MEMO: SFRC Full Committee Hearing; U.S. Policy in Mexico & Central America

As rates of crime and violence continue to rise along the U.S.-Mexico border, it is clear that there is a crisis that puts many lives a stake. On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to discuss the crisis at the border, specifically focusing on its root causes and potential solutions. The consensus among Republican Senators is that mass migration towards the U.S.-Border is the result of a lack of will from Central and Latin American countries to sustain a strong economy and uphold the rule of law. The consensus among Democratic Senators is that mass migration is a result of corruption and increased food insecurity caused by global warming, regional instability, and the ill-advised move on the part of the Trump administration to reduce foreign aid in Central America. 

Despite this being the first Senate hearing on U.S.-Mexico and Central American relations since January of 2017, few Members of Congress attended the Full Committee Hearing. Six of the ten Democratic committee members made an appearance; each of them spoke the entirety of their allotted five minutes. Only four of the twelve Republican Committee members showed up.

Senators in the majority party argued that increased numbers of migrants coming from Central American countries put the U.S. citizens in danger. They posited that the border crisis, as they see it, hinders border patrol agents' ability to uphold the rule of law and protect national security. 

Their political agenda can only be understood by assuming they intended to paint every country south of the U.S. as being a source of crime, over anything else. Much of their focus was spent on how the border crisis empowers transnational crime organizations (TCO’s) to push narcotics across the border; not on the root causes of global migration. 

This became most clear when Senators John Barrasso [R-WY] and Rob Portman [R-OH] asked Kirsten Madison, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, about the responsibility Mexico has for the drug epidemic in the U.S. While Madison did not speak to specifics, she did generally place the blame on Central and South America. 

Senators in the minority party described the crisis in terms of those it most clearly affects, refugees and asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico’s most dangerous towns along the border. Senator Ben Cardin [D-MD] talked about visiting the border last month for a delegation, and being horrified by the risk migrants are put in as they await their court proceedings. This is the result of a policy misleadingly called Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico”. Sen. Cardin then brought up how such a policy encourages those with good cases for legal immigration to seek to cross the border illegally, putting their own lives in danger. Senator Jeff Merkley [D-OR] continued Sen. Cardin’s point by citing the devastating photo of a father and daughter who drowned attempting to cross the border this summer

Senator Tim Kaine [D-VA] pressed Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Michael Kozak, on the administration's push for a safe third country agreement with Guatemala. Sen Kaine asked Kozak if he thought Guatemala is a safe country. Kozak argued that, while Guatemala has one of the highest crime rates in the world, violence in Guatemala does not target victims on the basis of race, gender, religious or political belief. Because of this, Kozak argued, Guatemala does qualify as a 'safe country' under UN standards.

Senators Tom Udall [D-NM] and Edward Markey [D-MA] both brought up President Trump's early departure from UN meetings this week to highlight how climate change has resulted in crop shortages and food insecurity in many parts of South America. Both argued that food insecurity, not crime and corruption, are essential factors in why migrants leave their home countries.

Senator Bob Menendez [D-NJ] asked Chair Senator James Risch [R-IO] to conclude the hearing with a second round of questions, as all other Members of Congress had left at this point. Sen. Menendez summarized arguments made by Democratic members of the committee as such: 
  1. The administration has made lowering the number of immigrants entering the country central to their political agenda.
  2. The same administration has cut foreign aid to Central and South American countries. That is, funding which was allocated by Congress to reduce food insecurity, encourage economic growth, and put an end to TCO’s. 
  3. Then the administration points to high rates of crime and poverty, as reasons for not allowing migrants into the country. 
  4. The administration then uses that to demand funding for campaign promises, such as the wall, which will do nothing to address the root causes of global migration. 
  5. When the administration does not get said funding, they use policies such as “Remain in Mexico” and “Safe Third Countries” to put the lives of migrants in danger. 
Sen. Risch did not object to any of the points made by Sen. Menendez. Instead, he used the remainder of the hearing to thank the two witnesses for their time.

At the exact time that the hearing began, Members of Congress took to the Senate floor to consider a disapproval resolution that would terminate the president's emergency declaration at the U.S. southern border. With 54 yays and 41 nays, the resolution passed. This is the second time the Senate has passed such a resolution; the first time was vetoed by President Trump in March. It remains uncertain whether or not President Trump will veto the resolution again, given the delicate political situation he is in this week.


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