The Judge Made Me Do It

The Biden Administration has recently announced that it will reinstate the “Migrant Protection Program” (what a misnomer) also called “Remain in Mexico” (somewhat more honest). Established by the Trump Administration, it requires asylum seekers, who approach the US border from Mexico, to stay there while their cases are adjudicated.

If you thought that policy was still in place, you are excused. It is very hard to keep track of US policies to deter asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border. Just to refresh your memory, the other one is called “Title 42,” which sounds like an article of the Constitution or the chapter of a much too long book. Title 42 is shorthand for the health code that allows the government to turn back potential asylum seekers using a public health rationale. While it may have had justification early in the Covid-19 pandemic, it is now simply a specious legal argument that allows the Border Patrol to turn people away before they can apply for asylum.

Democrats cried foul when the Trump Administration created Remain in Mexico, and a sad looking encampment of asylum seekers formed in Matamoros, within sight of the Brownsville border crossing. When President Biden was elected, they reversed the Remain in Mexico policy and dismantled the camp, but kept Title 42. It was a handy rationale to keep asylum seekers at bay.

Now, US courts have instructed the Biden Administration to reinstate Remain in Mexico. But before we allow “the judge made me do it” excuse to settle in, note that this decision was made because the Trump era program was determined to have been improperly terminated. The Biden Administration could simply decide to end it in a way that is acceptable to the court.

Let’s be clear. Instead of deciding to properly end the Trump era program, which violated international asylum commitments, the Biden Administration will own Remain in Mexico. This stain is on them.

Where does all of this leave asylum seekers? Dumped back on the Mexican side of the border, without support. There are currently camps of potential US asylum seekers sitting in plazas in Reynosa and Tijuana. They are disturbing scenes of humanity, filth and people being preyed upon by criminals.

Neither country wants to encourage asylum seekers and seem to think that misery is the best deterrent. Where are the international humanitarian assistance organizations that we all know and love – the big institutions like the UN High Commission for Refugees or the big international NGOs? Not in the most dangerous Mexican border cities. They all consider them too dangerous to have a continuous presence. The US State Department lists Tamaulipas as a “Do Not Travel” state, and seriously restricts the travel of US employees.

But this is where we will send migrants to wait while their US asylum claims are considered. To be clear, people requesting asylum do so because of a fear of persecution in their home countries. Our response is to make them wait in places where international organizations are too afraid to work, and US government employees are prohibited from moving about. US citizens are rightly outraged when children’s rights are not respected in US immigration facilities, or when Haitian migrants are chased on horseback at the border. But if we push these same people across the line back into Mexico, those so outraged fall silent. Pushing the asylum crisis into Mexico, into places US citizens will not venture, may help those on this side of the border sleep better at night, because they don’t see the problem. But Remain in Mexico creates a nightmare for asylum seekers and if President Biden reinstates it, he will shoulder the blame.

*Originally published in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s site – 10/19/20.

The Urgency of Tackling the Root Causes of Migration

This past week Mexico and the US restarted high level economic talks. This is good; as this kind of diplomatic engagement was dismantled under the Trump Administration. Central American migration was on the agenda. That’s good too, but both countries need to start displaying a sense of urgency to address the causes of migration.

Granted, high level diplomatic dialogues are not detail laden affairs. These are meetings of “the principals–” cabinet secretaries — and in this case Vice President Harris. They are designed to build the participants trust and facilitate problem solving, laudable goals. But this meeting reminded me of how much talk there is about addressing the “root causes” of migration and how little substance I see.

The presidents of both countries inherited dysfunctional migration systems from their predecessors, but both have also been in office long enough to own the policies that they execute. Neither country’s rhetoric aligns with what people in Central America experience.

The US talks about a US $4 billion investment in the Northern Triangle. But US economic aid is the slow boat to China (or in this case, Central America). It generally takes years from the moment that spending is announced, for it to be approved by Congress, contracted out and then implemented. To someone desperate for change in their immediate future, what could happen in two years means nothing.

Vice President Harris is also encouraging businesses to invest in Central America, but the US is not playing diplomatic hardball with fundamentally corrupt and undemocratic governments, and economic and political elites. If the US wants more investment in the region then their anti-corruption policies need to be more than tough tweeting.

