Transcript: The First 100: Joy Olson


Ali Noorani [00:00:11] This week, as we continue through the first 100 days of the Biden administration, a closer look at what it means to address the root causes of Central American migration.


Joy Olson [00:00:28] They’ve created all these structures so that the US just doesn’t have to consider political asylum for anybody. And so there’s MPP, there’s the safe third country agreements, there are the covid restrictions at the border. I mean, those are probably three of the biggies.


Ali Noorani [00:00:42] From the National Immigration Forum, I’m Ali Noorani. And this is Only in America. On his first day in office, President Biden made it clear that his approach to immigration will be quite different from that of his predecessor. In addition to several day one executive orders and actions, the Biden administration released a proposal for more permanent immigration legislation that includes some noticeable policy changes. Among them, a four billion dollar, four year plan to address root causes of migration in Central America. The plan aims to tackle corruption and organized crime in the region in an effort to decrease the violence and poverty that drives so many Central Americans from their home countries. President Biden is expected to announce further immigration actions, including some focus on Central America later this week. For many, this new approach is a welcome change after four years under Trump, years marked by a near complete shutdown of the asylum system, policies like the migrant protection protocols or remain in Mexico, and the travel ban. However, the challenge of Central American migration far predates Trump’s harmful, inhumane policies. As this week’s guest points out, there are three major issues that the Biden administration should address quickly: the NPP, or remain in Mexico policy, so-called safe third country agreements, and covid era restrictions. But this week, we’re also going to look beyond simply untangling the chaos of Trump era policies, because when lawmakers talk about addressing the “root causes” of Central American migration, what do they really mean? What kind of policies would a sustainable approach entail? Where should we invest our resources? And, well, who has a seat at the table?


Underwriting [00:02:55] Support for the National Immigration Forum comes from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement and strengthening international peace and security and from Humanity United. When humanity is united, we can bring a powerful force for human dignity.


Ali Noorani [00:03:20] My guest this week is Joy Olson. Joy spent more than 20 years directing non-profits and advocating for smarter, more humane immigration policies across Latin America from 2003 to 2016, joy was executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, where she oversaw programs targeting organized crime and corruption in Central America. Joy takes a human rights approach to foreign policy and has a deep knowledge of the dynamics at play in the region as it braces for new policies under a new US president. We talked about untangling Trump’s asylum mess. What was missing from previous regional approaches and what she hopes the Bush administration will focus on.


Ali Noorani [00:04:01] Joey, thank you so much for joining in. I hope you had a wonderful holiday and happy New Year.


Joy Olson [00:04:05] I did. Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here.


Ali Noorani [00:04:08] Let’s get started with a quick look back. If you could give kind of a summary of Central American and Mexican migration to the U.S., let’s just say over the last 20 years, what are the major points? What are the things that people need to kind of have in mind as we begin to look forward?


Joy Olson [00:04:24] I think the biggest thing that people should have in mind is that migration at the US Mexico border is a normal phenomena and that there are periods of what’s perceived as a crisis. But having kind of a steady and regular flow of immigrants and at times asylum seekers is not a new and crisis phenomena. I think we have a tendency- we’ve had a tendency to call a lot of things a crisis that I don’t think really are. So that’s one. The patterns of migration at the border have changed over time from Central America and Mexico. Now, there have been periods where Mexicans were the predominant group crossing the border, and then there were periods when different Central American nationalities were the predominant nationality crossing the border. So these things tend to ebb and flow somewhat. There’s still a good degree of Central American migration. And there have been you know, I haven’t checked the numbers on Mexico recently. If it was for a long time that Mexicans were the ones who crossed. But and then it became that Central Americans were known as the Central American numbers started going down a couple of years ago, like in the past year, there was a little bit more of a Mexican flow. But I guess that’s a main thing that it changes. It is a it’s a constant process and it changes.


Ali Noorani [00:05:49] So based on what’s happened over the last four years, what do you think the biggest say, three to five challenges are for the Biden administration moving forward when you look at migration from Central America through Mexico to the US?


