The Immigration Pretzel

Attempting to address undocumented migration and the southern border, the US has contorted immigration policy into a pretzel. This has happened because almost everyone has given up on comprehensive immigration reform. It is time to examine the world as it is and design an immigration policy to fit reality.

President Joe Biden came into office decrying Trump-era immigration policies that had created migrant camps in Mexico, separated families, and used immigration policy as a foreign policy weapon. But unwinding the Trump-era policies was harder than expected, in large part because going back to the previous system would not work.

The last major immigration reform in the US was in 1986 –37 years ago. Remember what was happening in the 1980s? Computers were just catching on, the Cold War ended (mostly), and the average monthly rent in the US was $385. These were different times.

Back then, undocumented immigration at the Mexico/US border consisted mostly of Mexicans, many of whom worked part of the year in the US and then returned home to their families in a cyclical flow. The big change in border migration in the 1980s was that Central Americans fleeing civil wars at home, made their way north.

Passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) was a bitter battle. No one involved in drafting the bill was thrilled with the outcome. It represented the compromise that could be reached at that time. Nonetheless, it recognized the reality that millions of people were living illegally in the US and that fact alone was bad for citizens as well as the undocumented. The 1986 reform established new pathways to citizenship and new punishments for employers who sought out undocumented workers that they could exploit.

It was not an idyllic time. New problems were created that still need addressing. For example, in the 1980s many Central Americans fleeing civil wars applied for asylum. While this was a time of death squads and massacres in the region, asylum approvals were in the low single digits. Asylum could have been used to address that migrant flow, but it was considered politically unsavory to grant asylum to people fleeing governments backed by the US during the Cold War.

Because asylum law was not used to protect those fleeing Central America, a stopgap measure called Temporary Protected Status (TPS) came into being. Today, more than 350,000 people benefit from this status, but it must be renewed (by nationality) every few years. TPS does not have a path to citizenship and is very stressful for the families who have “benefited” from this status for decades with the threat of deportation hanging over them.

Then there are a few million “Dreamers” brought by their parents to the US as undocumented children. Astonishingly, they are STILL waiting to have their status legalized.

In the last few weeks, the Biden Administration has announced more immigration stopgap measures. People crossing into the US between points of entry and requesting asylum will be presumed ineligible unless they have requested and been denied asylum in any other country they passed through. Contrary to international legal commitments, this restriction is already being litigated.

In other measures, those seeking asylum through legal border crossings, must seek an appointment online prior to entering the US, using the new CBP One mobile application. Some people report having tried unsuccessfully for months to secure an appointment. Mexico has become the waiting room for US asylum seekers.

As an incentive for legal migration, the Biden Administration has also announced new programs for families and sponsors in the US to bring people in under humanitarian parole. This is positive, but it is a status that will expire in a few years. Without comprehensive immigration reform you can see the next crisis from here – what to do with those awarded humanitarian parole, like the Afghans brought to the US when the US pulled out and their country collapsed. Right now, there is not a long-term solution.

Almost 40 years ago –more than a generation- has now passed. We live in a world that is vastly more mobile and connected, while US immigration law remains frozen in time.

In lieu of change, the US has created is a mishmash of stopgap measures that are constantly challenged in court. There is a way to greatly fix this –comprehensive immigration reform. Many will say that it is too politically complicated to achieve. I would say look at the twisted pretzel of a mess we have created by not doing comprehensive reform. How much harder can it be?

*First published in the English language site of Mexican newspaper La Reforma 6/1/23.

Hope and Despair: a Potent Combination in the Migrant Story

I spent about 10 days (end of April/early May) with my WOLA colleagues traveling Honduras and talking with people about migration. We witnessed exhaustion, trauma, and hope.

On Sunday morning we saw hundreds of people outside a migration office in Danlí under an intense sun, waiting for a chance to register for a migration permit. The permit lets them stay in the country for five days, plenty of time to cross Honduras. People register because without it they can’t buy a bus ticket that will take them to their next destination, the border with Guatemala. 

