By Devan Cole and Priscilla Alvarez, CNN
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN that the immigration challenges facing the Biden administration along the southern border are “beyond anything that anyone has seen before,” and that the issue will be a key focus of a summit of regional leaders taking place this week in Los Angeles.
“We’re dealing with a challenge that, for a whole variety of reasons, is beyond anything that anyone has seen before, which is exactly why the approach that we’re taking, including here at the summit, is so important,” Blinken told CNN en Español’s Juan Carlos López during an interview conducted on Tuesday at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.
He continued: “And that is an approach of shared responsibility where everyone in the hemisphere who is affected by irregular migration in particular, migration more generally, that is countries of origin, transit countries, countries of destination, come together to take shared responsibility for managing this in a safe, humane and orderly way.”
The secretary added that the US is working with countries at the summit to try to get at “specific actions” they can take to address the issue, and made reference to a new migration document, dubbed the Los Angeles Declaration, that the US and other countries are expected to sign this week. It’s meant to spell out how countries in the region and around the world should share responsibility for taking in migrants.
Notably, the leaders of several countries that are crucial to addressing migration — including Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — are boycotting the summit, dealing an embarrassing blow to the Biden administration at a time when it is scrambling to handle the issue.
The issue of immigration has been a top priority for the Biden administration, with Vice President Kamala Harris tasked with addressing the root causes of migration to the southern border. As 23 heads of state gathered in California for the event, the matter was brought into sharp focus when a new migrant caravan in southern Mexico set out on foot, timed to bring attention to the issue.
An official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said a group of about 2,300 people left the southern Mexican city of Tapachula on Monday heading north. The official said the group is comprised mostly of Venezuelans, but also includes migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador and Honduras.
The autocratic leaders of three of those nations — Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua — were not invited to the summit, prompting the boycott from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries, a move that has distracted from the broader goals of the event. But Blinken insisted in his interview with CNN that those countries are represented at the summit when asked about their absence.
“I can also tell you that Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua are here. I saw them, I met with them. I met with civil society leaders and activists from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua,” he said. “There will be people from (non-governmental organizations) from different parts of those societies who are as representative, and, frankly, more representative in my judgment, of the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan people than the regimes that are in place right now.”
Blinken also pushed back on questions about whether the US’ influence in the region was declining as China and Russia ramped up their presence there, saying: “I think on the contrary … When you see the conclusions that come out of this, when you see the concrete actions, commitments, principles that countries across the hemisphere are signing onto, I think it reflects an agenda, a common agenda, that is trying to be responsive to the needs of our people.”
US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield similarly weighed in on that point on Wednesday, telling a US House subcommittee that this week’s summit “is a start of renewing our push with our partners in Latin America.”
“I will tell you that in New York I hear every day from Caribbean and Latin American colleagues. They don’t want to partner with China. But many of them feel they have no choice but (to) partner with China because we have not been there for them,” she said, adding that the US needs to “ramp up our engagement with these countries.”
DHS to send migrants to some US cities further from US-Mexico border
As the regional leaders in Los Angeles discuss ways to address the issue of immigration, officials in Washington are also working on the matter, with the Department of Homeland Security planning to send migrants to some US cities further from the US-Mexico border depending on NGO capacity, according to a DHS official.
The Biden administration is still grappling with an influx of migrants at the US southern border despite keeping a Trump-era pandemic restriction, known as Title 42, in place. As part of ongoing planning to deal with a high volume of migrants, DHS has focused on more efficiently processing migrants who are released from custody while they go through their immigration proceedings.
The latest plan, first reported by NBC, would send migrants to Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, and Albuquerque, according to the official, and help alleviate border shelters that have been overwhelmed.
A DHS spokesperson told CNN, “No decision has been made. Should a decision be made, DHS will continue to closely coordinate with and support cities and NGOs to facilitate the movement of any individual encountered at the Southwest border who is placed into removal proceedings pending the next steps in their immigration proceedings.”
Currently, NGOs along the US-Mexico border assist migrants who are released from government custody. Migrants often then travel to their final destination in the US where they may have relatives and will continue their immigration proceedings.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, in a rebuke of Biden’s immigration policies, began sending dozens of migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border and released from custody to Washington, DC. After arriving to Washington, migrants have similarly continued to other destinations in the US.
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CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.