Joy Olson [00:06:03] Migration has been incredibly discouraged by the Trump administration, whether it be through things like restricting people’s ability to apply for political asylum. You know it used to be that people crossed between ports of entry because they were doing it clandestinely, and then it became that they were crossing at the points of entry and applying for political asylum. People are back to crossing in remote areas again. That’s one phenomena that that I wanted to point out. But I think that the biggest things have been that forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases were being determined in the United States. This created a population of people kind of permanently stranded in Mexico and has been an enormous problem. Another big issue for the Biden administration is simply that there is a pent up demand in Central America since the flows have been reduced this year because of not only the the lack of consideration of political asylum claims, but the covid restrictions at the border, basically hardly anybody is being allowed to cross right now legally. So I think what we’re going to see here in the next few months is likely to be an increased flow of Central Americans across the border. And there were over the past few years caravan’s where just a lot of people who wanted to come north got together and came all at once at times in the thousands. And people did this because it’s expensive to get from Central America up to the US. And basically, if they all kind of just came together and walked or took busses at different times, they found protection and they found that they could do it more cheaply. And so I think there is a good possibility that we’ll see something like that. Another big thing that the Biden administration needs to deal with right away are these agreements with the Northern Triangle countries, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, that basically allow the US to deport asylum seekers from other countries, like they could deport Guatemalans to El Salvador instead of sending them back to Guatemala. And what they should really be doing is considering their political asylum case here in the US. But they created this quasi what they call a safe third country agreement with the countries of Central America. They’ve created all these structures so that the US just doesn’t have to consider political asylum for anybody. And so, you know,  there’s MPP, there’s safe third country agreements, there are covid restrictions at the border. I mean, those are probably three of the biggies.


Ali Noorani [00:08:42] So let’s spend a little bit of time on each one, if you don’t mind. So in terms of MPP, the migrant protection protocols, I guess I have a couple of questions here. One is, what is the capacity for infrastructure that’s needed on the Mexican side of the US border as thousands continue to wait for their cases to be heard? And what’s the processing system that could be put into place? But then how does a Biden administration unwind MPP without incentivizing unauthorized migration as opposed to creating legal flows?


Joy Olson [00:09:16] Well, I think that is the big question that the Biden people are currently weighing how to unwind MPP and to do it in a way that doesn’t encourage migration. I think those are almost- it’s next to impossible to do that is what I really believe. I think that how they’re going to try and do it is lifting restrictions, but doing it very slowly and trying to have more systems put in place at the border to, for example, consider asylum claims more quickly. I think it would be a good thing if they did have the capacity to consider asylum claims more quickly, because this is historically been a problem that nobody, no administration has dealt with for years and years, which is why the backlog is so big here. On the Mexican side, what I would hope is that both the Mexican government and the US government could get together, and actually really important here is the non-governmental community, that they could all get together and talk about the humanitarian situation at the border on both sides of the border, because basically you’ve got the people who are under MPP who have been hanging out at the border and in the border region for a really long time now. So there’s like that category of people and what to do with them. And then there’s kind of the questions of the normal flow. What has really happened in Mexico over time is that a really rational and fundamentally sound in terms of humanitarian response infrastructure? They haven’t put one in place. I mean, it’s never really been put in place. So what’s developed over time are these incredibly piecemeal efforts. And God bless them, it’s the churches. It’s the local nonprofit organizations. It’s individual attorneys who end up providing protection, humanitarian assistance, medical assistance, legal representation to thousands and thousands and thousands of people. And I’m not saying that all of that should be a responsibility of the government. But, for example, in the Mexican border states, while migration is a federal issue, just like it is here in the United States, the federal government in Mexico provides very little support to the border states in providing any kind of humanitarian assistance to the migrant communities. So when there is a big caravan or a really big flow, it ends up putting tremendous pressure on these local communities. And I think it’s often viewed that, well, this isn’t costing very much because the government’s not paying for it, but it does cost a tremendous amount of money and it’s being dealt with kind of hand-to-mouth by all of these local entities, most of them non-governmental. But but I think one more point here, one of the huge issues on the Mexican side of the border is that there is a large presence of organized crime and violent organized crime at the border and migrants have very much become prey to organized crime. For me, it’s  a pretty interesting and telling story. And a lot of it relates to the drug war because back in the 1980s, I’m going to go down a tangent here, but I think it’s useful. Back in the 1980s when Miami was a complete mess in terms of drug trafficking, the US decided that it was going to shut off the ability of traffickers to get cocaine into Miami. And so there was an enormous enforcement effort to catch drug traffickers coming in and out of South Florida. And what ended up happening was that over a not very long period of time, the trafficking organizations decided that it was easier and safer and more profitable for them to use historic kind of marijuana trafficking routes from Mexico across the border into the United States. So what ended up happening was the organized crime presence was really consolidated. A different kind of organized crime presence was consolidated in Mexico and over the next couple of decades that really developed. But what we’ve seen happen over the past 10 years is that, as the US has tightened the screws on border security, making it harder and harder for migrants to cross and encouraging migrants as they are right now, again to cross more and more in these remote areas, what you find on the Mexican side is those remote areas are really often controlled by criminal organizations. I want to be really clear here. I’m not saying that the migrants are criminals, but what’s happened is that the flow of migrants has been forced into the territory that the criminals control. And so they’ve really become prey to the criminals. And there are huge swaths of the Mexican side of the border where migrants really cannot cross at all without paying off the criminal organizations in Mexico. And so one thing you’ve really seen is kidnapings of migrants on the Mexican side of the border, which is incredibly common, and then extortion payments being paid by family members, often here in the United States to get their loved one released from these criminal organizations in Mexico. So the migrants both have to pay off the criminal organizations. They become prey to the criminal organizations. And it’s the security issues around migrants and asylum seekers on the northern border are huge. And it’s something that nobody has dealt with for a long time. So what I would hope is that in this next stage, as the Biden folks attempt to rethink what’s going on at the border, that there would be more of a collaboration and a discussion with their counterparts in Mexico and definitely with the non-governmental community, because they’re the ones who’ve been taking care of this problem for such a long time at the border. And to deal with the reality that this is this constant issue, no one is putting systems into place to deal with.