Then there is Mexico, which professes to offer hope by announcing the expansion to Guatemala of Sembrando Vida, an employment generation/tree planting program; accompanying this announcement was an appeal to the US to provide temporary work visas for those who participate. Let’s take that apart. The provision of large numbers of temporary work visas to Central Americans could be an important part of a legitimate response to the outflow of people from the region and something that could give people immediate hope. But linking Sembrando Vida to a US visa, is a political gimmick. Few people will throw stones at a tree planting program, but Guatemalans aren’t going to stop leaving home because they got temporary work planting trees. The tree program is about Mexico looking like it is responding to a migration crisis without actually doing much. The US needs to provide serious numbers of work visas to Central America, and Mexico should push them to do it.

When both countries want to move fast to address a problem, they can. Just look at the US response to the Afghani refugees, or how fast the Mexican National Guard was brought in to stop migrants at Mexico’s southern border. When there is a sense of immediacy, and when a crisis does not involve our borders, both nations spring into action. But when the desperate people are your neighbors, it’s a different story.

The politicians are talking a good game about the root causes of migration in Central America, but the talk is miles ahead of action. Instead of giving people hope that things will change, all this talk is feeding cynicism. Only actions that are concrete and have some immediate component will provide a thread of hope to would be migrants. Both governments feel political urgency when it comes to migrants and refugees crossing our borders. Let’s see some urgency in addressing the root causes of migration.

*Originally published in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s site, 9/15/21.

Mexico, the US and Venezuelan negotiations

Venezuela is mired in crisis, but a new round of negotiations, that started in Mexico on August 13th, provide new hope, albeit distant, for something better. Both Mexico and the US have potentially constructive roles to play in this process.

Two years ago, after elections on a dramatically slanted playing field gave Nicolás Maduro a second six-year term as president, 60 countries chose instead to recognize the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó as president. As international support turned to Guaidó, and Maduro’s government became more isolated internationally, both sides turned to Norway to facilitate a process of negotiations.

That round of negotiations, known as the Barbados talks, ended by the fall of 2019, without positive conclusion. Hard-liners and skeptics on both sides willed it to fail, and too many outsiders, including the US, did not actively support the negotiations. Complicating matters even more, Venezuela had become a place where the US’, China’s, and Russia’s geopolitics were playing out.

The biggest losers in all of this are the people of Venezuela. Over 5 million people left Venezuela as a result of the economic and political crisis that started well before 2019. The economy is in shambles. There is hyper-inflation. While not creating the economic crisis, US sanctions have hobbled any possible economic recovery, but not achieved its desired outcome, pushing Maduro to relinquish power. The healthcare system was in collapse, then came Covid-19.

The new round of negotiations is somewhat surprising. Power dynamics and possible outcomes as in any negotiation are constantly shifting; some argue that Maduro is stronger than the opposition political parties. That said, neither side goes into these negotiations with much support from the people they are supposed to serve. A recent Datanalisis poll showed that 75% of Venezuelans consider themselves “independents” and very few trust either the government or political parties.

Venezuelan civil society organizations, working together, are stepping into the credibility gap and developing concrete proposals to solve the problems of daily life. Even if civil society organizations don’t have a seat at the negotiating table, their proposals should be taken into consideration. Working together around these proposals, the government and the opposition could solve concrete problems and build confidence with each other and with the public.

Negotiations observers should not view this as a quick way to reinstate the opposition, as many did the last round. The only way out of this complex crisis is to start walking a path of conflict resolution and problem solving. Hopefully these negotiations begin by creating agreements that ease the lives of Venezuelans and provide greater humanitarian assistance. And, lay the groundwork for local and regional elections in October that encourage participation by all parties.

Only Venezuelans will resolve the deep-seated, multilevel crisis that is Venezuela today. Nonetheless, the international community can play a role in its success or failure. Mexico is choosing to play a constructive role by hosting this process. It is showing that non-intervention doesn’t have to mean non-engagement.

The US is already engaged concerning Venezuela. The EU, the US and Canada recently released a joint statement saying that they were willing to start lifting sanctions if negotiated agreements can be reached. That’s a positive start.

The hardest part of the negotiations process could be to get all parties at the table, and for those supporting it, to keep their eyes on the prize – results that actually benefit the people of Venezuela.

*Originally published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s publication,, 8/16/21.

