THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Great. Well, good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center, everyone. My name is Doris Robinson and I am the moderator for today’s briefing. Today it’s my pleasure to introduce Blas Nuñez-Neto, who serves as the Assistant Secretary for Border and Immigration Policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central America and Migration Eric Jacobstein. They will be discussing the U.S. Government’s response to migration in the Americas.
Just a reminder that this briefing is on the record, and we will have a transcript later today at fpc.state.gov. For the journalists joining us by Zoom today, please take a moment and make sure that your name and outlet is attached to your Zoom profile.
And now I would like to invite the assistant secretary to share his opening remarks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NUÑEZ-NETO: Good afternoon, everybody, and thank you very much for being with us today here, either in person or virtually. I’d like to provide a brief update on our operations at the border, and then I’ll turn it over to my colleague from the State Department, Eric, to talk about the good work the State Department has been doing.
First and foremost, we continue to build upon our plan to return to Title 8 processing after the lifting of our public health emergency on May 12th. That plan is predicated on strengthening the consequences that we deliver at the border for individuals who cross unlawfully, even as we seek to continue to expand on what has been an unprecedented expansion of lawful processes and pathways for individuals who may wish to seek protection in the United States to access the United States.
Since May 12th, we have removed or returned more than 380,000 people who we encountered trying to enter the United States unlawfully or without authorization, and that represents a record over the time frame that we are talking about. As part of that, we have, as I think everybody knows, recently begun repatriation flights directly from the United States to Venezuela; that decision was taken to respond to what has been a significant and unprecedented movement of individuals through the Darién between Panama and Colombia and to our border with Mexico. Individuals we return to Venezuela have been screened for refoulement and other purposes and have not established a legal basis to remain in the United States. We operated our fourth repatriation flight to Venezuela yesterday, and we will continue to operate those flights moving forward.
Additionally, we have continued to expand and build upon the lawful processes and pathways that are the flip side of our strategy. Since, for example, January of this year, we have admitted more than 324,000 individuals at the land border through our CBP One mobile application, which provides individuals who are in Mexico a safe and orderly means to access the United States. We have also admitted almost 270,000 nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela through the humanitarian parole processes that were announced for those countries. Those processes begin in the United States with a U.S.-based supporter who commits to providing financial and other support to these individuals who, once they clear robust national security and public safety vetting, are allowed to book travel to the United States.
And as I think everybody knows, we continue to implement our new rule, the Circumvention of Lawful Pathways rule, which has placed what we believe are some commonsense conditions on asylum eligibility for those individuals who, despite having the ability to use the lawful pathways we’ve expanded or to claim asylum in one of the countries that they transit through, cross our border unlawfully.
As a result of this balanced approach that again combines strengthened consequences with opportunities for those who wish to come, to come, we have seen a significant decrease in unlawful entries and encounters at the border since the public health emergency was lifted; and specifically for nationals of Venezuela, we have seen a 74 percent decrease in encounters of Venezuelan nationals in the second half of October compared to where we were in September, which we attribute obviously to the restarting of repatriation flights. We’re also seeing a significant reduction in entries into the Darién as well.
Lastly, we are continuing to work with our foreign partners, which I think Eric will talk about. I had the opportunity to be part of a senior-level U.S. delegation that went to Panama and Colombia last month and saw firsthand what is happening in the Darién. It is obviously concerning to all of us and really shows, I think, the extent to which human smugglers and criminal organizations are putting peoples’ lives at risk for profit. And I think we as an international community have an obligation to address what is a humanitarian and ecological emergency in the Darién.
So thanks, and I will turn the microphone over to Eric.
MR JACOBSTEIN: Great. Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining. It’s a pleasure to be here with all of you and with my colleague from the Department of Homeland Security.
I want to emphasize that the U.S. Government is engaged in a comprehensive, long-term effort to address the challenges of irregular migration and forced displacement in the Americas. We work collaboratively at the State Department with Latin American governments, civil society, and international organizations to address the root causes of irregular migration and to advance safe, orderly, humane migration management. Let me show two illustrative examples of this approach.
First, on November 6, President Biden announced nearly $485 million in additional humanitarian assistance to respond to the needs of refugees, migrants, and other vulnerable populations, including by supporting host communities across Latin America and the Caribbean. The funding that was announced meets the goals of the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection that was endorsed by many countries in the Americas on the margins of the Summit of the Americas last June in Los Angeles. And the idea behind the Los Angeles Declaration is to foster responsibility-sharing around regional migration challenges, to provide stability and assistance to affected communities, to expand lawful pathways, and to promote – to promote humane migration management policies.
