U.S. officials met in Guatemala on Tuesday to discuss the Trump administration’s new ‘Zero Tolerance’ immigration policy with their counterparts from Central America and Mexico, with an emphasis on increased border policing and regional intelligence sharing about migrants and gangs, as well as more effective public messaging to dissuade people from illegal migration.
The U.S. delegation, led by Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, made specific proposals requested by Vice President Mike Pence during a meeting of the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador last month, according to an official agenda of Tuesday's meeting obtained by Univision. At the June 28 meeting, Pence delivered a blunt message calling on the leaders of the so-called Northern Triangle to do more to stop migrants seeking to enter the United States illegally.
“This exodus must end,” Pence told them.
Tuesday’s five-hour meeting, also attended by Mexican Foreign Secretary, Luis Videgaray, was mostly focused on measures to improve border security, and combat human smuggling and trafficking, with a goal of agreeing on detailed measures prior to a Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America in August.
The agenda included the discussion of ways to improve the process of repatriation of migrants, including the passing of information in real time between governments, as well as the delivery of quick information on the process of reuniting separated families.
The Trump administration has so far been reluctant to discuss specific commitments regarding family reunification. But the foreign ministers made their fellings clear. "Separating children from their parents in a cruel and inhuman action,” said Videgaray.
Honduran Foreign Minister María Dolores Agüero said that in order to successfully reduce the illegal flow of migrants, Honduras was working on programs to generate employment, as well as combating drug trafficking and human trafficking. "The well-being of Central America is the well-being of the United States. In that sense. the primordial goal that should unite us all is attacking trhe structural causes of migration," she said.
Plenty of stick, but no carrot
Critics say U.S. policy is heavy on sticks but offers little in the way of carrots to the governments of the region. “If the U.S. is serious about addressing irregular migration from the Northern Triangle, it should first look at the conditions forcing people to flee: the rampant violence, inequality and endemic corruption," said Adriana Beltran, director of Citizen Security at WOLA.
"Given the urgency of the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, Secretary Nielsen ought to focus on making clear to the ministers of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that until they can prioritize, fund, and support long-term programs to combat violence and corruption, their citizens at home will face dangerous conditions,” she added.
There was no discussion on Tuesday about development issues or U.S. funding for social programs in the region, according to the official agenda, nor was the issue of undocumented immigrants already in the United States raised. Honduras has tried to use the meeting as a lever to request a rethinking of the Trump administration's decision earlier this year to cancel a program that protects 56,000 undocumented Honduran immigrants in the United States from deportation, known as TPS (Temporary Protected Status).
However, Tuesday’s agenda did include discussion of drug trafficking and the gang problem, including Pence's demands that Northern Triangle countries beef up prosecution of gang extortion, increasing the size of the border police forces in the region and operations to dismantle human smuggling operations, according to a 'readout' of the meeting with DHS released on Wednesday.
Pence has called on Honduras to double its border police force from 400 to 800 agents, and to pick an effective Attorney General who will continue to prosecute corrupt officials and criminal organizations involved in smuggling, according to diplomatic sources.
Tuesday’s meeting also included discussion of efforts to expand intelligence sharing agreements, including the creation of a Regional Intelligence Center to better coordinate the efforts to stamp out human trafficking. The Northern Triangle countries already have Criminal History Information Sharing (CHIS) Agreements with the United States which provide biometrically based sharing of biographic data and criminal record information.
The U.S. has also invited Honduras and Guatemala to participate in a Joint Border Intelligence Group in El Salvador to improve intelligence and law enforcement information sharing to better target human smuggling networks and gangs, the diplomatic sources said.