Ali Noorani [00:15:14] And does UNHCR or IOM. Do they have a presence at the border at this point?


Joy Olson [00:15:18] They do, but it’s incredibly small. At the southern border, the southern Mexican border, UNHCR is very present, and it’s very present in both providing humanitarian assistance or facilitating humanitarian assistance, as well as security and assisting with the processing of political asylum claims within Mexico. But the Mexican government, greatly in response to the US government, has wanted to have a strategy that kept migrants from Central America in southern Mexico while their political asylum claims were heard because it keeps people away from the US Mexico border and the US was wanting to keep migrants out of the United States. So they threatened and convinced the Mexican government to implement policies that kept migrants to the degree possible away from the US Mexico border. I mean, it’s complicated because UNHCR presence has in some ways made the situation much better for migrants in the south. It’s also been a way that the Mexican government has kind of kept migrants in the south, but the kinds of presence that UNHCR has, let me let me give you an example. In on the southern border, they’ll have protection officers who walk along the river where people tend to cross from Guatemala into Mexico, and the protection officers will talk to the Mexican National Guard and other security officials who are there like on a daily basis, if there is an incident, a security incident of some kind, UNHCR can step in and be involved. There’s nothing like that going on at the northern border. UNHCR has some presence right now, I think in Monterrey, which is not a border city. It’s farther south. And one of the things I often hear is that they’re not very present in the north because the security situation doesn’t allow for them to be there, which seems to me exactly why they should be there. But kind of the traditional entities, the international entities that provide these kinds of assistance and protection in other areas are not greatly present at the northern Mexican border.


Ali Noorani [00:17:19] And then in terms of the safe third country agreements. Same question. How did those get unwound? It also felt like those are agreements put into place and there was some some leverage exerted in other ways in terms of foreign aid and other types of support for those countries. How does a Biden administration kind of pull those others back?


