and I recorded a podcast with two WOLA colleagues who are longtime experts on Central America, just as the Biden administration goes into overdrive on a big new policy push to address the reasons why so many people migrate from the region. Here’s the text from the podcast landing page.

Top Biden administration officials, including Vice President Harris, are developing a new approach to Central America. The theme is familiar: addressing migration’s “root causes.” Violence and corruption, as well as relatively new factors such as climate change, have caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes seeking a better life.

This week’s podcast focuses both on the factors displacing people as well as what the U.S. government’s plans to address the displacement. Our President, Geoff Thale, as well as our director for Citizen Security, Adriana Beltran, talk with Adam Isacson about the Biden administration’s short and long-term plans for the region, what can be done to implement an effective anti-corruption strategy, how to protect marginalized groups/human rights defenders, and the political considerations that come with legislating on an issue that will certainly last beyond Biden’s time in office.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fight

Here’s a third WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, I talk to my colleagues Adriana Beltrán and Moses Ngong about the region’s fight against corruption: how unpunished corruption underlies so many other problems, who is fighting it, and how we must support them internationally with all we’ve got.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

The United States is in a transition period between the Trump and Biden administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

In this episode, a third in a series about the transition, we talk about corruption and efforts to fight it. WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong call corruption “endemic: a system, a network, a web of relations” that underlies many other problems in Latin America, from insecurity, to susceptibility to natural disasters, to forced migration.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.

The work of WOLA’s Mexico and Citizen Security programs often takes on corruption. Resources mentioned in the podcast include:

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered migration, and the week before we talked about U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. Next week, the series’ final episode will take on the state of human rights and democracy.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: How Corruption Continues to Erode Citizen Security in Central America

Here’s a podcast recorded last Friday with Adriana Beltran and Austin Robles from WOLA’s Central America / Citizen Security program. We talk mostly about setbacks to the anti-corruption fight in Guatemala and Honduras. Good thing we didn’t talk about El Salvador too much, because two days after this conversation, President Nayib Bukele set everything on fire there by bringing armed soldiers into the legislative chamber with an aggressive display.

I learned a lot about what’s happening just by hosting this. Here’s a direct download link.

Here’s the blurb on WOLA’s website.

Adriana Beltrán and Austin Robles of WOLA’s Citizen Security Program discuss the beleaguered fight against corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Their Central America Monitor tracks progress on eight indicators and closely watches over U.S. aid.

Can Trump really stop all aid to Central America? Yes, but not really.

The New York Times reports:

The State Department issued a statement late on Friday saying: “At the secretary’s instruction, we are carrying out the president’s direction and ending FY 2017 and FY 2018 foreign assistance programs for the Northern Triangle. We will be engaging Congress as part of this process.”

I’m not a lawyer, and not a foreign aid appropriator. I’ve asked a couple of people, but don’t know if I’ll get responses over the weekend. If I do, I’ll edit this post if necessary in blue text. But here’s why I don’t think President Trump’s “canceling” of aid to Central America’s Northern Triangle will succeed, except perhaps during the remainder of this fiscal year. It may be up to the judicial branch to sort this out.

1. The Constitution gives Congress “the power of the purse.”

Appropriations aren’t just suggestions. When Congress has specifically appropriated aid to a country, foreign aid law provides specific reasons why it can be canceled. These include military coups, gross human rights violations, drug decertifications, and others. “The president’s mad” isn’t one of those reasons.

Giving money that was prohibited from being appropriated was at the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. Not giving money that was specifically appropriated? Similar, with some exceptions noted below.

2. The Impoundment Control Act of 1974 specifically prohibits the president from withholding appropriated funds.

Under this law, rescinding funds requires congressional approval. Wikipedia explains: “The Act was passed in response to feelings in Congress that President Nixon was abusing his power of impoundment by withholding funding of programs he opposed.” Sound familiar?

3. Trump could abuse his reprogramming authority, but it would cost him.

Here’s where it gets tricker. What if the White House proposes not to withhold money, but to transfer the Central America aid to another country? There must still be nearly a billion dollars in the pipeline for 2017 and 2018. What if Trump wants to give it to, say, Israel instead?