Those we met had just spent 11 hours on a bus that crossed Nicaragua. They looked exhausted.  All those we spoke with had crossed the greatly feared Darien Gap – the mountainous jungle between Colombia and Panama (CNN documentary once considered impassable. People had been traveling for days, weeks, even months. How long they had been on the road depended on how much money they had, and how many times they had been robbed or extorted by police or government officials along the way.

People knew, at least theoretically, the risks ahead. They had already been through the Darien Gap, and Nicaragua – which some described as a worse experience than the Darien. Guatemala is known for police extortion. Mexico is known for extortion as well, but also for robbery, kidnapping by criminal organizations and if you run out of funds, deportation. If they made it to the US border, they would wait in Mexico, many without housing, for a chance to cross legally into the US to request asylum. There is a new phone app, CPBOne, that migrants must use if they want to legally enter the US to apply for asylum. Each morning a limited numbered of slots become available. The thing is, people have been waiting in Mexican border cities for months, unsuccessfully logging in daily in search of the elusive timed entry. 

I have trouble wrapping my mind around what it takes to choose to take this journey.  If everything works out, most of these migrants are looking at minimum wage jobs in the US. 

Maybe people don’t fully appreciate the danger, even worse, maybe they do and choose to come because it is better than what they face at home. People are fleeing countries that don’t function and where they can’t feed their families – Haiti, Venezuela, and Cuba; or Honduras where gang violence and extortion threaten lives and eliminate livelihoods.

It must be some combination of despair and hope.

In the past I have written about the idea of hope and its relationship to migration.  A Honduran journalist we interviewed made an insightful comment.  He said, “People say that they leave because their country doesn’t have a future, not because they don’t.”

Much of US migration policy, in particular the “reforms” coming in the next few days, is based upon the concept of deterrence.  If we make it hard enough, people won’t migrate. What you learn from people’s stories it that they will endure unbelievable hardship to migrate. How much harder can you make it for people who are willing to walk the Darien Gap?

Deterrence might be an effective strategy when it comes to nuclear warheads, but it is not when it comes to people who don’t see a future.

Cartels and Border Politics – 2nd in a series

The US has a drug crisis. This is not an overstatement. Understanding the international components of the fentanyl crisis are important to finding ways to confront it. But political fear mongering, often built around the word “cartel”, obscures solutions.

Fentanyl killed over 107,000 people in the US in just a year. A tiny bit can kill. It is mixed with other drugs or pressed into pills that look like prescription medications. It doesn’t just kill junkies or addicts. It can kill casual drug users, too. This is not what is typically thought of as a traditional overdose where someone takes a large quantity of drugs and dies. A person can take one pill and die. Fentanyl is the leading cause of death in the US for people between the ages of 18 and 49.

In February of this year the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing about fentanyl and US attempts to control its flow into the United States. The Committee’s jurisdiction is foreign affairs and it focused on China and Mexico.

US officials described the problem like this. China produces the precursor chemicals and ships them to Mexico. In Mexico, drug cartels process the chemicals into fentanyl and combine it with other drugs or press it into pills. Two Mexican cartels, Jalisco and Sinaloa, are the main source of fentanyl coming into the US. Officials said that 85 percent of fentanyl seized by US authorities is confiscated at official ports of entry. There are two ports of entry where most fentanyl is confiscated, one in California and one in Arizona.

This is important because defining the problem defines the solution. Lethal fentanyl can be transported in tiny quantities making it extremely difficult to detect. From this testimony we know that fentanyl is mostly coming through official border crossings in two states, not being brought by drug mules or undocumented migrants through the desert.

Other aspects of the hearing did less to clarify the problem. The word “cartel” was used 90 times (Steven Dudley from Insight Crime counted). Dudley’s conclusion was that the word “cartel” should be retired. It is thrown around so often that it has lost meaning and is not helpful in understanding or addressing the complex criminal organizations, drug distribution and financing systems that are involved in the fentanyl trade.

Understanding the problem is made even harder by how the fentanyl crisis is used politically. Leading Republicans like Governor DeSantis of Florida and Senator Cruz of Texas have decided that the US/Mexico border is President Biden’s Achilles heel, and they are exploiting this perceived vulnerability. They have coined the phrase “Biden’s border crisis”, lumping together the crisis of fentanyl deaths in the US with undocumented migration. During the hearing Senator Cruz, a former presidential candidate, used his time to define the root problem as what he called Biden’s “opening” of the border.