Joy Olson [00:17:38] I think those would be pretty easy to claw back because they’re not laws; they’re just agreements. And a couple of them were implemented pretty recently. So they’re not really very implemented on the on the Central America end. And in the sense of- it’s not like they’ve stood up infrastructures, much of an infrastructure really in any of the three countries to be receiving people. So I think that’s probably one of the easiest things that the Biden administration can do is to reverse those agreements. I think that the Central Americans went along with them because the US was pressuring them to do it. I don’t think they went along with them because Guatemala has a great ability to provide protection to asylum seekers from El Salvador. I think they did it because the US was cutting off foreign assistance, like you said, and the Trump administration was very big on making threats, whether it be around limiting trade agreements and foreign assistance to different countries, if they didn’t play ball on immigration.


Ali Noorani [00:18:37] And it’s interesting, I was just reading your article this morning, written in 2016, about just the externalization of border controls. And it felt like to me over the last four years, the Trump administration was really just trying to push the US border just further and further south through all these different measures.


Joy Olson [00:18:55] Well, that’s for sure. But I have to say that that’s the continuation of something that’s been going on for quite a long time. They didn’t they didn’t invent the idea of moving the US border south.


Ali Noorani [00:19:06] Yeah, the paper I was looking at, it’s been going on for a long, long time. OK, so that’s short term fix or challenges. What about in the long term? What are the things that a Biden administration should be thinking of in terms of long term solutions so that migration is safe, it’s humane, it’s secure in the years ahead as opposed to the months ahead?


Joy Olson [00:19:28] Well, this is the chronically difficult problem, right? What can really be done? A lot of things have been tried over the years. I think the traditional way of like the Democratic Big D Democratic way of responding is to say push factors cause migration, which is definitely true, and that that means we should give more foreign assistance. And I definitely support the concept of foreign assistance. But the reality is the Central America has a tremendous problem with two things: corruption, much of it in the government, and with really small economic elites who have unreasonable amounts of power within their countries and who can block anti-corruption measures, if they don’t like them, which they’ve been doing. And so there were international anti-corruption mechanisms put into place both in Guatemala, one that was there for almost 10 years, and in Honduras, which was there a lesser period of time. But basically, in both cases, the elites and leaders of the country have gotten those mechanisms dismantled. I think that the inability of this region to deal with the corruption problem is one of the things that is leading to what I feel is a sense of hopelessness that people have in Central America, that things are going to change. This is very informal, but as I’ve talked to migrants at the border, this is something you just really feel that there isn’t an expectation that things are going to get any better. And then once you have that and then once they see their government doing things like misappropriating funds in some really extreme and blatant way, and then the region is also really highly prone to natural disasters, so then you have another hurricane come through and set people back years at a time in terms of economic progress. You know, you have those things that build on top of each other and I think really create this sense of hopelessness. I think long term, not just the US government, but certainly the Central American governments have got to find a way to build hope for change. I think we’ve tended to think about things like gangs are a serious problem in El Salvador and Honduras and it’s a big public security problem. So we’re going to focus on public security solutions and we’re going to appropriate money one year at a time, which is how the US does foreign assistance to address gang violence in the most violent communities in Central America. But then what we find is that from one year to the next, the administration or Congress takes a different approach to appropriating money. So programs will be started and then they’re stopped halfway through. There’s not continuity on these things. A new government will come in in Central America and they’ll start and stop things as governments will. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is not a long term vision. There is not a long term vision that instills a sense of hope within the region. That sounds a little squishy. I, I actually think it’s not I think that there’s an idea here that has to be somehow worked into how we approach, not how just how we approach the region, but how the region approaches itself.


Ali Noorani [00:22:56] We often think of U.S. immigration policy as somebody coming to achieve their American dream. What if we were to think about this as foreign assistance, as in the case of Honduras, so that Honduran can realize their Honduran dream? Because the reality is that I think most people don’t want to migrate. They feel like they have to. You know, I’m just trying to think about the ways, at some level with advocates, how do we even change our own mindset so that in the ways that we’re talking about migration, you get closer to that policy solution that instills a sense of hope, whatever that policy solution may be in a country?


Joy Olson [00:23:33] Yeah, I mean, it’s tough because it’s not like you can impose hope on someone.


Ali Noorani [00:23:38] You’re right, right, right, right. You shall be hopeful now.