He can do that—but there will be consequences. Section 634A of the Foreign Assistance Act only requires that Congress be notified in detail of any “reprogramming” of assistance, 15 days in advance.

But the president would pay a huge price if the reprogramming were to happen despite congressional opposition. Under longstanding custom, if the chairman of the responsible congressional committee receiving the notification disagrees with it, he/she can place a “hold” on it and keep it from happening. Negotiations usually ensue. If the president ignores the hold, it’s assumed that the committee chairman would retaliate against the president’s priorities in the next year’s funding bill. The “notification” requirement has teeth because you don’t want to piss off appropriators or authorizers who have power over your budget.

A similar episode is happening right now with the House defense committees. They were notified this week of a reprogramming of $1 billion from Defense Department personnel accounts into the Defense counter-drug account, which allows spending on barriers—Trump’s “border wall”—for counter-drug purposes. House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) responded to the notification with a letter refusing the reprogramming. Smith probably doesn’t have the power to do that, but the Pentagon may pay a big price in future budgets for defying him.

These two cases of massive reprogrammings in the face of strong congressional opposition are setting us up for a constitutional crisis. Why bother having an appropriations process at all if the executive branch can just go ahead and defy it anytime it wants by checking a “notification” box?

4. There’s some fuzzy “up to” language in the appropriation.

A potential minefield is in the 2018 appropriations law, which tells the State Department that “up to $615,000,000 may be made available for assistance for countries in Central America.” That “up to” language could be a problem: isn’t “zero dollars” technically an amount “up to $615 million?” But probably not, because of the next point.

5. But Central America aid must be spent as laid out in the bill’s report language.

The foreign aid bill comes with an explanatory statement that, for some countries, includes a table specifying exactly, line by line, how Congress intends the aid money to be spent for that country. Every year’s foreign aid appropriation law has included such a table for Central America in its explanatory statement.

Section 7019 of the 2018 foreign aid bill states plainly, “funds appropriated by this Act under titles III through V shall be made available in the amounts specifically designated in the respective tables included in the explanatory statement.” So never mind the “up to” language: Congress has required Central America to get specific amounts of funds according to a line-by-line table.

However: subsection (b) of Section 7019 does allow “deviations” from that table. But only “to respond to significant, exigent, or unforeseen events, or to address other exceptional circumstances directly related to the national interest.” The White House could seek to drive through that loophole by claiming that an “exceptional circumstance” calls for moving all aid away from Central America. However, 7019(b) also requires “prior consultation with, and the regular notification procedures of, the Committees on Appropriations” before any “deviation.” Consultation is more than just notification, so using the 7019(b) loophole would involve a big battle between the Trump administration and appropriators.

6. Some government-to-government aid could be reprogrammed through “decertification.”

The aid for the central governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras came with conditions. 25 percent of it stays “in the freezer” until the Secretary of State certifies that those countries are doing more to discourage migration and combat smuggling. Another 50 percent is held up until the Secretary certifies that those countries are making improvements on twelve measures regarding human rights, citizen security, anti-corruption, and similar values.

If those countries are determined not to be making progress, that 75 percent can be reprogrammed away to other countries.

Note, though, that this condition only applies to aid to the central governments of those countries. Aid to provincial or municipal governments, judicial branches, or non-governmental entities is not affected by this certification requirement. So this is probably not the vehicle the administration would choose if it wants to attempt a total cutoff of aid to Central America.

It’s going to be a battle.

No matter what, it could take a few months for Congress—and who knows, maybe the courts—to resolve this. In the meantime, if you’re Russia or China, or even Iran, and you want to spend a little money filling a vacuum of diplomatic and economic engagement deep in the United States’ backyard, then this is your moment to write some checks and strike up some new relationships.

This isn’t an aid package

Today the U.S. and Mexican governments announced what looks like a bombshell: a monster $10.6 billion package of new U.S. aid to address the root causes of migration. $5.8 billion of it for Central America, $4.8 billion for Mexico. “US pledges $10.6B aid for Central America, southern Mexico,” an AP headline gushes.