Again, how you define the problem defines the solution. By this definition, an “open” border – to be clear the border is not open – is at the heart of fentanyl deaths. Defined this way, the solution is to defeat President Biden and his border policies. This classic political demagoguery does nothing to direct solutions toward the fentanyl crisis.

Amid the politicking at the Senate hearing, Dr. Rahul Gupta, the head of the US Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a man who clearly understands the drug problem in the United States, reflected quietly that this problem doesn’t begin or end at the border.

No question, there is a crisis of fentanyl deaths in the United States. That is why it is critical that we use language and define the problem in ways that lead to effective, not political solutions.

* First published on 4/25/23.

Cartel – What’s in a name?

“Why can we name a lot of Mexican drug cartels, but not any cartels in the US?” A friend, who is well versed in Mexico/US issues, recently asked. While a number of answers came to mind, none seemed adequate to the question. I realized that I didn’t really know the answer. In the US, we don’t ever talk about US drug cartels. We talk about Mexican cartels. The following series of columns is my attempt to do justice to this question.

The first answer is technical. We don’t know the names of US drug cartels, because US drug trafficking organizations are called just that – drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), not cartels. Sometimes US gangs who sell drugs like the Crips or MS-13 are called DTOs, but they are not called cartels.

By definition of the internet, a cartel is an association that comes together to control the supply and price of a product, not just drugs, but things like oil. Cartel is an economic term.

Going deeper, in 2010 a US Justice Department document defined drug cartel as “large, highly sophisticated organizations composed of multiple DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] and cells with specific assignments such as drug transportation, security/enforcement, or money laundering.” To my surprise it went on to say that, “Drug cartel command-and-control structures are based outside the United States.” Drug trafficking organizations were defined as similar, but less complex in structure and not limited to being foreign.

In other words, if you can’t name a US cartel it’s OK because definitionally, they don’t exist.

That was just one document. Other experts make the case that the Mexican cartels (and the Colombians before them) are qualitatively different from drug trafficking organizations in the US. The foreign cartels produce, package and/or create drugs and move them across borders. They corrupt governments and at times seek to establish territorial control, making them qualitatively different from US DTOs which are considered distribution networks moving drugs to retail sellers and money back to the cartels.

Every year the Office of National Drug Control Policy produces the National Drug Control Strategy. This document says a lot about the federal government’s approach to drug policy at any given time. Interestingly, the most recent document, from 2022, only used the word cartel when referring to specific Mexican trafficking organizations with the word cartel in their name, the Sinaloa Cartel for example. This document intentionally favors the term Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) instead of cartel.

The word cartel certainly conjures images. Like the Netflix show Narcos, we think of cartels, as violent, lawless, and a threat to government and society. Defining cartels as foreign does seem rather handy. It makes them outsiders and the US the victim of something external.

The technical definition of a cartel gives us a reason why we can’t name any US cartels, but it is not a satisfying answer to the question, why can we name Mexican and not US cartels? Future columns will consider why, or at least how, this use of language shapes our thinking and our responses to the problem of illicit drugs.

My communications guru, a former congressional hand named Kathy Gille, has drilled into me this phrase, “defining a problem defines the solution.” What that means is that a solution is pre-determined by how a problem is articulated. How we ask a question greatly influences the answer. Defining cartels as “foreign” shapes how we think about the problem of illicit drugs and addiction. It also influences the solutions that we do and do not find.

*First published in, 3/29/23

Mexico’s Determinate Role in US Immigration Policy

After the recent trinational meeting between the US, Mexico, and Canada, a US government official emphasized that this was a domestic policy discussion. One assumes the official was attempting to emphasize that in this international discussion with neighbors, the Biden Administration was seeking to promote its domestic policy agenda. In reality, when it comes to migration, the US and Mexico are in an abusive relationship where Mexico facilitates US immigration policy while taking the hits.

Mexico’s role is so key, that it is now the determining factor in the proposed changes to US immigration policy that the Biden Administration seeks to implement as Covid-19 based restrictions end.

