Excerpted From: Sara L. McKinnon and Erin M. Barbato, Foreign Policy Collaborations to Manage Migration in the Americas, 41 Wisconsin International Law Journal 411 (Spring, 2024) (140 Footnotes) (Full Document)

MckinnonBarbatoThis Essay examines the role of foreign policy collaborations between the United States and other countries in managing the options people have for movement and residence in the Western Hemisphere. The reality today is that people seeking asylum in the United States or Canada will begin their Western Hemisphere journey in South America. In 2022 alone, over 250,000 migrants from Venezuela, Ecuador, Haiti, Cuba, and even as far away as Cameroon and Afghanistan crossed from South America to Central America, through the Darién Gap, in hopes of moving northward to find and establish a safe home. The number surpassed five hundred thousand in 2023. Prior to 2021, the migration route was not a common one, as only about ten thousand people a year would journey through the Darién Gap region. While migrants seeking to apply for US and Canadian immigration relief once began their journey in Mexico or Central America, a complex set of factors have pushed the migration starting point into South America.

The entire path to the United States and Canada is dangerous, but the Darién Gap is currently recognized by experts as the most concerning part of the journey. The sixty-mile stretch is the only point between Alaska and Argentina where the Pan-American Highway stops. The land and climate are simply too volatile to build infrastructure like roads and train lines. People journey on foot, exposed to treacherous jungle terrain, dangerous animals, disease and health risks, physical and sexual violence, and extortion by criminal organizations. How did it come to be that people fleeing their homes from around the world would end up in South American countries, such as Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia, to begin their journey northward to ultimately seek asylum in the United States and Canada? While there are many factors that are important to investigate in understanding why people are forced to leave their homes and seek residence elsewhere, it is equally important to examine the political infrastructure of foreign policy and interstate collaborations that pushes human migration to longer, more perilous pathways.

On June 10, 2022, the United States entered into an agreement with other Western Hemisphere governments to manage migration on the continent. The agreement, titled the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, was signed at the Summit of the Americas by major heads of state from twenty countries, including Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, and Uruguay. The purpose of the agreement was to organize intergovernmental action around four tracks or “pillars”: “(1) stability and assistance for communities, (2) expansion of legal pathways, (3) humane migration management, and (4) coordinated emergency response.” Experts and commentators hailed the move by the region's state officials. Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute called it “a significant step forward in creating a common language and a coherent set of ideas for more cooperatively managing migration movements across the Americas.” Julio Rank Wright, the International Rescue Committee's deputy regional director for Latin America, described the declaration as a “welcome” step to “foster a regional and hemispheric approach” built on “responsibility sharing, collaboration with civil society and the establishment of financial support mechanisms to support people on the move in the Americas.”

In this Essay, we contextualize the significance of the Los Angeles Declaration by examining the long history of foreign policy and interstate partnerships to manage human migration in the region. Both the newest and the historic collaborations we analyze are rhetorically justified as necessary to support humanitarian and security needs. In each case, their effect has been to prevent migration, push routes farther south in the continent, and make journeys longer and more dangerous. US migration studies concentrate on US immigration and the US-Mexico border, including deportation, detention, and surveillance policies that militarize the border space and criminalize migrants. We suggest that analyses of foreign affairs and foreign policy relations show a much more complicated picture of efforts to manage human migration.

As we will demonstrate, there has been a long buildup to the context of countries such as Mexico and those farther south collaborating to prevent movement to the United States. Though we see the interstate architecture most clearly in the contemporary moment with agreements such as the Los Angeles Declaration, the formation of this regional management structure began in the 1980s and has intensified each decade since. We argue that the foreign policy collaborations are yet another method to augment US power and influence in the region, limit possibilities for human migration northward, and completely remake the regional landscape of borders and nation-state sovereignty in the Americas. The result of foreign policy collaborations, we suggest, is a system for managing migration that is more transnational than it is national. In an influential essay entitled “The Emerging Migration State,” James Hollifield suggests that a regional migration system, like the current iteration of the European Union, might be the best option states have to address the complexities of immigration, while still privileging their national goals. As he writes:

Creating a regional migration regime and a kind of supra-national authority to deal with migration and refugee issues allows the member states to finesse, if not escape, the liberal paradox. Playing the good cop/bad cop routine and using symbolic politics and policies to maintain the illusion of border control help governments fend off the forces of closure, at least in the short run.