Not so fast. There’s almost nothing new here. And there’s no new grant aid here. The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff and Mary Beth Sheridan get it right:

Of the total $10.6 billion referenced in Tuesday’s announcement, it appears the only new figure is the $4.5 billion in potential loans, loan guarantees and related services through OPIC. That money would facilitate private-sector activity and would be repaid, unlike traditional development assistance through USAID

“OPIC” is the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that provides loans and loan guarantees to private enterprises seeking to make investments in developing countries. The additional money is loans, not aid. It all has to be paid back.

And they’re loans to the private sector—which are not going to address root causes of mass migration from Central America. They won’t reform police, fight corruption, fix justice systems, or anything else that makes threatened people safer from gangs. Private sector loans are hugely unlikely to help struggling small farmers in the Northern Triangle’s countryside. (Unless they choose to leave the countryside and get low-wage jobs in OPIC-financed factories.) These loans will mainly help a tiny elite get wealthier in one of the most unequal regions on the planet.

Here’s how it breaks down:

The $2.1 billion in grant aid listed here is all old money, already committed for 2015 through 2018. Except for $180 million, which is what the Trump administration proposes here in grant aid to Central America for 2019. If approved, that would be a two-thirds cut in 2015-18 aid levels!

It won’t be: for 2019 the House approved $595 million for Central America, and the Senate $515.5 million. If Congress ever passes a 2019 foreign aid budget, it’ll end up giving Central America a multiple of the $180 million proposed here, to help address the causes of migration.

So this is an aid cut and a repackaging of already-given aid and loans, masquerading as a historically generous “Marshall Plan.” Don’t fall for it. And resist this level of cynicism.

Last Month’s U.S. Government Reports Relevant to Latin America

Good discussion today about the origins of Central America’s violence

We covered a lot of ground in an hour and a half. To the extent that we left the audience with a conclusion: Central America has taken some initial steps to get at the causes of violence. These steps are fragile and risk reversal. This fight is going to be long and complicated, probably requiring fundamental institutional and even ethical changes.

Many thanks to Steve Hege and the U.S. Institute of Peace for inviting me to participate. Here’s just the audio:

Charts: migration at the U.S.-Mexico border in August

This afternoon, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported on its apprehensions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in August. While it was a slightly higher August than usual, it saw a jump in arrivals of children and families seeking asylum. The Trump Homeland Security Department lamented the increase in asylum-seekers, and blamed the rise on its inability to ratchet up the cruelty by detaining families indefinitely:

While the overall numbers are consistent with an expected seasonal increase, the number of family units along the Southwest border increased 38 percent – 3,500 more than July and the highest August on record.  Smugglers and traffickers understand our broken immigration laws better than most and know that if a family unit illegally enters the U.S. they are likely to be released into the interior.  Specifically, DHS is required to release families entering the country illegally within 20 days of apprehension.

Again, overall migration was slightly higher than, but not unusual for, the past seven Augusts. (August 2017, coming after a historic migration slowdown that followed Trump’s inauguration, is an outlier.)

In fact, of the 71 months since October 2012, August 2018 was 17th in overall migration. That puts it in the top 25 percent of the past six years, barely.

However, when you look at the percentage of migrants who came as unaccompanied children or members of family units, August 2018 ranks fourth, with nearly half. This is a remarkable shift: before fiscal year 2014, this proportion had never exceeded 20 percent.

As in the past several years, most protection-seeking kids and families are coming from Central America’s hyper-violent “Northern Triangle” countries. First is Guatemala, which has a higher population than the other two (Honduras and El Salvador) combined).

Migrants from Honduras, which suffered a disputed election in late November and has higher violent crime rates than Guatemala, are in a not-too-distant second place.

Migration from El Salvador has been curiously low this year, hardly recovering from the 2017 post-Trump slump. It could be that migration has been depressed by the Trump administration’s highly contested decision to end Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans living in the United States. However, apprehensions of Salvadoran kids and families have been slowly rising since February, as the country suffers yet another violent year.

