Biden White House Explains (Again) Migration Policy for Border and Central America

Mar 10, 2021
8:02 PM

In response to calls from the national press to provide more specifics about what the Biden administration is doing to address migration from the Global South (particularly Central America), Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, coordinator for the southern border and a special assistant to President Biden, spent about 30 minutes discussing policy and answering questions at a Wednesday White Press briefing. Here is the official transcript of those 30 minutes:

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: So thank you all. Good afternoon. President Biden has made clear from day one that he wants to change our immigration system. Doing so means truly building back better, because we can’t just undo four years of the previous administration’s actions overnight. Those actions didn’t just neglect our immigration system; they intentionally made it worse. When you add a pandemic to that, it’s clear it will take significant time to overcome.

We must build a better immigration system that reflects our values as Americans, enforces our laws, safeguards public health, and moves away from cycles of irregular migration.

Today I’m here to talk about what we’re doing with partners in Mexico and Central America to ensure that people don’t make this dangerous journey and instead have opportunities for economic advancement and safety at home.

The President has committed to seeking $4 billion over four years to address the root causes of migration, including corruption, violence, and economic devastation exacerbated by climate change.

As part of that plan, we will address the causes that compel individuals to migrate, including improving governance and providing a foundation for investment and economic opportunity, strengthening civilian security and the rule of law. Working across the whole of government, we will look at access to international protection and refugee resettlement, and rethinking asylum processing to ensure fair and faster consideration.

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.

President Biden, when he was Vice President, visited the region many times and is clear-eyed about the challenge. He insists now, as he did then, that governments commit to being true partners in creating the conditions for growth and security.

But I want to emphasize that the funds we’re asking for from Congress don’t go to government leaders; they go to communities, to training, to climate mitigation, to violence prevention, to anti-gang programs. In other words, they go to the people who otherwise migrate in search of hope. And they will have to have the participation of the private sectors in those countries, who, for too long, have evaded taxes, underpaid workers, and failed to be part of the solution to creating safe, prosperous, and democratic countries.

We’ve already begun specific actions to both undo the previous administration’s policies and to advance a new vision of immigration. We have ended the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols,” which sent people back to Mexico to wait, sometimes for years, for a chance to present their asylum claims.

Working with the government of Mexico, international organizations, and NGOs, we have safely admitted over 1,400 migrants and closed the most dangerous face of the MPP: the Matamoros migrant camp.

Today, we are announcing the restarting of the Central American Minors program for children to be reunited with a parent who is legally in the United States. This program was ended abruptly by the previous administration, leaving around 3,000 children, already approved for travel, stranded.

In phase two, we’ll be working to improve the CAM program to expand safe and legal avenues for—to the United States.

I want to be clear: Neither in this—neither this announcement nor any of the other measures suggest that anyone, especially children and families with young children, should make the dangerous trip to try and enter the U.S. in an irregular fashion. The border is not open.

Going forward, we will continue to look for ways to provide legal avenues in the region for people needing protection, while we continue to enforce our laws. This is a process. We have a great deal to do, but this administration has made significant progress, and we will continue to do so. It reflects who we are as Americans, putting our values at the center of our policy.

Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: All right. Go ahead.

Q Thank you for doing this, Roberta. This $4 billion that the administration is seeking, are you seeking this as part of a larger comprehensive immigration package or as a standalone bill?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Well, I think what you’ll see is, that $4 billion in a Central American, Northern Triangle strategy will be part of our foreign assistance request and will focus on the things we know that work.

Obviously, it’s not our first rodeo. The Vice President—the President, when he was Vice President, worked on these issues. We know how to get money to communities that are most likely to send migrants, but also that are suffering the greatest effect of two hurricanes this season, et cetera.

So, it will be part of our overall foreign assistance package. In the meantime, we are focused on getting humanitarian assistance to these countries after Hurricanes Eta and Iota. So, in that sense, it’s part of a larger plan, but obviously, there are parts of this that will be on the domestic side as well to fix the whole extent of our immigration processing.

Q And what else is the administration doing right now to work with these home countries to send a message to people: “Don’t come here. Don’t send your children here”?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Right. Well, I think, you know, one of the most important things is to make sure that we get communications right and the message right, and I’m happy to repeat that. But I think it’s also important that we work with the international organizations that have very credible voices and have very good networks among migrant-sending communities to dispel the myths and misinformation that smugglers are using. Right?

When we talk about the border not being open and, you know, the ways in which we’re trying to dissuade people from making that dangerous journey, the smugglers are conveying exactly the opposite to people. So we need to make sure we get that message out. We also need to be looking at things like the CAM program —the Central American Minors program— as I talked about, and how we can expand that, how we can make that el—you know, eligibility greater.

