Op-Ed: Biden's border policy struggles reflect a deeper neglect of Latin America

President Joe Biden walks with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as he arrives at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Biden walks with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador after arriving at the National Palace in Mexico City on Monday. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Perhaps the most fitting sight of President Biden’s recent trip to the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border was this one: He went to the less important bridge spanning the Rio Grande.

In his brief and muted visit to my hometown of El Paso, where two nations meet, the president’s first stop was the Bridge of the Americas, presumably because it’s a port of entry. It has been upriver, however, at the older, narrower Santa Fe Bridge that I’ve lately seen thousands of people lined up waiting for asylum.

The choice of the Bridge of the Americas did give the White House a remote, secure place for the president to talk with U.S. Customs agents and watch their drug dog sniff a car. When all was said and done, Biden reduced the human tide seeking entry into the United States to a typical Washington equation: “They need a lot of resources and we’re going to get it for them.”

The administration didn’t clarify who “they” are, but since Biden’s visit focused on border enforcement workers, his statement telegraphed boosting the current border system. Which is precisely the wrong response. Tackling migration in the Western hemisphere is not a simple matter of more agents, guns, fences and money stacked along one of the world’s most dangerous borders. This exodus of men, women and children is historic, leading to a record nearly 2.4 million encounters between migrants and U.S. personnel at the southern border in fiscal year 2022.

Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean require the attention of the resident superpower in this region. Instead, Biden has engaged in a foreign policy of not-so-benign neglect, allowing immigration, drugs, cartels, poverty, violence and dictatorships to pile up as one unmanageable ball of wax. This, in turn, has allowed Republicans — including Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who performed his own cheap stunt of hand-delivering a letter and admonishing Biden to “do your job” upon the president’s arrival in El Paso — to dominate the narrative on a situation no less complex than mass migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe. “He’s two years and about $20 billion too late,” Abbott said on the tarmac.

Abbott, who has squandered billions of dollars on border initiatives with questionable returns, went so far as to ask the president in his letter for more walls and more troops. Despite the failure of those approaches, Biden’s trip and recent crackdown on asylum-seekers put him on a path to the failed policy of his predecessors of both parties: throwing more of the same at the border.

Yet immediately after leaving El Paso, Biden had to convince Mexico he is a strong ally: He sat down this week with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the two-day North American Leaders’ Summit. It was a fraught case to make. Despite a pledge early in Biden’s presidency to send $4 billion to help development in Central America and stem the passage of people northward, as López Obrador complained last summer: "Almost nothing has been invested so far.”

Mexico, too, has increasing leverage against the United States. It's growing stronger as a U.S. trade alternative to China. Unlike Biden, López Obrador doesn’t have to worry about reelection (under Mexican law, he can’t run again). Biden also needs Mexico to cooperate on immigration. Last week, he announced that Mexico agreed to accept more asylum-seekers whose claims were rejected by the United States. But Mexico pushed back on other U.S. requests to absorb more migration. During his meeting with Biden on Monday, López Obrador chastised: “End with this forgetfulness, this abandonment, this disdain toward Latin America and the Caribbean" (though he concluded the conference with more conciliatory remarks).

And of course, more restrictions on who we let in doesn’t eliminate people’s need for asylum. Venezuela has produced the second-largest number of displaced people of any country in the world. Colombia next door ranks second in the number of refugees it has taken in. Haiti has no functioning government. Nicaragua has turned into the personal property of once revolutionary President Daniel Ortega. And after its brush with dictatorship, Brazil is entering a political crisis.

The Homeland Security Department cannot solve any of this; it is a law enforcement agency whose dominion extends only to the borders of the United States. What is needed is a strategic policy from Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken that commits to tackling the root causes of migration, including with sustained economic aid. If this country cannot help our neighbor nations, the results will continue to show up right here.

There has been a voice of reason in all this: Rep. Veronica Escobar, the local Democratic member of Congress. Before boarding Air Force One on Sunday to fly to El Paso with the president, Escobar told CBS: “I will tell you, we do need far more robust State Department involvement, especially for those who do not have access to [cellphones]. We need far greater education. Many of the refugees that I have spoken to, especially over the last couple of weeks, have no concept of what the asylum process is.”

Talking to migrants in El Paso clustered on sidewalks around Sacred Heart Church in the Segundo Barrio, I have found the same. These people need American consulates and embassies to help them before they set out on this treacherous journey, up to 7,000 miles, largely on foot. And the U.S. needs a foreign policy for its own hemisphere.

The Republican war on the border and Biden’s acquiescence are destined to fail — even designed to fail, to keep justifying the same calls for law and order. And so here we are, the behemoth superpower foundering at the Mexican border — as well as across the Western hemisphere we all supposedly call home.

Richard Parker is the author of the forthcoming book "The Crossing," a narrative history of the Southwest.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.