So this is just one of many examples of the United States’ dedication to addressing the needs of vulnerable populations in the region, even as we work on addressing the root causes of irregular migration, the purpose being so that individuals and families do not feel the need to make the expensive, dangerous, irregular migration journey north.
The U.S. is proud to be the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance for the Western Hemisphere. In the past two years, the United States has provided more than $2.4 billion in humanitarian assistance to the region and nearly $3.7 billion in development, economic security, and health assistance across the Western Hemisphere.
In northern Central America, our root causes efforts include mobilizing NGO resources and private sector investment, which has generated over $4 billion in private sector commitments to help spur economic opportunity.
My second example, building on what my colleague from DHS discussed, is on lawful pathways. Last month marked the arrival to the United States of the first set of families to come through our Secure Mobility Offices, the movilidadsegura.org website process. These Venezuelan parents and children arrived from Colombia and are excited to start their new lives in the United States.
This is just the latest step forward. Since our launch in June of the Safe Mobility Office initiative, over 2,000 individuals have arrived in the United States. This initiative facilitates expedited refugee processing via the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and provides information and referrals to humanitarian parole, to family reunification programs, and to labor pathways. Hundreds of additional applicants are in the final stages of processing and will arrive in the United States in the coming weeks. These arrivals will increase exponentially as our Safe Mobility Offices in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador reach full operational capacity. This is a critical legal pathway.
The Safe Mobility Initiative joins a number of other expanded lawful immigration pathways, including the extension of the Family Reunification Program to additional countries and the addition of tens of thousands of new H-2B labor visas, among other programs.
Individuals seeking international protection and other lawful pathways have many options, including seeking refugee resettlement, humanitarian parole, family reunification, labor pathways, and seeking asylum in host countries, as well as various support services provided by international NGOs and organizations, many of which are funded by the United States.
Together, as my colleague noted, these initiatives represent the largest expansion in decades of lawful pathways to the United States. So we urge those who are considering irregular migration to seek information from official U.S. Government sources rather than embarking on the expensive, dangerous irregular migration journey to the north.
On a final note, I’d like to also note that yesterday’s removal flight to Venezuela, which returned irregular Venezuelan migrants who lacked a legal basis to remain in the United States, is critical as we impose consequences for those who arrive irregularly. The U.S. continues to enforce consequences for migrants who cross our border irregularly. This week alone, the U.S. Government has sent irregular migrants back to home countries in Venezuela, in Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Since May 2023, DHS has returned more than 380,000 individuals. So it’s really critical for people to understand that despite what human smugglers claim, the reality is that migrants who cross the U.S. border illegally and lack a lawful basis to remain will be quickly removed from the United States, and we are increasing return – we are increasing the return to countries of origin.
Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you both for those remarks. We’ll now start the question-and-answer portion. If you have a question in the room, please raise your hand and I will call on you; and make sure that you project because we are not using handheld microphones. For those on Zoom, please raise your virtual hand and I will call on you. So we’ll go to the room first. And please state your name and outlet. Thank you.
QUESTION: Stefanie Bolzen. I’m the correspondent for Die Welt, a German publication. Just checking a figure. You said a 74 percent decrease from Venezuela, comparing second half of September, second half of October, and that is on the basis of the flights. Is that correct? Is that (inaudible)?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NUÑEZ-NETO: We do believe that that is principally due to the resumption of repatriation flights. And as I noted, we’re also seeing a pretty significant decrease in entries into the Darien over the same time frame.
QUESTION: And then two more questions, if I may. Do you have any figure based upon – do you have any figure of how many migrants are currently in Mexico on the basis of the “Remain in Mexico” principle? And secondly – and that’s a broader question and a very European question – but for example, you’re sending migrants back to Cuba because you have these repatriation programs, but Cuba is a country that will – there – where people run the risk that they might be exposed to torture, prison, and so on. What is the American approach to that? Because, as you know, in Europe we have a very different approach. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NUÑEZ-NETO: Sure. With regards to the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico” program, obviously that program is no longer in effect. We went through a process to bring back individuals who had been – were still in Mexico under the previous administration’s implementation of that program. That process concluded a couple – I guess a year and a while ago, and our court-ordered reimplementation of that process has also concluded. So we don’t have a number on how many individuals who may have been returned to Mexico under either of those programs are still in Mexico, but it’s important to note that neither of those programs is still in effect, and that our Secretary sought to end the programs and that they are currently not in effect.