But the next step is to look at solutions in the region. Right? What more can we do to process people legally who really do require protection so they don’t have to make that journey? And we’re looking at all of those things.

Q And, finally, you said that this isn’t your first rodeo. Should the administration have been better prepared to handle this influx of children before it changed the policy allowing them to stay in the country?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Well, I think there’s a couple of things. I think what we’re doing right now is making a difference in the home countries, beginning to work with governments. You know, that couldn’t start until January 20th; there is one government at a time. You can’t start changing processes of government, building facilities. All of this is part of the plan, as quickly as possible, to make sure that our domestic processes work more smoothly, more quickly, as I mentioned, but also to work with foreign governments, and you can’t do that, obviously, until January 20th when you take over.

But there have been multiple engagements with the government of Mexico at very high level, with the government of Guatemala, with the Honduran government and Salvadoran in the first, you know, six weeks of government. So I think we’ve gotten off to a big start, a fast start in that engagement.

MS. PSAKI: Jonathan.

Q Thank you, Jen and Madam Ambassador. On Honduras, how does the administration balance its need for cooperation from that government with ongoing concerns about corruption there, particularly federal prosecutors who say that the President Hernández was working on this plan to flood the United States with cocaine?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Well, I think one of the things that I made clear in the opening comments, which I want to reiterate, is that none of the money that we’re looking to get from Congress, from the taxpayers of the United States, goes to government leaders.

And so I —I don’t think that means that presidents are unimportant in these countries, but I do think that it’s important to understand that we will be working with civil society— with international organizations and international NGOs on the ground.

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. And in some places, that will be hard to do if you’ve got officials for whom there is a cloud.

And I think we need to work with the organizations that we can in countries. In some places, we will work with religious organizations, NGOs, with—et cetera. It’s a challenge in countries that have confronted serious corruption risks.

Q Just one follow-up: Like what mechanism is in place—or how do you possibly safeguard that funding to make sure it stays out of the hands, perhaps, of corrupt politicians?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Well, I think one of the things that we’ve always done —always— and 31 years of the State Department has taught me this—is: We do end-use monitoring. Right? Our embassies and people that we work with are looked at before they’re recipients of funds, and we do checks, and we look at what’s being done with the funds. Right?

We also don’t deliver money, in most cases; we deliver training, we deliver new lighting facilities that reduce violence and crime. You know, so a lot of what you do, it’s not handing over blank checks, and I think that’s really important in this.

MS. PSAKI: Kaitlan.

Q Thank you very much. You were talking about restarting CAM, these other long-term goals for what immigration policy should look like. But right now, new CNN reporting shows that unaccompanied migrant children are being held in these Border Patrol facilities for, on average, 107 hours. That’s up from, I believe, 77 hours on average last week. So what is the Biden administration doing right now to fix that?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Well, I think, you know, my part of this focuses much more on what we’re doing at the end of this process in Central America and Mexico. I think all of us, at every stage of this process, are doing everything we can to make sure that children are well cared for and moved into facilities that are appropriate for them.

But I want to make a point again that it’s really important that people not make the dangerous journey in the first place; that we provide them with alternatives to making that journey because it’s not safe en route.

And so, you know, if I could just emphasize that, that it’s really important that that message get out, because the perception is not the same as the reality, in terms of the border not being open. But we want to provide —through CAM, through other mechanisms— ways for some of these young people to be reunited with family members in the United States.

(Speaks in Spanish.)

Q You’re telling them not to come—just to follow up quickly.


Q You’re telling them they should not come. Would you describe what’s happening on the border as a crisis, given how these numbers are spiking so much, week by week?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: You know, I think the —I really— I’m not trying to be cute here, but I think the fact of the matter is: We have to do what we do regardless of what anybody calls the situation. And the fact is, we are all focused on improving the situation, on changing to a more humane and efficient system. And—and whatever you call it wouldn’t change what we’re doing because we have urgency, from the President on down, to fix our system and make sure that we are better at dealing with the hopes and the dreams of these migrants in their home country.

Q Madam Ambassador, do you think it’s a coincidence that as soon as Trump and his immigration policy were on the way out, and Biden and his stated policy were on the way in, this historic surge at the border started?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Well, first of all, one of the things I think is important is we’ve seen surges before. Surges tend to respond to hope, and there was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of, you know, pent-up demand. So 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.

But perhaps, more importantly, it definitely drove smugglers to express disinformation—to spread disinformation about what was now possible, and we know that.

Q And, in fact, if the change in administration has brought hope, then, from your perspective, is this surge good?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: I don’t think that’s what I just said. I think it’s a reflection of how migrants feel at a particular time. I think what we are doing is making sure that we respond to that hope for people who need protection; we respond to that hope in a way that their cases can be adjudicated more quickly.

