MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida. I would like to welcome our participants who have dialed in from the United States and across the region. This is an on-the-record press briefing with NSC Senior Director for Transborder Katie Tobin.
Senior Director Tobin will discuss the recent high-level trilateral meeting in Panama City between Colombia, Panama, and the United States, where they reached an agreement to be in a two-month coordinated campaign to address the serious humanitarian situation in the Darién and discussed other joint efforts to address irregular migration.
We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation in Spanish for this briefing. I request everyone to keep that mind and speak slowly.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to NSC Senior Director Tobin.
MS TOBIN: Thank you and good afternoon, everyone. On Tuesday, April 11th, the governments of the United States, Panama, and Colombia convened in Panama City for a high-level discussion on the serious humanitarian situation in the Darién jungle, one of the most dangerous migratory corridors in the region as well as the world.
Secretary Mayorkas led the U.S. delegation and was joined by USAID Administrator Power and SOUTHCOM Commander General Richardson as well as several other senior U.S. Government officials. The level of the delegation reflects the level of priority that President Biden gives to the situation in the Darién and the commitment of the United States to work alongside our partners to address it.
On Tuesday, our three countries were united in a conviction to prevent the exploitation and unnecessary loss of human life and to preserve the environment. The meeting resulted in a significant agreement between our three countries to launch a 60-day coordinated campaign to address the serious humanitarian situation in the Darién, and followed by a longer sustainment effort.
This two-month campaign will focus on three lines of action: one, a counter-human smuggling effort in both the land and maritime domain; two, an expansion of legal pathways as an alternative to irregular migration; and three, increased economic investment in impacted border communities.
The Darién in many ways is a symbol of the regional and global challenge of irregular migration. We view the trilateral meeting on April 11th as a call to action for the entire region to come together to address irregular migration in the spirit of the Los Angeles Declaration.
Thank you, and I’m happy to answer any questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. Our first question goes to Gisela Salomon from the Associated Press. The question is: “Can you please provide details on when and how will you begin the implementation of this plan? How will the United States support the campaign? And is the United States going to send soldiers, civilians, how many, and where exactly?”
MS TOBIN: Thank you for the question. Tuesday, when we gathered in Panama City, the focus was really to grapple with the problem set before us and to agree to how we are going to jointly address it. We were really pleased to be able to reach an agreement on this 60-day campaign, which we think will have a real impact in terms of addressing the challenge and hopefully put us on good footing to sustain that effort.
Over the next – we are in regular communication now with the two governments on the specifics of this campaign, which we will announce soon. In terms of implementation, the counter-smuggling effort will be led by the two host governments, Panama and Colombia, and the United States will provide support as we do for any security-related efforts in the region. This includes planning and logistics support, transportation, support with information sharing and intel sharing. And we will leverage the resources, the personnel that we have on the ground, in both countries. We have a long history of working with both Panama and Colombia on a wide range of security and humanitarian efforts, including counternarcotics missions, which we know many of the criminal actors that are currently moving – facilitating the movement and exploiting migrants are also the same actors that are moving drugs through this corridor.
At the same time, we are working through USAID, through the State Department, to look at how we can augment humanitarian support in both countries. And we are exploring closely how the United States can further expand legal pathways from the region so that migrants that are seeking to come to the United States or to other countries north of the Darién will have safe, orderly options to do so.
This builds on efforts that we have already launched just in recent months. I think you all are tracking the President Biden’s announcement on January 5th where we announced 30,000 – that we would welcome 30,000 individuals per month from Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, through a parole process. And we have seen tremendous success from that program in terms of reducing irregular migration at our southwest border and making it possible for many people to safely arrive to the United States, to be reunited with family, to work. And so we are hoping to be able to build on that effort as we work to also tackle irregular migration through the Darién.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Alejandra Arredondo from EFE. Operator, please open line 24.
OPERATOR: The line is open.
QUESTION: Hello, good afternoon. Thank you so much for doing this. My question is, Secretary Mayorkas told EFE in Panama that any migrants who were trying to make the trip through the Darién after this new 60-day campaign will be implemented will be turned back. What does that exactly mean? And will the implementation of this campaign involve militarization of the Darién Gap? Thank you so much.
MS TOBIN: The campaign that we agreed to launch with Panama and Colombia is focused on joint counter-human smuggling and trafficking efforts. So we will really be focused on enhancing arrests, prosecutions, and other efforts to disrupt human smuggling efforts. So that will be the focus.
I missed the second half of your question.
MODERATOR: Operator, can you reopen line 24, please?
OPERATOR: One moment, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) will involve militarization of the Darién Gap, either led by the Government of Colombia or Panama? Because how are you going to stop the migrants from crossing it, specifically?
MS TOBIN: Yeah, again, this will be focused on a counter-human smuggling effort, and it will be a law enforcement effort.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We will now go to our next question, which will be for Jacquie Charles from the Miami Herald. Operator, please open line 25.