In terms of returns to Cuba or really any country in the world, we take our international obligations quite seriously when it comes to refoulement, the Convention Against Torture, and other international conventions. We go through a thorough credible fear screening process, and we are only returning individuals to Cuba, Venezuela, or really any country who have been ordered removed and have not established a legal basis to remain in the United States. And that is a long-established practice here and one that we are committed to.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go here.
QUESTION: Thank you both. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Can you state your name and outlet?
QUESTION: Yeah, my name is Alejandra Arredondo. I’m a reporter for EFE News Agency from Spain. So the first question I have is, so today President Biden and President López Obrador met. Mexico has been insisting in creating a development plan between the U.S. and Mexico for Central America. So I wanted to know if that is in consideration, if you’re thinking about that.
And then the other question I had is, earlier this month Human Rights Watch released a report about the Darién, which you talked about just now, and it says that mobility restrictions in different countries across the region that were promoted by the U.S. have driven migrants to take bigger risks, exposing them to abuses, and helped strengthen organized crime in the region. So my question would be: Do you think this is true? Do you think the U.S. policies have been promoting greater risk for migrants and promoting organized crime? Thank you.
MR JACOBSTEIN: I can start. Thank you for those questions. I would note that cooperation in Central America is at the core of U.S.-Mexico collaboration on migration. The U.S. Government – President Biden is committed to requesting $4 billion over four years to invest in the root causes of migration for Northern Central America, and we as an administration deeply value the collaborative efforts with the Mexican Government on a number of programs, including one known as Sembrando Oportunidades, in which we have jointly worked together in Northern Central America to promote development and precisely to ensure that individuals are not forced to make the dangerous journey north by investing in root causes. So we look forward to deeper collaboration on that front.
With regard to the Darién, I would note that we work very closely with Colombia and Panama to strengthen humane migration management, to protect vulnerable migrants and refugees, to enhance border security, and to combat human smuggling in what is one of the most dangerous junctures there in the Darién. So we continue to counter dangerous irregular migration movements in the Darién, and certainly as we do this work, we’re very cognizant of human rights concerns and continue to work closely with humanitarian organizations across the world on that.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Okay, so we’ll take one more question in the room, and then we’ll go online. We have several hands raised online. Dee/*Sara, will you go?
QUESTION: My name is Sara Canals. I’m the D.C. correspondent for Spanish radio Cadena Ser. So very specific to and maybe a European approach, on May, Spain and the U.S. reached an agreement to help its immigrant crisis, mostly building regional centers across the continent and accepting also a quota on immigrants along with Mexico and Canada. Where are we when it comes to this specific program?
MR JACOBSTEIN: Thank you. So we’re deeply appreciative of efforts by Spain, Canada, other countries, to work closely with us as we expand legal pathways throughout the hemisphere. So I understand that officials from the Spanish Government have visited some of these Safe Mobility Offices in the region, which has been a welcome step, and we really look forward to deepening collaboration because we think that there are labor needs throughout the world and it’s important that individuals continue to have access to these legal pathways and labor pathways. So we really appreciate that deepened collaboration.
QUESTION: And do you have a timeline?
MR JACOBSTEIN: We are working constantly and meeting constantly with the Spanish Government, and we’re happy to follow up with specifics on next steps. But that engagement is happening all the time.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NUÑEZ-NETO: And if I may just add, I think from our viewpoint, the Safe Mobility initiative is really groundbreaking and an attempt by us and our partners in the region and really around the world to provide a better, more safe, and orderly means for people to come to our countries that does not involve having to put their hands in the lives of smugglers and cross the Darién, which is extraordinarily dangerous.
It’s early days. I mean, we announced this a few months ago. It takes time to build these kinds of mechanisms. But we are working really tirelessly to expand. We just announced the expansion to Ecuador a couple of weeks ago, and we continue to be in conversations with partners in the region and really around the world to either host new offices or provide pathways that we can link to these offices.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Let’s take a question online from Andres Fidanza from La Politica Online. Andres, you can go ahead and unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much. I am from Argentina. I want to know if you have the number, the updated data of the number of nationalities of illegal immigrants in the States. And also, if it’s possible, I would like an opinion about Donald Trump’s promise to carry out massive deportation if he is elected president.
MR JACOBSTEIN: I’m not sure I understood the first half of that question. Were you asking for an updated estimate on the number of undocumented individuals who are currently in the United States? Is that right?
QUESTION: Yes, number and nationality.