But I don’t think anybody would say that coming to the United States in an irregular fashion is a good thing. That’s why I’ve tried repeatedly to dissuade people from —from listening to those smugglers. But we’re going to try our best to do everything we can, at each end of this— in the United States, but especially in Central America and Mexico—to ensure we have safe, orderly, and legal migration.

MS. PSAKI: We can do a couple more. Jen, go ahead.

Q President Biden, when he was Vice President, was very active on working with the Northern Triangle countries. And I’m just wondering: Were there lessons that you or he or other administration officials, many of whom are in jobs in this administration, have learned about how to deal with those countries or how to deal with foreign aid to them that are informing how you’re approaching things now?

And just to, kind of, follow up a little bit on what Peter was asking: Are you concerned at all about, kind of, mixed messaging? That at the same time that you are telling people not to come, that the journey is dangerous, that because you are offering this—this talk about more humanitarian process, that people will not, you know, pay attention to the fact that they could apply from home—from their home country, that they will still come, that they are still, you know, so hopeful—that there really is, kind of, a conflicting message coming from Washington to Central America.

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: So, on the first question —the question of learning things from when the Vice President was leading a lot of our efforts in Central America previously— I think: Yes. That’s a resounding “yes.” Both the President and all of us who worked with him on that —for him on that— learned a great deal. And I think that it’s really important that we put that to use now.

One of the things he thinks is so important is being really explicit with leadership in the countries from which migrants are coming about commitments that they need to make, because overcoming the reasons people migrate is not going to be the United States’ job alone. Right?

If we realize that it’s lack of good governance, economic opportunity, and security issues or violence, then some of those require commitments by the governments on anti-corruption and transparency, on creating governments that function better to provide services for their country.

So he’s very clear on being sure that we get those commitments from leaders and holding them to it. Right? The money is not a tap that gets turned on all at once. You have to make sure that you’re continuing to follow those issues.

So, I think there’s a lot of things we learned, and a lot of things we learned about ensuring that funds get to the communities that are really in need, whether it’s post hurricane or coffee rust which was ravaging Guatemala and Honduras or, you know, historic drought.

I think 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. And that is what we’re trying to do. And I—I will certainly agree that we are trying to walk and chew gum at the same time.

We are trying to convey to everybody in the region that we will have legal processes for people in the future and we’re standing those up as soon as we can. But at the same time, you cannot come through irregular means. It’s dangerous and, you know, the majority of people will be sent out of the United States. Because that is the truth of it. We want to be honest with people.

And so, we are trying to send both messages, and smugglers are only trying to send one message. So, we’re relying on every means we can to get that message out there. And that leads me to want to reiterate, as I did before: (Speaks in Spanish.)

MS. PSAKI: Andrea.

Q Ambassador, can you say a word more about what you were talking about, in terms of the private sector? Can you explain what you’re envisioning there?


Q And like, what exactly do you need?

And then, just to —sort of as a second question— you know, you’re talking about being really explicit with these countries, but what sort of leverage does the United States actually have to effect change in those countries? Like what —what exactly can you do to—

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Yeah. Let me take that second one first only because—look, in the end, I think the implication of your question, which is quite right, is: We can’t make the changes. We can encourage them, we can help support them with resources —both technical assistance and funding— but we can’t make those changes. The changes have to come in the Northern Triangle countries.

What I should say is —my own experience from traveling to those places— there are myriad people and organizations who are trying to make those changes. And part of what we want to do is empower them—whether that’s more effective, you know, economic support; whether it’s training for young people; whether it’s anti-gang programs; whether it’s mothers clubs and empowering local communities. All of that gets done through people on the ground, not by the United States. So we want to be able to empower those actors.

I also think that it’s really important when you say, “What leverage do you have?” Well, I do think that working as partners with these countries means sitting down and talking about what we can do together. But also if American taxpayers’ funds are going to be used, then that is a certain amount of leverage. The President really wants to move forward on this, but he won’t unless he feels he has those commitments on an ongoing basis. Is that leverage? You know, funds are sometimes important means of having that conversation.

Your first question was on—remind me.

Q Oh, well, let me just follow up on what you just—

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: No, no, no, you can’t follow up. You have to go back to the first one.

Q I can’t follow up on it? (Laughter.)

Will you —I mean, are you saying explicitly the U.S. could withhold funding, whether it’s State Department aid or USAID funding or whatever—

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: You know, I think—I think the really important thing to know is: We’re looking forward to getting this proposal before Congress and having Congress act on it. And what comes after that, you know, I just don’t know. You know, an executive branch can always, you know, adjust things like that.