A 1,000 Pounds of Ash and Bone

Half a ton, 500 kilograms, over a thousand pounds of human remains in the form of ash and bone fragments have been found in La Bartolina, near Matamoros, Mexico. That’s what has been found to date in an effort to uncover what happened in this notorious place, just 12 kilometers from Brownsville, TX.

This “clandestine cremation site” or a “place of extermination,” once reportedly used by the Gulf Cartel, was identified in 2016, but not much about it has been reported officially until now. Karla Quintana head of Mexico’s National Search Commission in her semi-annual report revealed that this site has been being processed for the past five years, the last two by her office.

1,000 pounds. Let the weight of that sink in. How many people could that possibly have been? No one knows. What went on in La Bartolina was an extended atrocity. Some say that the cartel used the area from 2009-2016. How could something so horrible go on for that long and on this scale?

There are two things that might answer this question: the normalization of disappearance; and a fear-based abandonment of the region.

While families of the disappeared are working in remarkable ways to find their loved ones, often doing complex investigations themselves, disappearance in Mexico has also become normalized. Kidnappings happen a lot and we have gotten much too used to hearing about them.

The Mexican government’s registry of the disappeared contains about 88,000 names and covers the period of 2006 to the present. 21,000 of those on the list have disappeared during the AMLO administration. Kidnappings, disappearances and the findings of remains are all linked. While the Bartolina findings are historic in nature (they happened in the past), this year alone 71 people have disappeared on the road between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey.

The AMLO administration should be given credit for acknowledging the problem and assigning serious people to run the National Search Commission. But we have all gotten too accustomed to talking about disappeared people. This is not normal or at least it shouldn’t be.

Then there is the rational fear-based avoidance of places like Tamaulipas. This state feels like the land everyone gave up on. Criminal organizations decide the parameters of what gets reported by the media and can shut down cities at will with outbursts of violence. No one wants responsibility for what happens there, so national authorities keep their distance. Searching the US State Department’s travel advisory page for Tamaulipas shows this message, “Do Not Travel due to crime and kidnapping.”

At both the national and international level organizations seem to have decided that Tamaulipas is too dangerous to even try doing anything about – best to just steer clear. When I ask humanitarian organizations why they don’t work in Tamaulipas, the answer is almost always because their security protocols – designed to keep their own workers safe – don’t allow it.

So that leaves us what we have now, an area where locals and migrants passing through, are in serious danger and few from the outside are even willing to witness their plight.

I am not cavalier about the risk. It is real. But we know what you get when no one from the outside is watching. You get 1,000 pounds of ash and bone.

*First published in the Mexican paper La Reforma’s English language site, 8/2/21

Migrant Kidnapping: “El Pan de Cada Día”

Migrant kidnapping. It is the pan de cada día – a daily occurrence. That’s what I was told recently when interviewing people on the Mexican side of the Texas/Mexico border. It is the crime that everyone working at the border knows about, but neither country prosecutes the perpetrators and victims go mostly unaided.

These kidnappings are often binational crimes. Migrants are kidnapped in Mexico, but their families in the US are extorted and money transfer companies operating in both countries facilitate the payment process (knowingly or not).

This is not a new problem, although it was exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s policy of forcing thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their US cases to be considered. Some lost their asylum cases, because having been kidnapped, they missed their appointed court date.

I’m often asked, “Why would criminal organizations kidnap migrants?” Good question. By definition they are poor, or else they wouldn’t be trying to cross the border undetected. But extorting the families of poor migrants has become a solid business model for Mexican criminal organizations.

Years ago, ironically when the US border was less “protected,” migrants could cross by themselves or with the help of Mom-and-Pop smugglers. That model went out the window as the US invested more money in walls and Border Patrol personnel. As it became harder to cross, the potential crossing points narrowed, and control of those points became the territory of criminal organizations.

Now, if someone wants to sneak across the US/Mexico border, they cannot do it without paying a criminal organization. I was told that there are criminal lookouts everyone. If you try to cross without paying the controlling criminal group, you will be kidnapped. The criminal groups provide paying customers with a code. If you are stopped by one of their people you provide the code and are good to go, otherwise, good luck.

These migrant kidnappings are difficult crimes to prosecute. They take place in more than one country, so jurisdiction and evidence questions are complicated. The crimes go unreported. Often the kidnapping victim and their extorted family members are undocumented, in both countries. Neither country promises protection to the victims. Asking for help risks deportation. Then there is the power of the violent criminal organizations in Mexico who control the passage of migrants through Mexican territory and are often in cahoots with authorities.

