The US coordinator for the southern border acknowledged Wednesday that the Biden administration’s messaging to Central American migrants has been inconsistent as a crisis continues to escalate at the southern border.
“When you look at the issue of mixed messages, it is difficult at times to convey both hope in the future and the danger that is now,” said Roberta Jacobson during a White House press briefing.
Since taking office, President Biden has taken pains to present its approach as more “humane” than the stringent immigration policies of his Oval Office predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
But, with thousands of Central American migrants flooding the border — including unaccompanied children — in recent weeks, White House press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly said that now is not the time to make the “dangerous” journey, a message reiterated Wednesday by Jacobson in both English and Spanish.
“We are trying to send both messages,” said Jacobson, who served as ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018. “And smugglers are only trying to send one message.”
Jacobson conceded that Biden’s campaign promises of a more welcoming approach to immigration may have spurred the current surge at the border — but claimed that was in part due to smugglers willing to “spread disinformation” to migrants desperate to get across after four years of “pent-up demand” under Trump.
“We’ve seen surges before. Surges tend to respond to hope,” she said. “There was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of pent-up demand.
“I don’t know whether I would call that a coincidence, but I certainly think that the idea that a more humane policy would be in place may have driven people to make that decision,” she continued. “But perhaps more importantly, it definitely drove smugglers to … spread disinformation about what was now possible.”
The solution, Jacobson said, was reform of avenues for legal immigration to make illegal crossings less appealing.
To that end, Jacobson announced the resumption of the Central American Minors program, which reunites children outside the country with parents who are in the United States legally.
The program, originally established under President Barack Obama in 2014, was terminated by Trump in 2017.
Additionally, the Biden administration is seeking some $4 billion over four years to direct toward fixing the “root causes” of mass migration from Central America, including corruption, violence, poor economic conditions and climate change, Jacobson said.
“Only by addressing those root causes can we break the cycle of desperation and provide hope for families who clearly would prefer to stay in their countries and provide a better future for their children,” she said.
But Jacobson conceded that there was only so much the US could do to incentivize would-be migrants to stay in their own countries and ensure the funds don’t simply disappear in nations where corruption runs rampant.
“We will work with officials that we can work with, but we also think it’s really important that these countries make commitments — really explicit commitments — to advancing on anti-corruption,” she said. “In some places, that will be hard to do if you’ve got officials for whom there is a cloud. … It’s a challenge in countries that have confronted serious corruption risks.”
Jacobson, a 31-year veteran of the US Department of State, stressed the importance of end-use monitoring and putting the funds toward tangible aids to reform, as opposed to delivering lump sums of money.
“It’s not handing over blank checks, and I think that’s really important in this,” she said.
In the interim, however, Jacobson said it was crucial that migrants understand that most who try to come illegally will be sent back.
“I want to be clear, neither this announcement nor any of the other measures suggests that anyone, especially children and families with young children, should make the dangerous trip to try and enter the US in an irregular fashion,” she said.
The distinction, however, was lost on Republican leaders, who have decried the border crisis.
“The Administration is flailing and failing on our southern border,” tweeted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as Jacobson spoke. “The number of unaccompanied children has tripled in two weeks.
“The White House keeps saying ‘Now is not the time to come,’ ” continued McConnell. “So there will be a good time in the future to break federal law and come illegally?”