Next week, the Biden administration hosts the ninth Summit of the Americas, a gathering of leaders from the 35 countries that form the core of the Organization for American States (OAS). The Summit takes place once every four years. In addition to addressing long-standing issues such as trade, combatting corruption, and upholding democratic governance, the United States has added addressing root causes of irregular migration to the agenda. This year will be the first time attendees will tackle this issue since President Bill Clinton convened the first summit in 1994. The region cannot afford to wait until 2026 to meaningfully discuss this issue again at a high-level convening.
Addressing western hemisphere migration should be a national and international priority. Capacity of these migration flows to rapidly change in scale and scope demands that the United States, the rest of the countries in the region, and international organizations such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), establish regular, hemispheric-wide meetings to develop polices and manage these flows in a coordinated way.
Large-scale migration events have been a core facet of life across the hemisphere in the latter half of the 20th century. Factors such as insufficient economic opportunities, cartel violence and civil wars in Central and South America prompted people to leave their countries in search of better opportunities and safety in other countries. Central American and Caribbean migrants, most prominently Cuban and Haitian, have all taken land and sea routes to reach the United States. In South America, families and individuals have fled dictatorships and civil wars to neighboring countries, with some, such as Colombians, traveling to the United States to seek safety.
These migration trends have continued well into the 21st century. As the challenge they present has emerged as a hemispheric issue, both the causes and the scope of these migration events have expanded significantly. Corruption and democratic backsliding, cartel, gang, or state-backed violence, and the impacts of climate change have joined the continuing lack of economic opportunities as key drivers pushing a broader range of individuals such as families and unaccompanied children to leave their countries and head north to the United States. The technological sophistication of smuggling operations, proliferation of personal communication technologies that allow individuals to instantaneously tell others about being able to enter the United States, and availability of digital financial transactions have contributed to driving irregular migration. As a result, migrants are more willing and able to travel longer distances across the hemisphere to reach new destinations, presenting a broader challenge to the entire region in managing these flows.
As the drivers of migration have evolved, States in the hemisphere have created forums to discuss common approaches to immigration challenges and responses to major migration events. In addition to the OAS, the Regional Conference on Migration (CRM), which includes key countries in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, and the Conferencia Suramericana Sobre Migraciones (CSM), which includes key countries in South America, are dedicated forums for deliberations over common immigration challenges facing these States. The Quito Process, a voluntary, non-binding agreement between 13 South American countries that emerged in 2018 to assist with managing the Venezuelan migration crisis, remains an example of regional cooperation on migration. For instance, the Process prompted many of its members to accept expired travel documents to make it easier for more Venezuelans to enter neighboring countries as long as their own immigration laws permitted these policies.
The longevity and buy-in from Latin American leaders make these forums and initiatives a part of addressing the region’s migration challenges. But they fall short in several key respects. In the Summit’s case, waiting four years between opportunities to tackle immigration as a hemisphere is insufficient to address a rapidly changing set of migration conditions. Furthermore, the CRM and CSM do not meet as one large group or produce binding policies or coordinated response plans to migration events even though they meet regularly. Finally, the Quito Process remains focused on one specific migration event even if it offers potential frameworks and processes for what a truly hemispheric response to migration could look like in the future.
In response, the United States, key countries in the region, and international organizations like the IOM should use this year’s Summit of the Americas to establish an annual hemispheric meeting on migration that produces actionable policies and provides a venue for meaningful coordination. Although the OAS could serve as a potential sponsoring organization for this initiative, the key actors organizing this initiative could ask the CRM and CSM to meet as a group with the stated task of developing short, medium, and long-term policy goals to address the current crop of challenges. In the near-term, the establishment of an early warning system that identifies nascent migration events would enable countries in the region to prepare responses. In the medium to long-term, these measures can focus on developing protocols for managing migration events, including determining which countries receive asylum seekers based on criteria such as existing institutional capacity to meet these goals.
Creating such a convening will not be without difficulty. As the upcoming Summit has demonstrated, the politics surrounding which countries were invited and the ensuing drama about countries withdrawing at the last minute have tempered expectations. In order to have a successful dialogue, the United States and key countries in the region – such as Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Panama – should work collaboratively to address complex positions that many countries in the hemisphere face as senders, receivers, and/or transit zones for migrants. In the near-term, these efforts should include creating the aforementioned early warning system, which would gather and share data about migration to identify migration events and have protocols for deploying coordinated responses among states.
While organizing these dialogues will take a significant investment in time and resources, this investment is necessary to build a foundation for developing a coordinated response. Given the challenges facing the hemisphere on issues around immigration, it is time for this step to move the region toward a more sustainable and coordinated approach to migration.