When I asked at the border about how those working with migrants deal with the problem of kidnapping, one person told me that the best you can do is stay out of their way. Another said that they try to help in ways that don’t interfere with the business model of the criminal organizations. There are some Mexicans who attempt to intervene and navigate between corrupt and legitimate authorities and sometimes get victims freed. I won’t name them here, but they are my heroes.

The US has just appointed a new interagency Task Force “Alpha” whose job it is to investigate and prosecute migrant smuggling and trafficking networks. The Task Force was named by the Attorney General and involves both the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. Migrant kidnapping falls within their purview. While their goal will be to disrupt criminal networks, this is the first time I can remember when addressing migrant kidnapping has been prioritized.

I try to put myself in the place of the victims or their families. I can’t imagine having no one to turn to for help. With Task Force Alpha, at least now it is in someone’s job description.

*Published first in, the English language site that is part of the Mexican newspaper La Reforma, 7/19/21.

Get On With It. The US/Mexico Border Needs Normalcy

After a week-long tour of the Texas-Mexico border, talking with people about migration and how it is being handled, my takeaway is that the Biden administration needs to get on with it. It is time to bring back normalcy to the flow of people at the border, enhance legal pathways for migration and treat people with respect.

Biden’s team came into office, there was a lot of discussion about how to reverse the illegal and inhumane asylum policies created by the Trump Administration. They had made it almost impossible to apply for asylum at the US southern border. Added to that were restrictions put into place by the Trump Administration under the guise of Covid-19, limiting border crossing to essential workers.

The question has been, how to navigate reopening the border and return to respecting international standards for asylum access without drawing more undocumented people, including many families requesting protection, to the border. The Biden team wanted to avoid the appearance of chaos on the border as it is used to truncheon Joe Biden politically. They feared that a perceived border “crisis” might derail their broader political agenda.

Since Biden took office, the rules at the border have gotten murky.  As Vice President Harris recently reminded Central Americans on her trip to Guatemala, the US border is closed. With the exception of essential workers, that is true, except when it is not.

If you are a desperate to leave your homeland, border closure is not how it looks or what you hear. Unaccompanied children are allowed to enter. This is an important humanitarian change from the Trump administration and seeks to protect the most vulnerable. Families are not allowed to enter, except that some are, because many of Trump’s restrictions on entry are being challenged in US courts and some families covered by these cases are being allowed entry. At times mothers and children are allowed in, but sometimes fathers are not.

Furthermore, the slapdash “system” invented at the border during the Trump administration whereby asylum seekers put their names on a list that governed who was allowed to seek asylum on any given day, has been reinvented. The new temporary system has put non-governmental organizations and attorneys in control of putting names on a new wait list.  A role that they do not want and that should not belong to them.

Long-story short, it is a mess. The fact that some people get in and almost no one understands the rules means that more people will come to the border seeking entry. Lack of clarity drives migration. Migrants receive messages and photos from family and friends who have successfully made it from their neighborhood to the U.S. Smugglers take advantage of it by telling potential migrants to “go now because there is an opening that will close soon.”

Then there are the Covid-19 restrictions allowing only essential workers to cross into the US.  This policy has been extended through July 21st. Most believe that these restrictions, especially at this point in time, have had little do with protecting the US from Covid-19 and everything to do with the appearance of border control. Because of the restriction, those crossing the US border illegally are most often not detained and deported, but simply pushed back into Mexico. These are “expulsions” and don’t go on the would-be migrant’s permanent record, like a “deportation” would.  So those expelled just keep trying to cross. This phenomenon has skewed the data on attempted border crossings by double or triple counting individuals and encourages people to keep trying.

Recent press reports have said that families will soon be allowed to apply for asylum at the border, possibly by the end of July. Clearly the border restrictions will have to end at some point. But there is little certainty about the timing or process for these decisions.

Desperate migrants, who come to the border seeking hope, have been left by both Mexican and US authorities to the care of non-governmental organizations. Local service providers, especially those on the Mexican side told me that they had no idea when or how things would change.  The US government would make a decision and they would then have to figure out how to deal with it.

I also heard that the Trump-era Covid-19 border restrictions are contributing to resentment in border communities in the US.  Locals, who normally flow back-and-forth across the border, and whose livelihoods often depend on that flow, are kept from crossing.  At the same time, they see some undocumented families crossing to seek protection. Their perception is that those following the rules are punished.