MR JACOBSTEIN: So I don’t have that number in front of me. Our Office of Immigration Statistics, which we have actually recently expanded to be the Office of Homeland Security Statistics, does produce a report that estimates the unauthorized population in the United States. You can find that on our website, and that is the most recent and most authoritative information that we have on that subject. And that – we do have a new website which we can probably provide to you all after this briefing, and it actually just launched today. So this was a great plug for what we view as a transformative effort to provide more transparency into immigration and homeland security data.
With regards to your second question, I don’t have a comment on that. I will just note that removing individuals who are at large in the United States is extraordinarily difficult and has been challenging for administrations of both political parties going back many years. It’s – the rhetoric on this is, we understand, very polarized and heated, but in practical terms, it is I think extraordinarily challenging and difficult to do what he is proposing.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question online. Francesco Garriga from Catalunya Radio.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you for taking this question. So I was several days ago at the border in Arizona, and I spoke to some ranch owners. They claimed that because the border wall is not finished and there are some gaps in this border wall, some migrants can use it, but not only migrants but especially drug cartels use it to smuggle drugs through their properties. They even showed me some footage of groups of men in camouflage with big backpacks, and they said that they have provided all this proof to the government, to the officials, and that they have no response. And they claim that they feel like the government has left them alone. So are you aware of this problem? Is this a big concern for the government? And also, they claim that if the wall is finished, this problem would go away. What can you tell them to not finish the wall and how can you address this problem? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NUÑEZ-NETO: I mean, I would say that we understand that barriers at the border are not a panacea and not an overall solution to what is a broken immigration system in this country. We have been quite clear from the beginning of this administration that there is no long-term solution to the challenges we are facing at the border that does not involve the U.S. Congress updating our immigration laws and our asylum system. We have been calling on Congress to work in a bipartisan manner with us on this now for quite some time, and we continue to make that call. We have filled gaps in the border barrier system where we view it as operationally necessary, but this administration’s position is that border barriers and walls by themselves are not a solution and what we really need here is for Congress to do its job and help us update our immigration statutes that have not been updated in decades.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take one more question online and then we’ll go back to the room. Our next question is from Alejandro with NTN24.
QUESTION: All right, thank you, everyone on the call, and thank you so much for doing this briefing for us. I wanted to ask you on how big is still the challenge that you’re facing in the realm of misinformation. One of the main drivers of all of this huge wave of migration has to do with huge amounts of misinformation that is circulating among immigrants. And regardless of how big the job of the Biden administration has been in working with governments and even with us, the media, to try to spread the message of the legal pathways, still there’s a huge – or we suspect that there’s still a huge misinformation front that’s still encouraging migrants to take a huge risk. So can you share with us a little bit on how big still the challenge is in the front of misinformation, and what would you like to see from us, the media, and how can we support to help combat misinformation that is a huge driver of this migrant crisis in our continent? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NUÑEZ-NETO: Yeah, thank you, Alejandro, for that question. As you know, we have been really focused on what we view as a huge challenge in the region when it comes to the ways that smugglers, coyotes, and other bad actors are leveraging social media platforms and other media organizations to spread misinformation about what’s happening on our border, what’s happening in the Darién, and what’s happening along the transit routes. We are working every day to try to combat that misinformation, and we obviously try to address it in every way that we can, but we just recognize that the scale of the challenge is really enormous. And I think the smugglers have really weaponized that misinformation at times to push migrants to take extraordinarily dangerous risks with their lives.
In terms of work with the media, I mean, we would be eager to collaborate with you all to help address this misinformation when we see it or when you see it, and so I would direct you to please reach out to our Office of Public Affairs on that and would be eager to have that conversation. Eric, if you want to add anything to that.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And we have time for just a couple more questions, so let’s go to someone who hasn’t had a question here, and then here.
QUESTION: Cristobal Vasquez with France 24 in Spanish. I have two questions, first about fentanyl. It was one of the main topics of AMLO and Biden’s meeting today. I wanted to know specifically in terms of the chemical components, the chemical precursors that are entering Mexico from China, what exactly is Biden demanding or asking China and Mexico to do in terms of those components?
And the second question is about the Palestinians who are trying or want to come to the U.S. to find a safe space here. Is – do they have a pathway, a legal pathway to enter the U.S.? And in that regard, do you have a number of Palestinians that were perhaps trying to cross the border, Mexico-U.S. border?
