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Brian A. Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Marta Costanzo Youth, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
April 15, 2022
MR BARTLETT: Thanks very much and thanks, everyone, for joining us today. We’re happy to have you for this call previewing Secretary Blinken’s upcoming travel to Panama. The trip was announced earlier today, and the Secretary departs for Panama on Tuesday, April 19th. Just a reminder again, this call is on the record but embargoed until the call is completed. And we’ll of course focus on answering questions related to the trip. And as we always do, we’ll post a transcript after the fact on state.gov.
If you would like to ask a question at any time, please dial 1 then 0 to enter the queue. Again, that’s 1 then 0 to enter the queue to ask a question.
It’s now my pleasure to introduce on the line with us our Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols and our Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Marta Youth. They’ll offer some opening remarks each, and then we’ll take your questions. Again, 1 then 0 to ask a question.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Assistant Secretary Nichols to begin.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: Thank you and good afternoon. Thank you all for joining us today as we preview Secretary Blinken’s upcoming trip to Panama City for a Ministerial on Migration and Protection and bilateral meetings with the Government of Panama.
On April 19th and 20th, Secretary Blinken will lead a U.S. delegation to Panama City to lead a ministerial conference co-hosted with the Government of Panama. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and I will join Secretary Blinken on this trip, as will a number of other State Department, National Security Council, USAID, and DHS leaders.
While in Panama, our delegation will join senior representatives from more than 20 other countries in the Western Hemisphere at the ministerial conference. Secretary Blinken will also meet with Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo and Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes, as well as with civil society organizations and members of the press.
I note that this ministerial is part of our diplomatic build-up to the June Summit of the Americas, during which we will advance a number of initiatives that address irregular migration and its root causes and provide protection for refugees and asylum seekers. With that for context, I’ll speak first about the Ministerial on Migration and Protection, and then detail our bilateral meetings.
In August of last year, Panama hosted a virtual migration gathering, and in October, 17 countries gathered in Bogota for a Ministerial on Migration and Protection. Next week’s ministerial in Panama will further our shared commitment to collaboratively addressing the challenges of irregular migration throughout our hemisphere.
President Biden made addressing the challenges of irregular migration and providing protection a key priority for his administration. In his first days in office, he outlined his vision for a comprehensive regional framework, which we further detailed in our Strategy to Address the Root Causes of Migration and our Collaborative Migration Management Strategy. While we have made great progress in implementing that plan, this is a shared challenge. And as Secretary Blinken said at the October ministerial, “It cannot be solved by any one country. We have to solve it together.”
We must count on close collaboration with governments throughout the region to truly make progress on managing irregular migration and addressing the protection needs of the most vulnerable people in our hemisphere. As mentioned, in October 2021, 17 countries from our region came together in Bogota in recognition of our shared responsibility. At the conclusion of that ministerial, we all committed to continue the discussion and encourage more countries to join.
The United States has continued these discussions with many partners throughout the hemisphere, resulting in a bilateral Migration Arrangement with Costa Rica in March, and we are working on similar arrangements with a number of other countries. This week in Panama we will meet the challenge set at the last ministerial with the addition of new national partners and further progress on our collective objectives.
In particular, at this ministerial we intend to focus on stabilization efforts for communities hosting migrants and refugees. Countries hosting large migrant and refugee populations often need access to financing and assistance for development, humanitarian needs, public health, and climate resilience and adaptation. This support is essential to enable migrants and refugees to integrate into host countries and rebuild their lives. At the ministerial conference, we will discuss leveraging investments from multilateral development banks and international organizations to support communities in need.
We and our partners in the Americas understand the best way to address irregular migration is by generating opportunities and giving people a reason to build their lives at home.
We will also discuss the President’s framework for regional collaboration on migration issues and our intent to adopt a declaration on migration protection at the Summit of the Americas, which the United States will host in Los Angeles in June.
Given the expanding collaboration with our partners throughout the region in the past year, I am confident we will have fruitful discussions on this trip.
Turning now to the bilateral meetings for this trip, in his meetings with Panamanian President Cortizo and Foreign Minister Mouynes, Secretary Blinken will discuss issues of importance to citizens of both our countries, including migration, of course, and also Panama’s role as a regional leader in preventing democratic backsliding, promoting human rights, and tackling corruption, as well as the international response to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
Beyond this bilateral leadership discussion, the Secretary will also attend a special event with anticorruption activists to exchange ideas and extend support for their important work, and visit the Panama Canal, a bedrock of Panama’s economy and a key node for U.S. trade.
With that, I’ll pass it to my colleague, Deputy Assistant Secretary Marta Youth.
MS YOUTH: Thanks so much. Good afternoon. I’m very glad to be on the line with Assistant Secretary Nichols today ahead of Secretary Blinken’s trip to Panama to participate in the Ministerial on Migration and Protection next week. As the assistant secretary mentioned, addressing the challenges of irregular migration and providing protection to refugees and asylum seekers is a key priority for the Biden-Harris administration.