Our analysis in this Essay demonstrates that we are now, in the Americas, operating with an informal regional migration system that is guided by US goals but implemented by Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and others.

To make this argument, we move historically from the 1980s onward to demonstrate the emergence and growth of the regional power system of the Americas. After outlining our methodology, our analysis begins in Part II.A. with the collaborative response to the Central American civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s, and the rhetoric deployed to warrant the political arrangements. In Part II.B., we fast forward to the period from 2014-2021 when more Central Americans, especially Central American families and minors, began presenting at the US-Mexico border than Mexican migrants. Here, we focus on the proliferation of US-Mexico collaborations to manage regional migration in the contemporary moment and on the justifications via rhetorics of humanitarian crisis and security to implement the measures. Our final section returns to where we began this Essay, with migration from South America toward North America, and the regional collaborations implemented since 2021 to manage and regulate movement. Across each moment appears a regional migration management infrastructure that operates through foreign policy collaborations to shift human migration south, farther away from the US southern border, and to prevent individuals from reaching territories where they may be able to seek asylum and other forms of humanitarian immigration relief. To conclude, we discuss the implications of a regional migration management system, suggesting a need to rethink what nation-state borders are and how they function, and how collaborating countries serve each other's goals by functioning as buffer states and camps.

Taken together, we suggest that these strategies might be best understood as rhetoric of stoppage, or deterrence and prevention that create the “forced immobility of bodies--literal and figurative,” which professor of rhetoric Lisa Flores describes as processes of racialization that “'manage’ race” in the nation-state. Stoppage and prevention projects are about controlling the racial composite of a nation. They are also about racializing particular communities as other, different, criminal, violent, or inadmissible, thus justifying their exclusion and dispossession. No matter the form, they work in migration processes to make it harder and harder for people to reach the places and positionalities where they may safely seek permanent residence. In sum, this project encourages a rethinking of immigration policy, moving from a nation-focused analysis to one attending to the transnational relations and foreign policy collaborations that constitute the material options migrants have before them.

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In this Essay, we have engaged two rhetorical methodologies--Critical Legal Rhetoric and Rhetorical Historiography--to demonstrate the buildup of foreign policy collaborations in the Americas as a mode of regional migration management. We worked historically through key migration moments since the 1990s, demonstrating how the United States increasingly involved partners from southern countries in the Western Hemisphere to accomplish its immigration aspirations and goals. The outcome of these collaborations, we have suggested, is the creation of a regional system of migration management. To conclude, we contemplate what this regional migration management system means for the ways we theorize migration and nation-state borders, and the experiences of people on the move throughout the Americas.

First, a regional migration management system built through foreign policy and interstate collaborations changes the ways we need to theorize what borders between nation-states look like, and how they are experienced. Scholars have theorized nation-state borders in the Western Hemisphere as arterial in the way they function more as veins of entrance and stoppage throughout the region. Others have pointed to the vertical nature of borders, in that a nation-state's border extends into other states' territories. We build on these frameworks to suggest that the US border structure is also variegated in function through the various foreign policy collaborations we analyzed here. The collaborations enable different pathways, entrances, and exits. They also create stairs that lead to nowhere, thresholds that if you pass through, you may never return, and doors that, if opened, mean almost certain stoppage or expulsion. In explicit terms, nation-states' sovereign legal structures remain intact. Yet, their influence and force are ever more prominently felt outside of the nation-state territory. Countries routinely make rhetorical demonstrations of their sovereign right and independence. As political theorist Wendy Brown argues, this is a performative enactment of sovereign power in which all countries participate, maintaining the political theater of autonomy and internal control without external influence. In practice, state inner workings are often enmeshed and involved.