Getting Mexico to do the dirty work of US immigration policy is not new. Under the Trump Administration Mexico implemented a number of “domestic” policies to restrict the access of migrants and asylum seekers to the US southern border. When the Mexican National Guard was first formed, it was sent to the Guatemalan border to stem the migrant flow in 2019. That policy was implemented because Trump threatened to impose new tariffs if Mexico did not do more to stop migration. After that policy change, one Mexican official said to me, “We have now proven that Mexico can control the flow of migrants to the US. There is a cat we can’t put back in the bag.”

That official was correct, and the relationship has continued down this path. When the Trump Administration implemented the “Remain in Mexico” policy – forcing asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while their cases were processed – Mexico allowed them to stay.

When Covid-19 hit, the US implemented Title 42, a policy that pushed migrants, who entered the US without permission, back into Mexico before they could request political asylum. Mexico allowed the US to do this, even though there is a Mexican law that prohibits the country from receiving non-Mexican deportees. Technically those “expelled” under Title 42 are not deported.

Mexico has had a creeping policy of allowing the US to expel people from other countries into Mexico. At present, Mexico accepts nationals from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti.

In preparation for the end of the Covid-19 immigration restrictions, the US has introduced a new app-based system requiring those seeking entry to apply for asylum get an appointment while outside of the United States. As a result of this recent change, asylum seekers are waiting in Mexico as they try to secure an US appointment.

And this is the policy before Title 42 ends! Once the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted this May, the US has proposed new regulations that would demand even more of Mexico. It would consider migrants who have passed through Mexico without requesting asylum, to be presumed ineligible for asylum in the US, putting the asylum burden even more firmly on Mexico.

The only way this cascade of changes work is if Mexico facilitates the process by being a holding/deportation ground for those who want asylum in the United States. These policies will undoubtedly be challenged in US courts.

The US needs to reform its immigration laws. The current piecemeal approach is not coherent policy. It is barely intelligible. Until the US develops a functional, rights respecting overall immigration policy – not just for asylum seekers but for foreigners who want jobs and US companies who need them – this chaos will continue.

Since the cat was let out of the bag, Mexico’s acquiescence to US demands facilitates this disfunction. The US needs to stop considering Mexico an extension of its domestic immigration policy. But that will only happen when Mexico demands the respect it deserves and stops serving as a staging area for US disfunction.

First published in, the Mexican paper La Reforma’s English language site, 2/27/23.

Doña Ena Becerra – True Influence

In 2022 we lost someone of true influence, Ena Esperanza Becerra S. You don’t know her, but everyone called her Doña Ena.  She lived for many years in the town of Quebrada Larga, about an hour outside of Danlí, in southern Honduras. She was a health care provider, an entrepreneur and a gem of a person.

I don’t think that she went to high school, but I don’t really know. People did not seek out Doña Ena because of her academic record. They went to her because she was a woman who helped and got things done.

When she saw a problem and there wasn’t anyone else to fix things, she figured out what she could do. She didn’t solve problems with money or political connections, because she didn’t have either.

My husband and I first met Doña Ena when we lived in Honduras in the mid-1980s. We didn’t have a washing machine and she scrubbed our laundry. She had kids to support and no husband to help, so she worked where she could. Doña Ena was a hard worker and had a terrific sense of humor. During that time, she started a small business selling batana, a hair oil made from palm nuts, door-to-door.

Being educated, yet ignorant, North Americans in Honduras, we owned a copy of “Where There is No Doctor.”  Pre-internet this was a must read for Peace Corps-types. When we moved on from the problems of Honduras, we left the book with Doña Ena. Many years later she requested another copy because hers had worn out.  She really used it.

For many years, there was no medical assistance available in her town. She took it upon herself to become a mid-wife. But she didn’t stop there. She studied the book and put it to use.  People from this rural community and surrounding countryside came to her home with their illnesses and injuries, like machete cuts they got while farming. She would clean the wound and sew them up. She learned to identify basic illnesses and provided injections and anti-biotics. She gave dehydrated people IVs. When she thought that a problem was beyond her capacity, she would try to get the sick or injured to go to a doctor or hospital in Danlí. But many couldn’t afford the journey or the doctor and begged her to help.  They called her la doctora del pueblo or the people’s doctor.