What about Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian government has been carrying out a wave of repression since protests broke out in April? It’s hard to tell, exactly, because CBP only gives numbers for the Northern Triangle and Mexico. While the numbers remain low, though, Mexico’s apprehensions of Nicaraguans are up sharply as of July. And U.S. apprehensions of kids and families who aren’t from Mexico and the Northern Triangle—a category that probably includes many Nicaraguans—are also up sharply.

Snapshots from the border

I’m just back from a quick 3-day trip to the very farthest southern part of Texas, known as the Rio Grande Valley region.

This is by far the “busiest” of all sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border. It has the most undocumented migration, the largest number of Central American migrants seeking protection from violence, and (according to local Border Patrol, measured by weight) the most illegal drug seizures. It’s where the Trump administration, in its 2018 budget request, wants to build 60 miles of new border wall.

Looking across the Rio Grande at Reynosa, Mexico on Monday morning at Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas. This is pretty much the last densely populated area of the U.S.-Mexico border that doesn’t have a fence.

Families from Central America on Monday evening. They were just released from Border Patrol custody with notices to appear before immigration courts to hear their requests for asylum or protected status in the United States. After getting bus tickets to their destination cities, many stop at Catholic Charities’ Respite Center in McAllen. The Center was so full—more than 100 people on site—that many sitting here out back, where a volunteer distributed bag dinners.

Tuesday in Falfurrias, Texas, the seat of Brooks County, about 80 miles north of the border. There’s a Border Patrol checkpoint on the highway near here. Migrants walk through the surrounding ranchland to avoid it. Dozens die every year trying to do that, of dehydration, hypothermia, and exposure. Of all nine U.S.-Mexico Border Patrol sectors, Rio Grande Valley is first in the number of migrant remains encountered. And most are found near here, far from the border itself.

In an effort to prevent migrant deaths, Eddie Canales (red shirt) of the South Texas Human Rights Center puts out water stations like this one in the countryside around Falfurrias.

The Catholic Church-run migrant shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, on Wednesday. Shelter staff say they have been very full lately. Most occupants are deported Mexican citizens, most of them ICE deportees from the eastern United States. A minority are Central American families headed northward. Migrants are encouraged not to stay too long here, as the organized-crime groups that dominate Matamoros seek to kidnap or recruit them.

Looking west at the U.S. side of the river Wednesday while crossing the border bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros.

Looking east at the U.S. side of the river Wednesday while crossing the border bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville.

At 4 Common Misconceptions about U.S.-bound Drug Flows through Mexico and Central America

Graph of cocaine seizures showing Mexico far down the list.

This brief piece at wola’s website is for anyone who seems to think that you can fight opioids by aiding Central America, that a border wall can stop drugs, that gangs like MS-13 ship drugs to the United States, or that Mexico stops a lot of northbound cocaine.

I leaned heavily on my database to cite facts that aren’t, but should be, well known about how the drug trade works in the Mexico-Central America “transit zone.”

View it here.

The first increase in cross-border migration under Trump

Chart of monthly migrant apprehensions October 2011-May 2017In mid-April, amid evidence that Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was driving new migration to lows not seen in decades, I wrote the following prediction:

WOLA predicts that, within a few months, migration numbers will increase from their present levels, despite the Trump administration’s tough rhetoric. These numbers are unlikely to return to the unusually high levels of late 2016 which, as we note in the discussion of migrant smuggling below, were also part of a “Trump effect.” Instead, monthly apprehensions are more likely to return to a level that is a rough average of the current extremely low amount and late 2016’s extreme highs.

That seems to be happening now. Customs and Border Protection released new data today on the number of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border during the month of May. For the first time since Trump was inaugurated, this number is creeping up again.