An implication of our analysis is that foreign policy collaborations remake the region's sense of interiority and exteriority. Policies and programs implemented in Mexico, Guatemala, or Colombia are often more about the national desires of the United States than the countries in which they are implemented. Countries in the region implicitly function much like an official regional body such as the European Union in their collaborative actions. Yet, because there is no formal union or association, most of the collaborative energies happen through informal, soft-law processes, arrangements, and relationships that are often scantly or obscurely visible to relevant publics. The countries use each other as proxy agents and administrations of their proper governments while the rhetoric of sovereignty and independence maintains the theater of being separate actors.

It would be too simple, however, to say that the regional field of power is mutual and equal. The collaboration may involve many actors of the region, but the political and economic asymmetries of power between the actor states means that some states have more influence and power in dictating the terms of foreign policy collaborations. While Mexico and Central American countries have influence in shaping the terms of the policy arrangements, they are primarily answerable to the needs, desires, and even whims of the hegemonic United States. To shift a very popular neoliberal metaphor for economics in the 1980s, it can be helpful to think of the relation of power as one that trickles down-- from north moving southward, where the ratio of influence and power diminishes the farther south you go. In this trickle-down system of power and influence, Mexico and other regional states increasingly turn into buffer states for US political and economic interests. The original conceptualization of buffer states was meant to refer to the state or region between two or more large state/regional powers that serve as cushions to maintain peace and security. In the current context, Mexico and countries in Central and South America buffer the ills that migrants are discursively figured to bring, and consequently, the states themselves function as yet another form of stoppage.

In the buffer position, these countries also function as refugee camps and administrators for those seeking entrance to the US state, which is a second implication of our analysis of this regional migration management system. Political theorist Giorgio Agamben's writing on camps as zones of exception is quite helpful to understanding what it means for countries in the Americas to function as camps. According to Agamben, camps are the places where “everything is possible.” He explains, “Insofar as its inhabitants were stripped of every political status and wholly reduced to bare life, the camp was ... the most absolute biopolitical space ever to have been realized, in which power confronts nothing but pure life, without mediation.” Camps are spaces beyond the constraints of law and politics, which means that when individuals come face-to-face with institutional power in these spaces they are, quite literally, places where “pure life” faces pure “power.” Legal scholar Sherene Razack extends Agamben's theorizing to argue that camps are “the places where the rules of the world cease to exist.” As she explains, “Today's empire is most distinguished by the proliferation of camps and by the culture of exception that underpins the eviction of increasing numbers of people from community.” “All such spaces are distinguished by a legally authorized suspension of law and the creation of communities of people without 'the right to have rights.”’ In the current context, we suggest that entire countries and regions, through foreign policy collaborations, have become camps that buffer the United States from the ills with which migrant communities are associated.

In addition to spatially operating as camps, these foreign partners also do the work of administering US immigration and refugee programs and policy.

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As this Essay demonstrated, this is not a new role for partnering countries. The information-gathering, tracking, detention, and deportations measures that were put in place as early as the 1980s have only continued and amplified through the contemporary moment. Working in collaboration with the United States, governmental officials, police, nongovernmental agencies, and even those without official capacity, such as smugglers, extortionists, kidnappers, and cartel members, work in consort. These actors do the work of stoppage and prevention, making it more challenging for migrants to reach a place where they might apply for asylum or enter the United States in a way that has not already precluded them from regular, legal options because of the paths they have taken. While the United States has its own prevention strategies, such as placing detention centers in remote locations or forcing migrant foot trafficking through arduous desert mountain pathways, it also relies on its regional partners to do the work of prevention. That all of this happens within the context of a buffer state that operates like a camp beyond the bounds of law and politics means that prevention “by all means necessary” goes largely unnoticed in the public eye. Foreign policy collaborations create buffers and engage racialized projects of stoppage and prevention all in the name of making it more challenging, dangerous, and expensive for people to keep moving.

Sara L. McKinnon is Professor of Rhetoric, Politics & Culture in the Department of Communication Arts, and Faculty Director of Latin American, Caribbean & Iberian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She co-chairs UW-Madison's Human Rights Program and has affiliations in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies and Chican@ & Latin@ Studies.

Erin M. Barbato is the Director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She teaches second- and third-year law students to represent individuals in removal proceedings and with humanitarian-based immigration relief. She has affiliations in Chican@ & Latin@ Studies and Latin American, Caribbean & Iberian Studies.