She stocked her house with basic medicines and provided them to those in need. At her memorial service, people joked that if she bought a medicine for US $1, she sold it to those she served for 75 cents. She didn’t do it for the money, she did it to restock for the next person.

About ten years ago, she and four other women in town, all in need of work, started making plantain chips for sale. It started as a very small business, but they figured it out. The company, called Del Racimo, now employs 20 people.  They make the best plantain chips I’ve ever tried.

I knew these things about Doña Ena and greatly admired her. But I did not know that other people did as well.

Doña Ena passed away in September. Her family received over 1,000 visitors upon learning of her death. As her coffin proceeded past the local school to the cemetery, the school children lined the street to sing her a final farewell.

At year’s end, as we contemplate endings and beginnings, I rejoice in having known Doña Ena, not a saint, but a woman of true influence and an example of how to live.

*First published in 12/31/22.

Hope is fleeing Guatemala

For many years Guatemala was a beacon of hope in global efforts to fight corruption. Not because it was the most successful, but because it was innovative and because of the dynamism of its citizens in taking on the fight. That was then. Now hope is fleeing Guatemala.

My theory of change is this. Change happens when people make it happen. That is what we saw in Guatemala – bravery, strategic thinking and commitment. So many people were involved, civil servants, human rights organizations, researchers, victims, judges, lawyers and elected officials. It was a battle whose results were hard fought, reaping concrete results. A former dictator was forced to confront the victims of the terror he brought upon indigenous communities. He was convicted. A sitting President and Vice-President were brought down and held accountable for corrupt acts, as were many others.

While corrupt elites were caught off balance as their political leaders began to fall, they have rallied with great effectiveness. They have returned the courts to their control and are jailing or chasing from the country whose who threaten their ability to do business as they please.

Today begins the trial of former anti-corruption prosecutor Virginia Laparra Rivas who has been held in pre-trial detention because she did her job. A UN Special Rapporteur called the criminalization of Laparra Rivas as “an attack on the rule of law.” Amnesty International lists her as a prisoner of consciences.

Then there is judge Miguel Angel Gálvez, who presided over high risk courts, handling cases involving drug trafficking, human right violations and money laundering. Reportedly based on the presentation of 8,000 pieces of evidence, he ordered the trial of 9 retired military and police officials charge with forced disappearance, homicide, illegal detention, and torture. Criminal charges have now been brought against Gálvez for pursuing justice for the victims.

The anti-corruption battle has many victims, and not the corrupt officials held accountable for their acts, but those whose job it is to prosecute corruption, those who have been the hope of a better future for Guatemala. With the justice system being unfairly used against them, they reach a point in their work where their only options are jail or exile.

I recently saw some of Guatemala’s hope at a gathering in the US. More than 20 former Guatemalan officials, all of whom had been integral actors in anti-corruption prosecutions, who had been forced to flee because of their work. These are not the faint of heart. They have dedicated their lives to this work and been chased from their homes by serious threats, attempts on their lives or false legal charges brought against them.

The pain in that room was palpable, and the guilt. They each reached a point where their personal calculus was a choice between death, jail or exile. They know that a handful of their colleagues remain, trying to carry on the work. Others are unjustly jailed. They have survivors’ guilt, the guilt of uprooting their families and the daily struggle of figuring out how to support their families while living in exile.

We know what hope looks like. It looks like this room full of “formers” prosecutors, judges and activists. It looks like Laparra Rivas and Gálvez. Guatemalans, and those in the international community working to fight corruption and impunity, need to do their utmost to support support these brave individuals while they valiantly do their jobs, when they are persecuted and jailed, and when the decide that exile is the only option. This is how you feed hope. Once hope has fled, it is very hard to get back.

*First published in 11/28/22.

Not Fit for Purpose

The Mexican Senate has just overwhelmingly voted to keep the armed forces in public security roles until 2028. At the same time, the roles of the military keep expanding. Expanding the roles of the Mexican military to address myriad problems and now giving them more roles in government and business is a bad idea because the military is not “fit for purpose” for non-defense related tasks.