From April to May:

  • Overall apprehensions of migrants rose 31 percent at the border. (The general belief is that the number of non-apprehended migrants probably rose at a similar rate, so this gives us a rough idea of overall migration trends.)
  • Apprehensions of unaccompanied children, most of them from Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries, rose a surprising 50 percent.
  • Apprehensions of members of “family units”—at least one parent and child, again mostly from the “Northern Triangle”—rose 41 percent.
The overall number of apprehensions is still lower than February, and far lower than the final months of the Obama administration. Still, the May percentage increase was much sharper than a standard April-May seasonal rise.

There’s no way to know whether this is a trend: for all we know, migration could decline again. But it’s a timely reminder that high levels of violence persist in Central America, and that migrant smugglers aren’t planning to go out of business.

A “Trump Effect?”: New WOLA Podcast on migration and the border

I recorded a new WOLA Podcast this morning with colleagues Maureen Meyer and Hannah Smith from WOLA’s Mexico and Migration programs:

U.S. statistics showed a sharp drop in migration from Mexico, and especially from Central America, in February. WOLA’s Adam Isacson, Maureen Meyer, and Hannah Smith talk about what is happening and what now awaits migrants who seek asylum or refuge. They discuss observations from February and March travel to southern Mexico, the U.S.-aided Southern Border Plan, and the increasing number of Central Americans who, fleeing violence, are deciding to seek asylum in Mexico rather than enter the United States. They weigh the grave impact that the Trump administration’s proposed policies are having on refugees even before they go into effect.

(Here’s the mp3 file. And here’s the podcast feed.)

February migration: a blip, or a “new normal?”

Chart of monthly migration since 2011

The U.S. Border Patrol reported apprehending 18,762 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in February. This is the lowest number of migrants encountered in any month since 2000, the first year for which Border Patrol makes monthly records available [PDF]. The sharpest drops were in the number of unaccompanied children (1,922, down from over 7,000 in November and December) and members of family units (3,124, down from over 16,000 in December).

Does this mean that, just days into his presidency, Donald Trump’s hardline policies are working?

It’s obviously too early to say that. But the promise of Trump’s coming crackdown has had at least a temporary effect. At the Mexico-Guatemala border in mid-February, migrant shelter personnel told us that they had been at capacity until mid-January, when the numbers of new arrivals dropped sharply. Some joked of an efecto Trump.

We’ll know whether this is a blip or a “new normal” when four factors become clearer.

  1. Was the sharp February drop a result of smugglers’ messaging? Migrant smugglers in Central America were urging potential customers to get to the United States before the new wall-building president’s arrival in office (“El Malo” or “El Feo,” the Washington Post says they called him). A smuggler-induced rush to beat an imagined January 20 deadline might explain the subsequent lull. But smugglers will come up with new sales pitches, so if this is the reason for the drop, numbers may increase again.
  2. Are children and families still crossing, but not turning themselves in? Until now, most Central American unaccompanied children and families were not seeking to evade Border Patrol when they crossed into the United States. They sought agents out and asked to be processed for asylum. It could be that, due to news of Trump’s crackdown, migrants—perhaps coached by their smugglers—are opting to avoid Border Patrol agents. If more are indeed avoiding apprehension, then the February apprehension statistic would naturally be lower.
  3. Are more Central Americans opting to stay in Mexico? A surprising number of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran migrants with whom we spoke in southern Mexico last month said they had no real desire to come to the United States. They just wanted to be anywhere safe from gang violence. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 20,000 of them will apply for asylum in Mexico this year, up from about 8,000 last year and about 5,000 in 2015.
    It will be interesting to see whether the monthly apprehension numbers from the Mexican government’s National Migration Institute go down as sharply as the Border Patrol’s did in February. If they stay the same, or don’t decline as sharply, that would tell us that Central Americans are still fleeing violence in great numbers—they’re just not trying to come to the United States.
  4. Is a seasonal increase coming? Though child and family migration doesn’t follow these patterns as closely, the winter months and the hottest summer months tend to be the lowest for northward migration. Late February is when migration starts to pick up again, and April through June are usually the heaviest months of the year. We’ll have to wait and see if that happens again this year. Shelter staff in southern Mexico said that arrivals had begun to increase again in mid-February.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.