Joe Biden's Approach to Latin America Will Be Major Departure from Donald Trump

Of the many wide differences between Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden's policies, their approaches to Latin America provide one of the starkest changes between the two administrations.

Where Trump antagonized Mexico and Central American countries, leaning on them to increase enforcement along their borders, and overturning years of policy related to the asylum system while instituting a controversial Remain in Mexico policy, Biden has for years believed that the state of Latin American countries must first measurably improve for immigration to slow.

Biden made his views clear in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed titled "The Border Won't Be Secure Until Central America Is." He cited a $750 million bipartisan aid agreement that he worked to secure as vice president, writing that he supported the goal of Congress to tie "the aid package to concrete commitments by regional governments to clean up their police, increase tax collection, fight corruption and create the opportunities necessary to convince would-be migrants to remain in their countries."

According to former advisers, Biden believed people were fleeing the so-called Northern Triangle countries—El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—for a reason, and needed a carrot to address why they were doing so.

In an interview with America's Quarterly in March before securing the nomination, Biden said "our assistance is not a reward, but a way for the United States to help Northern Triangle countries address the violence and poverty that drive desperate families north. Assistance to these countries is in our national interest, but I will also require that governments make concrete commitments to combat corruption, invest their own resources, and demonstrate political will to undertake important reforms."

Activists said they know Biden will approach Latin America with more respect than Trump and are hopeful he understands the desperation that leads to the trek north.

"Migration will continue to happen as long as Latin America continues being dangerous for people trying to live a life there," Mario Carillo, the campaigns manager for immigrant advocacy organization America's Voice, told Newsweek.

Carillo pointed to the "level of destruction" to the asylum system left in Trump's wake as something Biden will have to rebuild, saying it will take many hours and infusion of resources to improve the process.

Dr. Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars think tank, told Newsweek a fundamental difference between Biden and Trump will be the difference between a spirit of cooperation and intimidation.

"We're not going to see Joe Biden acting as the neighborhood bully," she said. "It will be showing a willingness to have not just America First, but to think of the Western Hemisphere as our neighborhood, which leaves open the possibility that good things could happen."

The issue of immigration from Latin America could come up early in the new administration, Arnson said, noting that there is great concern that there could be a new surge of Central American migration due to devastating hurricanes that hit Honduras and Nicaragua. The pull factor would be the idea that a "kinder, gentler United States" would be quicker to honor asylum claims, which is why the initial messaging from the Biden administration will be to discourage that kind of thinking, she added.

Despite wanting to move methodically, Arnson, as well as former Obama officials, told Newsweek one thing Biden likely will do early on is increase the refugee cap into the United States, which would "send a powerful signal" of how Biden views immigration differently than Trump, she said. Another move would be to announce an increase in immigration judges while reinforcing the idea that wholesale changes will take time.

Activists want Biden to honor his campaign promises, pointing to ending the Remain in Mexico policy, ending metering, which limits the number of people who can access the asylum system each day, and putting an asylum system in place that is safe and efficient and doesn't leave people in limbo interminably.

Immigration advocates also pointed to Trump's "antagonistic" approach to Mexico to get the country to reinforce its Southern Border, and said it's unclear how that conversation with the Biden administration will play out.

But in addition to specific policies, activists invested in reforms believe a new tone must take hold to address the myriad problems facing Latin America, from climate change to the coronavirus outbreak and beyond.

"What we've seen from past administrations is a stance of not being able to offer any sort of reprieve from deportations, without being able to fully militarize the border and institute harsh immigration practices," said Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior organizer for Mijente, who leads work around immigration policy.

"We want to have a conversation about what is happening globally with climate change and protecting human rights no matter where folks are coming from or going to. But the tone of the conversation must change. Militarization is not working and we want to see Biden push back against that," she said.

Joe biden latin america
Daniel Palacios, chairman, Bogota City Council, gives honors to Joe Biden, former U.S. vice president, as part of the 2018 Concordia Americas Summit Day 2 at Agora Bogota Convention Center on July 17, 2018, in Bogota, Colombia. Ivan Valencia/Getty