Unless we become a completely authoritarian state, like the Soviet Union before the wall came down, we can’t control migration, but we can manage it and make it as clear and lawful as possible. While the Biden administration didn’t create the current mess, it has to address it and it can best do so by making policy decisions that are clear and that expand legal pathways for migration and protection.

Here are a few ideas. The Biden administration recently announced 6,000 temporary US work visas for the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala).  While a nice gesture, that number should be massively higher. 6,000 visas for three countries, does not a pathway make.  Why not 60,000? Also, make them available fast and give people hope that they might be able to find work through a legal channel.

When it comes to people in need of protection, the US only allows 5,000 refugees from Latin America a year to be processed into the US. The second largest refugee crisis in the world is in Latin America – refugees from Venezuela. There are over 5 million Venezuelan refugees and the vast majority are living in Colombia and other Latin American countries. That is just Venezuela, now take into account those from Central America or Cuba. 5,000 is an absurdly low number.  If we want people to pursue refugee status without coming to the US/Mexico border, why not allow in 50,000 refugees from Latin America. That number might convince people that the US is serious about providing protection and I suspect that people would use it.

My message to the Biden administration is this. Stop pretending that you control things that you don’t and start opening more legal pathways for migration and protection that you do control.  Follow the advice of public health experts to safely resume the processing of migrants seeking protection and lift restrictions for border communities as soon as possible. Greatly increase the number of refugees from Latin America that will be admitted to the US and greatly increase the temporary visas for workers from Central America and Mexico. Finally, treat the humanitarian organizations on both sides of the border – your allies in all of this – with greater respect. If you want a managed the flow of migrants and not have chaos at the border, these groups need to know what to expect and when.

Small policy changes simply prolong the political pain of restoring normalcy and encourage illegality at the US-Mexico border.  These more dramatic shifts in policy may temporarily increase migration and cause some political heartburn, but the current piecemeal approach is confusing and making things worse.

  • Published in Mexican paper La Reforma’s 7/7/21.

You-be-You Foreign Policy: Mexico and Argentina on Nicaragua

The Nicaraguan government, led by Daniel Ortega since 2007, has been clearing the opposition political field in recent weeks, seemingly in preparation for November presidential election. This spree has resulted in the detention of five presidential candidates and numerous community leaders critical of the government, including members of the business community.

On June 15 the Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution, supported by 26 countries, condemning Nicaragua for the, “arrest, harassment and arbitrary restrictions placed on presidential candidates, political parties and independent media and … call[ed] for the immediate release of presidential candidates and all political prisoners.”

The governments of Mexico and Argentina abstained from this vote and issued a joint statement, “express[ing] their concern over the recent events in Nicaragua, especially for the arrest of political opponents, a review of which would contribute to the Nicaraguan electoral process receiving appropriate international accompaniment and recognition.”

Mexico and Argentina have set themselves apart, staking out a common critical position on Nicaragua, while embracing non-intervention as a foundational foreign policy principle. Both countries have been highly criticized for this vote. However, their abstention does not appear to be a rubber stamp in favor of President Ortega. Since the OAS vote, and because of the rampant violation of rights Nicaragua, both countries have recalled their ambassadors for further consultation.

Non-intervention doesn’t have to mean non-engagement. There are important moments in recent Mexican and Argentine history where different types of foreign engagement played important roles. For example, Mexico had a respected part in the process leading up to the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords ending the Salvadoran civil war in 1992.

Argentina, on the other hand, was on the receiving end of international solidarity encouraging the return of democracy and respect for human rights during the years of military dictatorship. This foreign intervention has been heralded by Argentine governments since the restoration of democracy. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), one of those providing solidarity to those suffering through the Dirty War, was given the Emilio F. Mignone International Prize in 2009 by the government for having played that role. I received that award on WOLA’s behalf.

Maybe it’s time to update the concept of non-intervention keeping in mind these examples. In today’s parlance, non-intervention sounds like “you-be-you.” When young people say “you-be-you” they are endorsing the freedom to act as we choose at an individual level, but with limits. You can take any path you choose, but not at the expense of the rights of others. This generation staunchly defends the rights of oppressed minorities.