Joy Olson [00:23:44] Yes. Yes. But, yeah, I agree. I think we have to change the way we think about this. I also think it comes down to something else you asked about, which I digressed from. But I think the US has to or should really look at ways of having different kinds of visas that give people legal ways to migrate. The reality is that a lot of Central Americans have family in the US, even if it’s not just a question of the traditional concept of family reunification, the linkages here are tremendous between that region and the United States. An interesting point about Mexico on this, I’ll get to you in just a minute. But there just aren’t enough ways for people to migrate legally and even migrating to do temporary work. I lived in Mexico for a number of years, and I remember, again, this is disturbingly anecdotal. But I remember I lived in Cuernavaca and it seems like every taxicab I got into when I started chatting up the taxi driver, it seemed like they’d spent some time living in the US and they made enough money and they’d come back and they bought a taxi and now they had a business. And my point there is that not that there weren’t disturbing patterns in US Mexican migration in the past, but there was a sense of circular migration and that is just really gone. And I don’t think that all circular migration is bad. People being able to go somewhere, make some money for a while and being able to go home if they want to go home, I think can be an incredibly positive thing. In Mexico, what we saw for many, many years was that there was a lot of Mexican migration to the United States. Family reunification was a huge part of it. There was a lot of circular migration, and again, as the US decided that it needed to tighten the border and make the border more and more secure, those possibilities for circular migration, they stopped because it was too expensive, in terms of having to pay criminal organizations to cross the border, and it was too risky. Once you’ve gotten into the US, you didn’t want to go back home because you might not be able to get back in. And so our obsession with border security, I think, in many ways has made problems worse and has changed migration in a way that’s not helpful. So that’s part of it. The other thing that you’ve seen in Mexico is that as Mexico has started to develop economically in recent decades and as longer migration trends have sort of played themselves out in terms of family reunification, you know, Mexico was down to being a net zero migration country. I mean, as many Mexicans were leaving as we’re coming in, you weren’t seeing these big flows that you’d seen in the past. I think that’s something to think about, as we think about Central America. And I may be beating this horse, but I do believe that there needs to be border security. But somehow the way we thought about border security was just building a wall, adding more Border Patrol agents, making it harder and harder for people to cross. And we sort of created a monster by doing what we thought was making us safer. And the monster was- it wasn’t a monster. That’s probably a bad word, but we unintentionally changed migration in a way that’s made things definitely more dangerous on the Mexican side and not as humane.


Ali Noorani [00:27:08] Are you hopeful about the future?


Joy Olson [00:27:13] Well, when is it? January 2021. So I am choosing to be optimistic.


Ali Noorani [00:27:23] So I got one last question for you. Name of the podcast is Only in America. And my last question of folks is just to finish the sentence: Only in America…


Joy Olson [00:27:34] I’m going to answer this in a way you’re not going to like. I think one of the problems with Only in America is that it kind of rings of exceptionalism. And as I’ve been thinking about the border and the issues of the border right now with the like the lack of international presence there, as there are another and other similar environments, I think this is yet another manifestation of US exceptionalism. Just we’re not going to be like anybody else, so we don’t have to- we can create a really horrendous situation just south of our border, but it’s outside of our border. And we’re going to anyway. So the incredible thing about the United States that is not necessarily only in America, but the incredible thing about the United States that brings people here over and over again is the idea of social and economic mobility, that is just not nearly as available in so many parts of the world. And it is an amazing achievement of this country and something that I think we all take for granted at this point in life, that there is, and it’s not guaranteed, but there is a possibility of it in a way that just doesn’t exist in other places. So that’s how I’m answering.


Ali Noorani [00:28:48] Well, thank you. Thank you very much for joining. Thank you for sharing. And thank you for realizing that Only in America is just a vehicle for imperialism.


Joy Olson [00:29:00] Thanks, Ali. It was great talking to you.


Ali Noorani [00:29:09] Joy Olson is a leading expert on immigration and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. You can learn more about joy at our website: And, well, if you like what you hear, subscribe to Only in America wherever you’re listening to this episode. Stay tuned for next week’s episode where we’ll be discussing the future of legal immigration under President Biden. Only in America is produced and edited by Joanna Taylor and Becka Wall. Our artwork and graphics are designed by Karla Leyja. I’m Ali Noorani, and I will talk to you next week.

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