I also think it’s really important to understand—you asked about the private sector. The private sector in all of these countries —in Central America, in particular— is a really important player here. And I think, to be very honest, we have not seen them step up. One of the mechanisms that was really effective under the Obama-Biden administration was: For every dollar that the U.S. put into an assistance program, we asked for private-sector organizations, local chambers of commerce, or business organizations to either match us or exceed us. This gives the private sector skin in the game. It makes sure that they are part of the solution.

If the governments in these countries don’t always have enough resources to do what they should to improve the economic opportunity for people, there are private-sector organizations and members of the private sector, the business community, who need to be part of that solution. And so we just feel that that’s really an important element to this. We talked about international organizations, governments, NGOs. I don’t want to leave out the business community as a—as a participant.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. Last two. Or last three, if you have time. Okay. Thank you.

Go ahead.

Q So, Ambassador, just to follow up on Andrea’s question—I mean, I understand what you were saying. You want to empower these civil societies in these (inaudible) countries. But can you make the link between empowering those civil societies and actually eliminating the push factor there to stop them from coming to this country? So how much of it is an international aid policy versus an anti—you know, an immigration policy? That’s my first question.

And then, the second one, if you could speak more specifically about the requirements that you’re making to these countries in terms of anti-corruption practices. What are the specific measures of success and how to ensure that they’re (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Yeah. Well, on the first question, I think this is both an international aid issue, as well as a policy issue—both for, you know, for us and the countries that we’re working with.

On the one hand, it is clearly a resource issue. You have to greater-than-Category-Four hurricanes, Eta and Iota, within a 15-day period. You’ve got reports that suggest that literally multiple millions of people in Guatemala and Honduras are food insecure now. That is clearly something you need to be looking at —humanitarian assistance and aid— to try and remedy.

Now, in the longer term—when you’re looking at increased pace of natural disasters because of climate change; or you’re looking at ways to ensure that agricultural policy, you know, changes in countries; or that training is given; or that students, including girls, remain in school—those are longer-term policy questions that need to be addressed with our partners in the region because they all have an impact on whether migration flows increase or not.

And so, when the President talks about “root causes,” some of this is immediate humanitarian aid, but a lot of it is policy and aid together, making sure that you tackle the root causes of migration. Otherwise, what you see is continued cycles. Right? To break that cycle of migration sustainably, you have to work both.

On the—on the specific commitments for governments, I think that’s something that we would want to discuss with the countries involved before we discuss it publicly. Thanks.

Q And then one more on the President’s executive powers. Do you think the President will consider using his executive powers to reunite families who have been separated under zero tolerance?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Well, that certainly —

Q Outside of the immigration task force.

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Outside of the Family Reunification Task Force that was created, which is exactly to do that?

Q Yes, more—beyond that.

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Are you talking about people who are not in the same country?

Q Yeah. The families that were —that was separated— would the President use any more executive power—

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: I’m sorry, but do you mean families who were separated when in the United States under—

Q Yeah. During zero tolerance in the past.

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Well, that’s exactly what the Family Reunification Task Force is doing.

Q Right. So nothing beyond that?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: It deals with the whole universe of people separated during that policy. So not that I know of.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. Last two in the back. Go ahead.

Q A couple questions. Congress appropriated almost $1.4 billion for this fiscal year for the border wall that you all are not building. How much of that is left? Are you guys redirecting it at all, and to what along the border right now?

Secondly, you discussed messaging. Arguably, your predecessors’ entire theory of their immigration agenda was that they were trying to send this message: “Don’t come. America is closed to irregular migration.” So, obviously, you’re pursuing some different policies, but what can you actually do differently than they did to try to get that message if, you know, it wasn’t fixed already with that kind of aggressive messaging?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Well, on the first question regarding the border wall, the President has been very clear about ending the national emergency or the emergency at the border that—that was used to justify the wall and obviously not proceeding with it. The exact legal requirements and where that —those funds might go, I just— I just don’t know. I’m sorry.

Let me —let me talk about the message issue. I mean, I think— I think it’s really important to understand that you can’t and shouldn’t say, in this administration’s opinion, that the only way to message “Do not come in an irregular fashion” is to act as cruelly as you possibly can, separate children from their parents, return people to places that —like the camp— migrant camp in Matamoros, you know, for up to two-plus years at a time, and that’s the only way that you can get your message across.

This administration’s belief is that we can get our message across that it is a more humane policy by opening up avenues of legal migration, which will encourage people to take those legal options and go through the asylum process, if they are seeking that, and not take the irregular road.

I think you have to find different ways to message. But if messaging reflects your actions, that is why we are increasing the actions for legal migration, so that the message is, “You have another option.”

MS. PSAKI: Last one. In the back.

Q Thank you. If I may ask a question in Spanish for our audience. (Speaks in Spanish.)

MS. PSAKI: Of course.

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: (Speaks in Spanish.)

Q (Speaks in Spanish.)

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: (Speaks in Spanish.)