Mexico and Argentina’s abstention on the Nicaragua vote, could be an old-school narrow definition of non-intervention in which each country minds its own business. Or, it could be a form of a more modern “you-be-you” foreign policy in which condemnation is done in a way that attempts to create opportunity for constructive engagement

I may be criticized for wishful thinking, but by abstaining from the OAS vote, and doing it alongside Argentina, Mexico may have created a space to play a different role. Using this “you-be-you” foreign policy construct, these two countries could choose to engage with President Ortega to encourage freedom for political prisoners and free and fair elections. Let’s hope they use the space they have created wisely.

*Published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s, 6/21/21.

VP Harris’s trip – Aspirational Values vs Political Perception

US Vice President Kamala Harris is making an attempt at values-based foreign policy in her current visit to Mexico and Central America. These values include democracy, human rights and justice. Attempting values based foreign policy is no small feat. While I wish her well, history has shown that immediate political realities often out weight values in US foreign policy.

This is Harris’s first foreign trip as Vice President. She has been assigned the unenviable role of addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. The White House is careful to explain that she is not responsible to what happens with migration at the US/Mexico border. That would be throwing her political future under the proverbial bus. President Biden, when he was vice president, was given a similar role.

Since the Cold War, a values-based US focus on Central America has meant foreign assistance to support economic development, public heath, governance and citizen security. I will make the case any day that economic and humanitarian assistance are better things to do with US money than the military aid of Cold War era. The metric for success is different than that era. Aid used to be given to keep communism from establishing a foothold in Central America. Now the metric is migration. Can the US keep people from wanting to leave Central America? While billions of US dollars in economic aid have gone to Central America, citizens from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras continue to flee the region for the US in huge numbers, escaping violence, lack of work and increasingly, the impact of climate change.

VP Harris often talks about hope, that the US wants Central Americans to see a future for themselves at home. This is on the mark. Migrants don’t risk everything, including their lives, for the fun of it. They take the risky overland journey out of desperation.

Anti-corruption is a new focus in the administration’s approach to values based foreign policy. While this theme isn’t specific to Central America, or foreign policy, it certainly applies to this trip. Central America has stayed poor because it is in the interest of local elites. Successful, innovative efforts to address state corruption have been systematically dismantled.

US administrations constantly struggle where professed values intersecting with political reality. At present that is manifest in Republicans using increased crossings at the US southern border to paint the Biden administration as weak. They want that paint to stick to VP Harris because she has a longer-term political future.

This is the context for the Vice President’s trip: the intersection of democratic values, anti-corruption and economic development in Central America, with the political desire for a visible reduction of migrants crossing the border. The countries with the levers to stem the flow of migration are the two she will be visiting, Mexico and Guatemala. During the Trump Administration, controlling the migration flow was the US’s number one priority with Mexico. My question for Harris’s trip is, “how will she balance aspirational values and the short-term goal of controlling migration?”

Corruption in Central America is a huge problem. It undermines justice and economic development and erodes people’s hope for a better future. Too often messages from US administrations prioritize deterring migrants over emphasizing the values US policy professes to embrace.

After spending a career accompanying human rights defenders in Latin America, I will continue to make the case for values-based foreign policy. The hope that inspires people to see a future in their homeland won’t come from the US. It will come from courageous individuals living out the values of justice, democracy and human rights. These people and processes need and deserve US support. While my experience tells me that short-term political considerations often trump ideals, when it comes to VP Harris’s visit to Mexico and Central America, I’m rooting for aspirational values.

*First published in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language 6/6/21.

Vaccine Tourism: An Ethical Conundrum

Nothing about Covid-19 is fair. Protecting the world’s population with the vaccine is highlighting individual and national ethical dilemmas. The newest of which is “vaccine tourism.” People from all over the world are coming to the US to get the shot. There are websites dedicated to promoting and facilitating vaccine tourism.

First let me say that everyone equally deserves the vaccination. Those at greatest risk and with the greatest exposure should get it first. In most places this means the elderly and frontline workers. We all want the vaccine (or at least most of us do). We all need the vaccine.

The question is, how do we weigh personal and national roles in vaccine access?

The US and Great Britain have some of the best access to the vaccines (sounds reminiscent of empire, no?). They produce vaccines and having resources, made advance deals to spur research and acquire doses. They have prioritized vaccinating their own people. The global North is seen as “hogging” the available vaccines.

