By Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A recent surge of Haitian migrants near the U.S. border with Mexico may be a harbinger of the changing face of migration to the U.S.

Climate change, COVID-19, faltering democracies and assaults on the rule of law in the Americas are just a few of the factors that have led to increased migration to the U.S. from a variety of countries, no longer limited to populations from neighbors in Central America and Mexico, said a recent panel gathered to talk about the changes.

Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, which sponsored the panel on the topic Sept. 21, said data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security showed at least 1.5 million U.S.-bound migrants will have left their home countries this year, twice the number in 2019, a year that saw high numbers of migrants.

“We’ve seen … repeated migration waves that have been happening, really, since 2014, the situation is not new. However, this is significant in the number of nationalities arriving at the same time at the border,” said panelist Andrew Selee, associate researcher in the sociology department at Leibniz Hannover University and president of the Migration Policy Institute.

Though Haitians were the focus of a recent surge of some 14,000 to 15,000 migrants gathered under a bridge near Del Rio, Texas, among them were Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Ecuadoreans — many driven out by political instability but also by economies collapsed under the weight of COVID-19, which devastated health and economic systems in their home countries.

“Migration is reaching … a broader scale, not only in terms of the countries but also in terms of the numbers,” said panelist Manuel Orozco, director at the Center for Migration and Economic Stabilization.

Countries where state entities have been unable to deal with the pandemic, resulting in economic, health and education crises, saw higher concentrations of people leaving, said Orozco. In the past, some of the migrants had headed to countries closer to home.

For example, many Nicaraguans headed to Costa Rica as problems at home exacerbated following protests over social security reforms and increased taxes in 2018. Some Haitians fled to places such as Brazil and other South American nations after earthquakes, corruption and political instability devastated the island’s economy.

But when COVID-19 arrived in the Americas, it produced what Orozco calls “vaccine migration.”

In July, Costa Rica’s health minister said the country did not have an allotment to vaccinate “the contingent of people who don’t have a regular condition in the country,” meaning those who weren’t authorized to be in the country. It only recently, in early October, started a campaign to vaccinate migrants.

Places like Brazil, with one of the highest infections and death rates of COVID-19 in the world, saw the health system, as well as the informal economies where many migrants labored, collapse.

That has prompted those contemplating the choice to leave their native countries or who already had migrated to other nations, to set their eyes instead on places such as the United States.

“We tend to forget that migration doesn’t start at the U.S.-Mexico border,” said panelist Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, president of the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA. “Migration starts in transit countries. For some people, migration starts at the destination country that no longer provides living conditions or safety for people.”

While recent U.S. policy has largely focused on keeping out would-be migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, it needs to focus on a regional approach to migration, panelists said.

That means doing part of what the Biden administration, and other previous administrations, have tried to do, which is to try to improve conditions in sending nations so that people don’t leave.

But that’s a long-term strategy, said Selee, calling out some of the more cosmetic and short-term policies that politicians put in place so that it looks as if they’re doing something to stop people from coming into the U.S.

First, “we should not assume zero migration is normal,” said Selee, adding that what needs to happen is to find a way to manage migration, not stop it.

That includes a mix of measures, including “a robust protection system at the border,” but also finding legal pathways so that people can enter safely instead of seeking alternative and often dangerous “irregular journeys.”

Selee sees opportunities for worker programs to help industries in the U.S. that need workers, also providing “layered protection” for those leaving their native countries because they’re facing danger at home and finding protection for them elsewhere.

And for those who have left home and already have entered other nations, there should be regularization programs to integrate into society people who have arrived and likely won’t be leaving, he said.

“We can’t do it by temporary measures,” he said. “We actually have to move toward more permanent (solution),” he said.

What’s clear at the moment is that COVID-19 caused a cascade of destruction manifesting itself in journeys driving some away from home.

The coronavirus pandemic, said WOLA’s Jiménez Sandoval, “literally collapsed” the subsistence for the poor in many countries, including in nations that took in refugees and migrants in the past and kept them from heading north.

Many functioned in the informal economy, selling wares, or food, or offering services. But lack of work and lack of food in countries that once took them in are two main reasons that have led to the movement of people further north.

“This, you know, forced many migrants to leave these countries and to move north in search of what we all want: a life in which we can all support ourselves,” she said.

But looking at images coming out of the U.S.-Mexico border and seeing some of the chaos shows that “clearly, the U.S. lacks the infrastructure at the border to deal with this increase,” Jiménez Sandoval said.

“The images speak for themselves, and we hope that the administration fulfills its promise to investigate because some of the images we have seen in the last few days (of the treatment of Haitian migrants) are regretful,” she said.

Ultimately, a goal to work toward, said Selee, is to provide people with the option to stay in their home countries, but for that to happen conditions have to improve and the U.S. hasn’t always been a willing participant in that process.

“We’ve not been consistent in the U.S. on rule of law issues and particularly on governance issues … concerned when corruption is evident or when people try and undermine the democratic process,” he said.

“I think that’s taken away from our credibility in the region … we let governments get away with things that they probably shouldn’t have. You really want a neighborhood that’s stable, that’s safe, that’s prosperous for people so they are better off and complete and have a future where they live.”