As a management consultant my first question is always: “What’s the problem you want to solve?” The definition of the problem should define the solution. Solutions need to be “fit for purpose.” In other words, they should be designed using the tools that that can best solve the problem. If a solution is not “fit for purpose,” it won’t work.

Militaries should be used to solve problems that are military in nature, i.e. require defeating an external enemy or occupying territory. Disaster response would be a logical exception to this rule, as getting people out of harm’s way, requires all hands on deck.

Because standing armies require a lot of people and resources, there is always a temptation to use them for non-defense tasks. This is not unique to Mexico. Militaries get used because they already exist and cost a lot to maintain.

According to Mexico City-based MUCD (Mexicanos Unidos Contra la Delincuencia) the Mexican military now has over 200 roles and half of them have nothing to do with defense or public security.

Using the military is often politically popular. A mystique around militaries has been created. We have made them our heroes, protectors of the nation, those who sacrifice for the greater good. I would argue that many other professions – including teachers, public health and social workers do this – but we don’t give them the same respect or benefit of the doubt. They lack the mystique.

According to the Latinobarómetro survey, the military is the most trusted institution in Mexico. The public trusts them more than, the police, the courts or the President. Only the church scored higher.

The military is also thought to be less corrupt. But are they? It is a hard case to make considering that the Mexican military is known for its lack of transparency.

Today the armed forces are called upon to address a broad range of issues like public security, a rampant homicide rate, drug trafficking, corruption and organized crime. These are complex problems that require institutions and approaches that should involve local government and national government, schools, social workers, financial institutions, police, and a functioning judiciary.

The military also has state responsibility for administering the ports, the airport, major construction projects – like the Mayan Train, even banking. Newly uncovered internal government communications reveal that the military is being considered for even more roles in tourism and possibly having their own airline.

The question should be, who is “fit for purpose” to address the complex problems facing Mexico? Solutions not fit for purpose are not efficient and generally don’t work. Right now, the military has so many roles that it is hard to remember what their purpose is.

*First published, 10/12/22, on Mexican newspaper La Reforma‘s English language site,

Blissful Ignorance: Migrant Kidnapping and Extortion

In the US, we have created a system that allows us to be blissfully ignorant of a horrible crime – the extortion of families whose loved ones have been kidnapped while passing through Mexico.

If you spend much time talking with those who work with migrants on the Mexican side of the border, they will describe it as “frequent,” even “common.” They learn about it after the kidnapping victim is released and seeks protection at migrant shelters or help applying for asylum.

It is next to impossible to track this crime on the US side of the border because the family members who pay the ransom, victims of extortion, have nowhere to turn.

Here’s how it works. Migrants traveling in Mexico, headed for the US are kidnapped by criminal organizations. Their cell phones are taken and used to call relatives, mostly in the US. The relatives are told to pay a ransom or their loved one will be killed. These calls are frequently accompanied by videos of people being beaten. In Mexico the crime is kidnapping. In the US the crime is extortion and illicit financial transactions.

Those on the receiving end of these calls panic. The kidnappers tell them not to call the authorities. Often undocumented, they fear reporting the crime to US authorities who might deport them. The families fear that local Mexican authorities might be involved with the kidnappers. They also have little reason to believe that anything helpful will happen if they report the crime. The extortion victims are often poor and try desperately to come up with the money, borrowing it or selling possessions.

If you were the victim of kidnapping related extortion in the US, where would you report the crime? If you were raised in the US, and watched crime shows on TV, you would probably call the FBI, or expect to be referred to them by 911. In the case of migrants, the FBI might take the case, but they might not. Operators at 911 might tell you, as they did to a victim that I recently accompanied in trying to get help, that the crime was in Mexico so there was nothing the police could do (not recognizing the extortion piece of the crime). The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a crime tip line, but what person with questionable immigration status would expect help from Homeland Security.

Because this crime is seldom reported in the US, there in no data about how often it happens. This leads to the conclusion that it is rare. But it is assumed to be rare because there is no clear conduit for reporting; and, because victims are not encouraged to report. Furthermore, immigrant service organizations in the US don’t ask about this crime. If no one asks, no one tells, again resulting in no data.