How does “hogging” vaccine distribution mesh with democracy? Democratically elected officials are responsible to their constituents. It is their job to create public policies that benefit those who elected them. If they didn’t prioritize vaccinating their own people, they wouldn’t be doing their job. Selfishness and democracy are baked into the fact that vaccines go to wealthy countries.

Covax is the international mechanism established to secure vaccines for economically disadvantaged countries. Their goal is to secure enough doses for 20 percent of a country’s population. It is the right idea, but the rollout has been slow, in part because wealthy countries have had the first shot at vaccines.

Mexicans are understandably frustrated with slow vaccine delivery. Some blame their own government, and some blame the North for hogging doses. Given the global inequities, what are the ethical questions around vaccine tourism?

Vaccine tourism to the US is not available to all Mexicans, only those with money. Mexicans living close to the border cannot use their crossing card to get a vaccine. Border crossings are still restricted by the US to “essential” travel. But anyone with the resources and a visa can fly to the US. If they go to a state that doesn’t have a residency requirement for the vaccine, they can get the shot. In the US there are no clear rules against vaccine tourism.

For communities in the US and travel businesses, vaccine tourism can be a way to boost long dormant economic activity. Tourists spend money when they travel for the vaccine. Using the vaccine to lure people to a US destination while other countries have little access – that’s not right.

Here’s what I think. The vaccine should be seen as a public good. There should not be patent restrictions on its production. Countries with excess vaccine need to make it available to other nations. Everyone deserves the vaccine. Everyone should get it as soon as it is available to them. Everyone should strive to make the process more equitable. I realize that those last two sometimes contract each other.

I am well aware that my views are rooted in my position of privilege. I’ve had the vaccine and if I had not, I would be trying to figure out how to get it. Let’s face it, none of us are getting out of the Covid-19 moral dilemma ethically unscathed. As virus variants develop, even the rich may not get out of the pandemic physically unscathed, because as the leaders of Covax keep reminding us, “no one is safe, unless everyone is safe.”

*First published on May 10, 2021 in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s,

Addicted to Guns

It is not secret that the US and Mexico have a common gun violence problem. Like any addiction, to control it we have to recognize the problem and decide to change.

On the US side, its most visible manifestation is mass shootings involving hatred, while in Mexico mass shootings involve criminal organizations.

If you need a gut-punch reality check on how bad it is, look at the Gun Violence Archive. They report at least 150 mass shootings (4 or more victims) so far this year. You can see the name and age of each victim.

Mexican mass shootings are more likely to involve drug trade or other criminal activity. While equivalent statistics on mass shootings are not available, Mexico’s homicide rate has been high for a few years in a row, with deaths per 100,000 in the upper 20s. In 2020, in areas where criminal organizations were battling – the states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Colima and Guanajuato – the homicide rates were in the 70s per 100,000. That is incredibly high.

While somewhat different, the US and Mexico have a gun violence problem and neither country is doing enough to address it. We are too comfortable with this problem. Gunfire has become background noise in the literal and metaphorical sense.

Mexico estimates that over 200,000 guns a year illegally enter from the United States. That’s 2.5 million over the past decade. Mexico wants the US to do more to stop the flow of guns south. It is too easy to buy weapons in US/Mexico border states. And, too easy to drive them across the border. However, in 2020 the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) began coordinating inspections for traffic heading into Mexico. This practice increased the seizure of weapons.

An important study on gun smuggling was recently released by the General Accounting Office (GAO). This US government research institution found that there is insufficient information collected and processed by both countries to be able to figure out what works to disrupt gun trafficking. They recommend that US agencies develop performance measures on gun trafficking and that ATF (regulates guns) and ICE (regulates customs) collaborate more closely. To address gun violence and trafficking, you have to understand it. These recommendations are important and doable.

President Joe Biden recently announced an initial set of steps to address gun violence. It includes better data collection, restrictions on “ghost” weapons (self-assembled weapons – there are kits for this!), and community level prevention programs. This year, the House of Representatives has passed two laws to tighten background checks on gun sales. And a new assault weapons ban bill has been introduced in the House and Senate. While something, this is nowhere near enough.

We might not be able to stop mass shootings, but we can make them much less common. First, we have to decide that we have a problem and that we are ready to take steps to address it. President Biden says, “Enough prayers. Time for some action.” Sounds good. Let’s see the action.

*Originally published in La Reforma’s 4/26/21.