OPERATOR: The line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you. Building on that, when we’re saying “law enforcement,” does that mean that the individuals who are actually doing the crossing risk being arrested, or the traffickers? And also, we know that traffickers have used, like, social media, technology, lies, desperation, to encourage people to cross, to make these journeys. So what is going to be different about this particular campaign that the U.S. has not done in the past that you think that is going to have an effect?
MS TOBIN: Yeah, thanks for the question. The focus is really on these criminal actors. As you noted, we know that there is transnational criminal organizations, cartels, that have gotten into the business of moving people and are charging thousands of dollars for this dangerous journey through the Darién. They’re using disinformation through social media to entice clients, customers.
So we share a conviction with Panama and Colombia and other countries in the region that we have to do more to end this exploitation of human lives – many people that are vulnerable, that are fleeing really terrible situations, and then are being exploited. And we see – I know, I actually really appreciate all of the international reporting that has been done recently to really give visibility to this situation, to the humanitarian situation in the Darién and the loss of life, the rampant sexual assault. I think there’s just a real feeling that we have to do something about this to protect – protect the lives of migrants.
MODERATOR: The next question was submitted by Ted Hesson from Reuters. The question is: “What sort of measures are the countries taking to stop migrants from crossing the Darién in the next 60 days? Will the migrants be deported? And could CBP One be expanded to Panama and Colombia?”
MS TOBIN: Yeah, as I mentioned, we will be going after the criminal actors. We will also be trying to increase state presence in this corridor. But a lot of the planning is still underway, and so we hopefully will have more to share in the future.
But to your question, Ted, I think we look to the success that we have recently achieved at our southwest border where we combined an increase in consequences and increase in counter-smuggling efforts with a rather dramatic expansion of legal pathways. We see that combination as a winning combination that reduces irregular migration. We saw a 95 percent decrease in irregular migration from the four countries after we announced the parole process.
And so we see that a similar approach could work at other international borders, including between Colombia and Panama. So as we work with those governments to really go after the TCOs that are facilitating the irregular flows to – as we enhance state presence, at the same time we see the need to expand legal pathways. And so not specifically CBP One, but I think we’re taking a serious look at what more we can do to expand refugee pathways, labor pathways, family unification pathways, and are really calling on other countries not only in this region but elsewhere to look to see what more they can do to expand legal pathways to their countries.
And I have to give a particular shout-out to Canada, who just recently announced 15,000 additional legal pathways from the Western Hemisphere this year, which we think will be an important contribution to this effort.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Salomé Ramírez from Voice of America. Operator, please open line 20.
OPERATOR: And that line is open.
QUESTION: Good afternoon, thank you. My question is: During those two months of the campaign, Title 42 is expected to come to an end, specifically on May 11th. Were there conversations between the three countries about a bigger traffic of migrants on the
Darién from that date and maybe are these efforts in preparation for that?
MS TOBIN: We did discuss the lifting of the public health order on May 11th, and we know that these criminal actors are using the shift in U.S. policy to seek to generate business and facilitate irregular migration north. And so we really view the timing of this announcement and our joint effort at the Darién as an important piece of our broader approach to ensure that we do not have a surge of irregular migration towards the southwest border on May 11th. I think it’s important for everyone to know that when Title 42 is lifted on May 11 and we start processing again under our normal immigration process, Title 8, this will in fact increase penalties for irregular migration across the southwest border. Those who are intercepted and found to not be in need of protection will face a five-year bar of inadmissibility. So this is something that we did discuss with our partners, and we are working with all countries across the region to make sure that we are prepared and in a position to prevent an increase in irregular flows.
MODERATOR: Our last question comes from Osmary Hernández from CNN en Español. The question is: “How has the flow of Venezuelans along the route been since the humanitarian parole was created?”
MS TOBIN: As you may remember, we actually started first with the parole process for Venezuelans in October of last year. October 12th is when we announced this new initiative, and as you all know, this built on an effort that we had first launched for Ukrainians earlier last year where we leverage a virtual platform where migrants on their phone can access the legal pathways. They have a supporter or sponsor in the United States, and that within weeks they can be approved to come to the United States by plane.
We launched this for Venezuelans in October, and very shortly after we saw a swift drop in irregular migration not only at our southwest border but also through the Darién, which was interesting – about a 90 percent drop at the time in Venezuelan crossings through the Darién. We have since seen the – an uptick again in Venezuelan crossings through the Darién, which I think is something we’re paying close attention to. And unlike at our southwest border where we were able to combine the launch of the parole process with an increase in consequences, we recognize that that’s one piece that was missing in the Darién. So we really look forward to working with Colombia and Panama as we launch the 60-day campaign to be able to marry the expansion of legal pathways, even more legal pathways with now a broader security effort through this jungle corridor.
MODERATOR: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Senior Director Tobin for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at MiamaHub@state.gov. Thank you and have a great weekend.