Michael Paarlberg on diaspora communities, the Northern Triangle, and optics.
We’re following up last week’s piece Manufactured Migration, with another interview about immigration in the US – if it isn’t clear already, the border will keep being used as a primary tool for campaigning. See for example Eric Schmitt, Missouri’s Attorney General, and Senate candidate, campaigning on the lawlessness of an ‘open’ southern border 1000 miles away from the southern border.
Or, see how a south Texas congressional runoff between two Democrats, Henry Cuellar and Jessica Cisneros, garners national media attention.
The optics are bad for everyone – they’re easy to weaponize and hard to explain. But we’ll keep trying. Today, we dig into Michael Paarlberg’s research on the diaspora, security, and immigration policy.
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This interview with Michael Paarlberg, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, was conducted and condensed by Tatti Ribeiro for franknews.
I teach and research Latin American politics, immigration, research methods and statistics. I also focus on the politics of diasporas and citizen security. My professional background is as a journalist, and before that, in the US labor movement.
I was Senator Bernie Sanders's chief Latin America advisor for his 2020 campaign. I should be clear though that I speak only for myself, not for him.
How did you end up focusing on Latin America?
I'm not Latin American myself, I'm Korean American. My father worked for the State Department as a foreign service officer. I moved around a lot as a kid and I grew up partly in Panama. I just stayed focused on the region – especially Central America.
In terms of the border, progressives spend a lot of time talking about solving the underlying issues causing large flows of migration. What are some of those issues – and how can they be addressed through US foreign policy or US domestic policy?
It's good you mentioned both. You can't separate foreign policy from domestic policy and you can't separate, especially when it comes to migration from Latin America, immigration policy and the US role in the region – the two are very much intertwined and oftentimes in a counterproductive way.
I focus a lot on gangs. The gang crisis in the Northern Triangle of Central America did not start in Central America. The gangs themselves started in Los Angeles. Barrio 18, the 18th Street gang, is named after 18th street in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. They were made up of Central American refugees, but of course these were refugees from a war that the United States helped to prolong. It wasn't started by the US, but certainly the US played a significant role in El Salvador's 12 year civil war, the much longer civil war in Guatemala, and conflicts throughout the region.
Migration study scholars talk about push and pull factors of migration. In the US, these gangs were a problem, a source of crime, yet they weren't a big problem for Central America until the US essentially exported these gangs to Central America through our deportation system. In particular, two laws passed in the nineties under the Clinton administration that made it much easier to deport people for much pettier offenses. This inundated countries with a large number of unemployed, poorly socialized young men with criminal records. These are poor countries with limited resources that did not have the capacity to deal with this sudden, and sustained over decades, influx. These gangs constituted themselves in Central America. They began extorting people, they began killing people. This led to a security crisis throughout the Northern Triangle region, which pushed a lot of people to migrate. The response by governments, both in the US and in Central America, have been zero tolerance policing, harsh crackdowns, which spur more conflict and feed the gangs with both recruits and victims, and drive more people north.
It's a vicious circle – and this is just one source of migration. It's a good example of how US foreign policy and migration and deportation policy are linked together, but are not coordinating in such a way that would be helpful. It ends up both destabilizing that region, and having what is considered bad consequences in the US, which is these successive migration crises.
So now what? What is the US supposed to do with this legacy?
At different times they've focused almost entirely on the criminal security angle and doing so almost entirely from an enforcement perspective, through security assistance. That has been empirically shown not to work and actually to be counterproductive. I would say the Biden administration is thinking more holistically about encouraging, for example, foreign direct investment. At the same time, the World Bank and IMF have tried to address the pandemic, which is also something that has exacerbated job and food insecurity, other big push factors.
So far, we have not seen a clear solution and certainly there's no magic bullet. One thing that is not talked about enough is that the biggest source of foreign capital, money into these countries, isn't from US assistance. It's not from the IMF, it's not from foreign direct investment from multinational companies. It's from the families themselves, from the remittances that they send. This is another reason why immigration policy and foreign policy should be better linked.
As much as 20 to 25% of the GDP of Central American countries comes from remittances from family members living in the US. So if the US wants to encourage economic growth and therefore discourage people from leaving, it's important that those sources of money continue. Having a rational immigration system, one that does not see mass deportation as a solution, is one that actually helps those countries stabilize.
There is a mutual dependence between the United States and Latin America, particularly when you look at labor – but comprehensive immigration reform seems far off.
Both Republicans and Democrats have talked about immigration reform – usually in the context of some form of relief for certain people who are undocumented in this country, maybe not necessarily amnesty, but we talk about a path to citizenship for Dreamers or expanded TPS or these other patchwork things, in exchange for tighter border security.
This resulted in more funding for Border Patrol, more fencing. Trump did not come up with the wall. There is a wall, or barrier along most of the border. This bipartisan agreement has been the framework for a never fulfilled promise of comprehensive immigration reform. In reality we've seen only one side of it, which is the border enforcement side.