It requires delusional thinking to take what we know from the border, that migrant kidnapping/extortion is a common problem, to arrive at the conclusion that there isn’t a corresponding extortion problem on the US side.

No one solves a problem they cannot see. To see this problem, we need to develop clear channels for reporting. Outreach should be done to encourage reporting. Those who report migrant kidnapping related extortion should be accompanied by hostage negotiators; any payments demanded for the release of their loved ones should be tracked and companies used to process the payments held accountable; assistance will only be provided to the victims of this traumatic experience once we understand the scope of the problem.

I recently spoke with a person who had worked for years on the prosecution of rape cases. She described the history of the work, and there were a surprising number of similarities. A few decades back, the scope of the problem was not understood because women were not encouraged to report. The police had to learn how to listen to victims, respond to and document their cases. Attorneys and the courts had to learn how to prosecute cases without repeated re-traumatization of the victims. Wrap around services were developed. Over time, “victims” were given greater respect and became “survivors.”

Extortion related kidnapping is a long way from that kind of understanding. Let’s start by recognizing that this is a crime in the US, make clear conduits for reporting, and encourage victims to report. This is a horrible ordeal. Can you imagine going through it without any help? I can’t.

* First published in, the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site – 9/5/22

Go Big or Go Home

This is a pretty disheartening time. In the US people are getting mowed down by hate-filled gunmen at schools and civic parades. In Mexico, priests are mowed down inside of a church. We watch the war in Ukraine, feel the sting (more like a punch) of higher gas prices and inflation. And we go to bed with thoughts of impending famine and climate change.

It is in this context that our presidents, Biden and López Obrador (AMLO), will meet. The relationship between our two countries is critically important for each, really is second to none. Yet, it is fraught with history, asymmetry, posturing and veiled political threats.

AMLO scored this meeting by threatening not to attend the Summit of the Americas, trying to get Biden to invite all the hemisphere’s leaders. In the end, Biden did not send the invitations; AMLO did not attend the Summit; but somehow AMLO came out of the process with an invitation to the White House.

In preparation for this meeting both countries’ diplomatic teams are jockeying for position. In my experience, diplomats at this level think about what is possible in the moment, identifying the immediate “deliverables.” Presidential advisors, outside of the foreign service, think about how the meeting will play to a domestic audience.

Notwithstanding this norm, desperate times call for desperate measures. We need our leaders to stop limiting themselves to what is politically advantageous and immediate. That approach will not produce solutions to the enormous problems we face. Our leaders need to think big and inspire change.

The great educator and social change leader Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Our leaders should seize this meeting to project a different vision for collaboration. In that spirit, here is how I think our presidents should, not how they will, approach their upcoming meeting.

Both leaders should recognize the current state of affairs with a sense of humility and an understanding of interdependence.

We both have violence problems that we are unable to solve and are desperate for new solutions. The availability of guns is part of the problem, but there is something more societal and institutional happening. Be it racist extremists in the US or criminal organizations controlling swaths of Mexican territory, non-state actors are perpetrating violence on those just trying to go about everyday life. The results are terrifying on both sides of the border. Both should propose ways that we could share learning and potential solutions.

We need to re-envision migration. We need to stop seeing migration as a threat and recognize it as a fact of life. Humans move. Our goal should be to make that movement organized and humane. In particular, out leaders should make it easy for the people of our nations to migrate, especially to areas where work is available, and workers are needed.

We are experiencing a global economic crisis that is derailing any progress made in recent years. Recent statistics tell us that Mexicans are migrating, undocumented, to the US in the largest number in many years. At the same time, many sectors of the US economy are desperate for workers. There is supply and demand. Migrants aren’t the enemy. People want to work. Our governments should collaborate to get workers to where they are needed.

Our presidents’ discussion shapes our future. The inability of our political leaders to address our common problems head-on, with humility and cooperation only adds to our collective feeling of despair. Let’s ask our leaders to project a new vision for problem solving and to model it in their upcoming meeting.

*Originally published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site,, 7/11/22.