MR JACOBSTEIN: Sure, I can start just quickly on fentanyl – obviously a critical challenge and a focus not only of the bilateral meeting between our two presidents but also a focus of the High-Level Security Dialogue in Mexico City last month. So collaboration in this area is critical, and we’re happy to provide more information on the specifics, get that back to you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NUÑEZ-NETO: Yeah, I would just add to that I know that our presidents discussed how our governments can expand law enforcement cooperation on this issue and really target and dismantle the transnational criminal organizations that are bringing fentanyl into both our countries. President Biden, as I understand it, expressed his appreciation for Mexico’s ongoing commitment to confront the illicit fentanyl and synthetic opioid crisis, and we have been working very closely with our Mexican counterparts and law enforcement on this issue, and in fact, it was a topic of a fair amount of discussion during the High-Level Security Dialogue that senior U.S. Government officials attended, including myself, in Mexico last month.
In terms of legal pathways for Palestinians, we are obviously committed to providing Palestinians who qualify for any of the legal pathways that we have available the ability to use those pathways, but we don’t have any announcements to make on that today.
QUESTION: Jahanzaib, ARY News, Pakistan. Sir, can you provide insights into the efforts made to secure the U.S. borders and prevent illegal crossing? And secondly, how does the immigration department adapt to changing global conditions such as conflicts and humanitarian crisis that (inaudible) migration?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NUÑEZ-NETO: It’s a nice short question to end the conference. (Laughter.) So we have – I mean, there’s a lot of – it’s probably a longer answer than we have time for, but I will say what we have done over the last two years as we were building up to the end of the public health emergency associated with the COVID pandemic and in the months since was to mobilize all of the government’s resources to try to buttress and support our frontline personnel on the border. We have deployed thousands of additional law enforcement personnel, both from within the department and from other agencies and departments in the government, to supplement our efforts on the border. We have significantly expanded our infrastructure, and that includes our holding capacity at the border in order to process individuals. It includes additional technology that has been deployed to help identify individuals who may be crossing unlawfully. And it includes also hiring and deploying additional personnel to support processing at the border.
We recognize that what we are seeing at the border is really a symptom of an overall challenge that is global. I think countries all over the world are seeing increased migration over the last few years as a result of what we – the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on economies around the world, as well as climate change and the impact that is having on economies and on people. There are more people displaced in the world today than at any point since World War II, and that is true as well in our own hemisphere, where we have seen failing authoritarian governments across the region as well as issues, as I said, related to economic deprivation.
In this country, we have a unique challenge, which is that our immigration system and the statutes that govern it have not been updated by our Congress in decades, and they were created at a point in time when the migration challenge on our border was substantially different than it is today. And so we have been committed to trying to address this through executive authorities and executive action, as were the administrations that preceded us, but we are now seeing these surges in migration become a regular occurrence under presidents of both political parties, and all of these executive actions that are taken have led to a never-ending series of lawsuits and have really empowered the courts to make decisions about how we apply immigration law and how we secure our border in ways that are difficult and challenging for us.
And so we are committed to continuing to work within our executive authorities. We obviously promulgated the Circumvention of Lawful Pathways rule. We have been referring record numbers of individuals through what is known as expedited removal at the border over the last few months, but we are clear-eyed that there really is no lasting solution here that does not involve the U.S. Congress doing its job and updating these statutes, and we will continue to call on Congress to come together on a bipartisan basis. Neither party can address this on its own, and so we all need to come together and address this to actually have a solution here.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) play on the subject of immigration, like —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NUÑEZ-NETO: What I am saying is that neither political party is going to be able to resolve this issue on its own, and so what we need is a frank and open conversation about what is driving this migration, the role that our statutes are playing in that, and how we can address it.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We are out of time for questions. I will turn it back to our briefers for closing remarks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NUÑEZ-NETO: Thank you very much for that. I can be very brief. As I noted, we have put in place a strategy that is really predicated on disincentivizing migrants from putting their lives in the hands of smugglers and crossing our border unlawfully, even as we incentivize them and provide them with additional mechanisms and pathways to come to the United States through lawful means in a safe and orderly way. And we believe that that plan is working, although, as I just mentioned, there are limits to what we can do with our executive authorities, and we are committed to doing everything we can, but we really do need the U.S. Congress to step up here if there’s ever going to be a long-term solution in this space. So thank you.
MR JACOBSTEIN: Thank you. And I would note that there are more than 110 million people forcibly displaced globally, and of those, 20 million are here in the Western Hemisphere. So that is more people than at any time in recorded history, so no one country alone can solve this challenge, and that’s why it’s essential for us to collaborate with our partners in the hemisphere as we continue to expand legal pathways while making clear that the United States border is not open and we will continue to enforce our own laws.
MODERATOR: Thank you. That concludes our briefing today. I want to give special thanks to our briefers for taking the time to talk to us today and for all the journalists who participated. Thank you.