The Trump administration famously used a lot more internal enforcement, these are ICE teams that would go around and look for people to process for deportation who were without status in the interior of the country.
Democratic administrations tend to deprioritize interior removals and focus more on the border. There are different approaches by different administrations, but these are more about priorities. Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans determines what parts of the system get more resources and public promotion.
The other thing that's a public component are these patchwork relief programs for certain populations that are broadly sympathetic with the public – like DACA recipients, or Ukrainian refugees. What’s not talked about is opening more paths for people to come if we want people to come legally. If we want to take some burden off the asylum system, there should be more visas under more categories. An overhaul of the immigration system that gives more opportunities to people who have reasons for wanting to come here other than persecution, and who have skills they could contribute to our economy, would be better than everyone going through this one overloaded asylum system.
There's been a broader view of push factors and how to address those push factors, but there hasn't been an equally broad view of the pull factors.
US government tinkering with Latin America has not always been helpful, so when you talk about foreign policy, especially from a progressive perspective, what is “good” government involvement?
It's important to acknowledge the history. It's important to look practically at what the results of past policies are today and what the US government can realistically be doing now. It’s relevant in terms of the US having a bad reputation in many countries from a long history of propping up oppressive regimes and undermining democratic ones, and not having the credibility to address these issues.
Because of the shared history and the geographic proximity, there's a very large Central American diaspora in the United States. Regardless of whether the US’s legacy in the region was good or bad, and I would say it was on the whole more negative, it does create a very large community, a large constituency that has a powerful voice in their home countries, or their parents' home countries – as well as in the United States. And that's an important reality that the US can and should engage with constructively.
First of all, the people who know the country best are the people who are from those countries, and they should have a seat at the table. They should have the first seat at the table.
Secondly, in terms of listening to the diaspora, there should also be investment in undoing some of the legacies of previous policies. Policies we can now acknowledge had bad results – things like zero tolerance policing, security assistance to repressive governments, papering over constitutional coups, undermining anti-corruption efforts, all of which lead to political destabilization. Taking a more holistic approach as opposed to simply a security approach.
This sounds a little vague, maybe it would help if I could give one example. There's research on how to make things slightly better in the criminal justice system. For example, there have been randomized controlled experiments done in El Salvador which have shown if you give more resources to public defenders, public defenders are more likely to be able to get people out of jail on bail while they're awaiting trial. The prison system in El Salvador is enormously overcrowded. Jails are at 200%-400% capacity. The government has ceded control of prisons to gangs as a negotiation tactic. This is all to say that the gangs are powerful because they control the prisons. They rule the streets from the inside. Simply reducing the prison population would help take away some of that power from the gangs. These are small ways to tinker, to undo the pernicious effects of mano dura policing.
Do you focus a lot on this sort of thing in your research?
In my book project I focus more on the diaspora itself. How do diaspora communities impact politics in their home countries? And what do governments, politicians and political parties do to engage with the diaspora? Any country that has a large diaspora community, anywhere in the world, how do they recognize the power that the diaspora has, whether they vote, run for office, or donate money. A lot of them are kingmakers in politics – some without necessarily trying to be: simply by sending remittances back home, they have a voice. The diaspora has a lot of power. They are respected and in some ways feared by home country governments, and they know the situation better than anyone else.
If there's a policy prescriptive conclusion to it, it's that the US government needs to engage with the diaspora. It needs to ask these communities for input if they want to have an effective impact.
Does the US government engage with these diaspora communities currently?
Yes, they do. Not much officially. But there are State Department officials who arrange meetings with community groups. A lot of times these groups are organized through certain types of organizations like hometown associations. Sometimes they will be engaged through houses of worship, NGOs, sometimes there'll be student groups, there's no single group for any particular country. I feel like that kind of outreach is just getting started.
We keep coming back to immigration with new questions – one of which is, the ‘strong border’ people, what are they after? What do they really want?
When it comes to borders, one thing that I've tweeted about and that I’ve had pushback from, but I believe, is that there is a double standard between the treatment of Ukrainian refugees and Central American refugees. We've processed over 10,000 Ukrainian refugees in a few months – quietly, at a single port of entry in the US. It shows it can be done. There are double standards in terms of both media coverage and public attitudes that are definitely racially motivated. But I think the more important takeaway is if the US government wants to process large numbers of refugees or asylum seekers, it can. And if we devote the resources and personnel to do so, and we've shown we can do that with the Ukrainians, we can do that with Central Americans and others as well.
A lot of people coming through the US border are from Africa, from Asia, – I interviewed a North Korean refugee who paid for her son to be smuggled out of North Korea into South Korea, and then through Mexico by a coyote. He was in a detention center in El Paso, Texas. No one knew where he was from. He was nearly deported to Mexico, until Korean Americans around the US petitioned for his release.
If there's the political will and the resources to process large numbers of people, they can.
I feel like a lot of the concerns about the border are about optics.
I think most Americans, if they really heard some of these stories, would understand why people are seeking asylum. But Americans don't like seeing the chaos of mass numbers of people – they think they’re rushing the border. This is largely played up by the media who often distort what's really going on. We know most people seeking asylum don't try to sneak past Border Patrol in the dead of night, instead they present themselves to agents to initiate the asylum process.
I think for political optics, the best for the US to do in terms of border policy is to keep it orderly, to devote the necessary resources to have a rational and humane system. Then I don't think the “crisis” narrative would be as likely to catch on.
I still don't fully understand the way out of this narrative that exists, of the chaos, of the confusion. You would think it would be a priority for Democrats – when Republican governors in Maine or Ohio campaign on border security. Maybe in their minds they’re dealing with this, I don’t know, but it’s not effective.
You hear a lot of buzzwords or phrases that don't really describe any reality. For example, there's no such thing as open borders or closed borders. No country has completely open nor completely closed borders. Not even North Korea. As long as borders exist, which is to say nation states as we know them exist, there will always be some kind of system. We can say that there shouldn't be borders at all – philosophically speaking, but practically speaking, sovereign countries do have the right to regulate the movement of people across their borders. That's generally not in dispute. How we regulate that, and the degree to which it is more restrictive or less restrictive, is up for debate. You can be in favor of more regulation, or stricter rules, those are all valid positions, we can have a public discussion and determine what those rules are going to be. But that should be informed by the facts. A lot of our ideas are based on outdated notions about the nature of immigration. For example, the idea that all the people who are coming from the southern border with Mexico are from Mexico – is not true. Most are from other countries. The idea that they are trying to sneak across is for the most part, not true. Seeking asylum is a legal right, under US law, under international law, under the Geneva Conventions that come out of World War II – informed by the Holocaust.
The terms that we use, like illegal immigrant or even unauthorized, undocumented or irregular are not applicable to the vast majority of people who are seeking asylum because they're going through a legal process.
When we deny them that legal process, through things like Title 42, we are breaking the law, not them.
There's this idea too, that the only people who are so-called illegal or undocumented are those people who are coming across the border. The majority of people who are in the country without authorization did not sneak across the southern border. They entered legally, they flew in on planes, they overstayed their visas and fell out of status. One of them is married to the last president.
A lot of them are from countries we don't think of as sources of illegal immigration. There's a lot of Canadians in the US on expired work or student visas who are out of status and technically are undocumented immigrants, but we don't think about them as such because we have a certain vision in our head. You can blame racism – but I also think a general problem is we have a very narrow view of what migration looks like and what unauthorized migration is.
If we look at the big picture of how the migration system works, which is enormously complicated, there's multiple agencies involved, there's multiple laws involved. And so understandably, most people don't have the patience to sift through that. People would stop calling people illegal immigrants if they had a better sense of what the system was. This is why we need comprehensive immigration form. It needs to be a simpler process. And that's just not going to happen without movement by Congress.
I’m not sure people want to know. I see academic after academic after academic on Twitter screaming like, how many times can I say drugs are mostly coming in through ports of entry? We know the difference between overstayed Visas and illegal border crossing. To take the side of immigration reform is to be on the defensive, always explaining your way out of things, not taking an offensive position and describing reality.
Both US and Central American governments seriously believe they can shoot their way out of a crisis. They do know there needs to be job security. There needs to be food security. We do need to address climate change. But they don’t have a very clear vision as to how to do that.
When people say they don't like illegal immigration, they have a certain image in their mind and once again, it's important to acknowledge the role of racism here. But there's also a sense of what it is to be unauthorized or to break the law. You hear that refrain: you need to wait in line. But there is no line!
The people who are seeking asylum are waiting in line in the sense they are going through a legal process, the way we ask them to. It's not just about people not following the rules, it's that when people do follow the rules, we change the rules on them by instituting things like MPP and Title 42. Which is why I say I have sympathy for people who say the immigration system is broken. It is broken, but not in the way people think.
People think that it's broken because we don't have enough Border Patrol agents, or we don't have high enough walls. It's broken because there aren't the proper mechanisms and there isn't the political will and the resources to give people more legal options. If we did, there would be less of this anti-immigration backlash. I mean, immigration wasn't always such a big deal. It wasn't as polarizing an issue, even within my lifetime. Reagan gave amnesty to people. You can't imagine any president, much less a Republican president, doing that today.
Congress in theory is the body that should be doing this, but because it's gridlocked, we can't pass immigration reform, so it’s left to the executive branch. When Congress doesn't do what it should do, which is, you know, take its rightful place in the policy process, then presidents get more discretionary power and they set policy with the tools they have, which is largely enforcement.
If you want to go even further back – immigration laws in the 19th Century were set by treaties, by diplomats, they were things that were negotiated between the United States government and Mexican government. There's no one way that these rules should get written or enforced. They have been done in different ways throughout history. It's because of our current political situation, with political polarization and legislative inaction, that we've ended up with a security-first response. Immigration practices are constantly changing because it's not laws that are changing. It’s administrative rules, it’s executive orders. It’s different priorities set by these different agencies. That's what makes it such a confusing and chaotic system.