Ahead of the Secretary’s trip, I would like to elaborate briefly on what the United States is doing to build capacity and provide protection in the hemisphere in the context of our commitment to collaborating with partners from across the region to humanely manage migration. The United States works with international organizations and multilateral institutions to provide humanitarian assistance and help integrate refugees, asylum seekers, vulnerable migrants into their host communities, and help support those host communities. We also support efforts to build capacity in the region to provide asylum and other protections.
In addition, we’re strengthening international protection and other legal migration pathways to the United States and elsewhere. We collaborate with partners from across the region to underscore our shared responsibility and to develop a set of priorities to strengthen humane migration management, provide protection to those who need it throughout the hemisphere, and reduce incentives for irregular migrations.
The bilateral Migration Arrangements Assistant Secretary Nichols mentioned allow us to target our capacity-building programs and humanitarian assistance, and strengthen our partnerships with other countries and international organizations and NGO partners. They foster collaboration towards our shared responsibility to ensure migration is safe, orderly, and humane.
The United States Government is firmly committed to welcoming people to the United States with humanity and respect, and reuniting families. We are working to deliver on our promise to promote safe, orderly, and humane migration from Central America through the expansion of legal pathways that allow individuals to seek humanitarian protection in the United States.
We have a shared responsibility. The ministerial in Panama is another opportunity to convene with regional governments, multi-development banks, international organizations, civil society, and others to discuss the continued critical actions necessary to strengthen humane migration management, provide protection to those who need it, and reduce irregular migration throughout the hemisphere. The Secretary’s trip is an opportunity to seek greater collaboration.
Thank you for your time. Look forward to your questions.
MR BARTLETT: Thank you both very much. And again, if you’d like to ask a question of either Assistant Secretary Nichols or Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Marta Youth, please press 1 then 0.
We’ll first go to Ryohei Takagi from Kyodo News.
OPERATOR: Mr. Takagi, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me?
MR BARTLETT: Yes.
QUESTION: Thanks for briefing. Panama established diplomatic relations with China and protocol affiliations with – relations with Taiwan in 2017. So I’m just wondering whether the relationship with Taiwan and China would be one of the topics the Secretary will discuss with his counterpart, Panama foreign minister, or not. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: Thanks very much. In all of our conversations around the hemisphere, we talk about the importance of the shared values that we have as a region, the importance of respect for human rights, the rule of law, democracy, and we talk about being transparent and understanding what’s on offer when China is engaging with a country.
I’m sure that will be part of the discussions that we have in Panama. The United States has a strong commercial relationship with China, obviously. We’re not saying don’t trade with China. What we’re saying is do so with your eyes open, understand what’s on the table, understand how China will use and its companies will use your data if they are in the data processing business like 5G. And that’s a common conversation for us to have with all of our partners, and we just hope that people approach these issues with full knowledge and ask the right questions.
MR BARTLETT: Thanks. Let’s next go to Conor Finnegan from ABC News.
OPERATOR: Mr. Finnegan, you are open.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you. Two questions here. First, will any representatives of the Maduro government be present for the ministerial? And can any agreement – hemisphere-wide agreement solve the migration crisis without addressing Venezuela’s political, economic, and humanitarian crises?
And then second, the administration has announced plans to admit up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. What impact would that have on your plans to admit – or process asylum claims at the border or otherwise address migration issues? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: So the Maduro regime will not attend the ministerial. The – obviously the lack of access to opportunity, democracy, human rights, the rule of law inside the borders of Venezuela has led many Venezuelans to vote with their feet and depart that country. Our goal is to encourage the Maduro regime and the interim government to return to the negotiating table in Mexico City where Venezuela negotiated and led solution to that country’s problems. We continue to support that effort and believe it has the best prospects for a lasting solution to Venezuela’s problems.
MR BARTLETT: Thanks. Let’s next go to Gustau Alegaret from NTN 24.
OPERATOR: Please, go ahead, Mr. Alegaret.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for this opportunity. A couple of questions. Do we have to expect any announcement from this meeting, first of all? And second of all, if I may, some analysts and people in Panama at the beginning of the war in Ukraine were requesting the government to block any Russian vessels or ships going through the canal as a kind of punishment or sanctions against the Kremlin. Is that a possibility? Is the United States supporting this idea? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: Well, I think that we expect that all of the nations that are present will respect the sanctions that exist on the Russian Federation, financial institutions within it, and private companies operating with close links to the Russian Federation and the Putin government. We believe that the private sectors of our region are already taking extensive steps to ensure that they respect those sanctions and other measures. I can’t speak to the specifics of ship traffic, but I do believe that we will seek ever greater application of those measures by our partners and allies around the hemisphere and around the world.
The – I should just note that the unprecedented flow of migrants out of Ukraine has contributed to the larger global challenge of unprecedented levels of migration over the course of the past few months. And we as an international community are working hard to manage that in a humane, safe, transparent, and legal way, and putting the resources in place both in Europe and certainly in our own hemisphere to address this new challenge while we continue to manage the migration situation and migrant flows around our own region.
MR BARTLETT: Thank you. Let’s next go to Priscilla Alvarez from CNN.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call. What does the State Department want to – or the U.S. want to walk away with? Would it be an agreement? An additional commitment from Panama or other attending countries? What would sort of signify a successful trip?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: So this is for us an important opportunity to begin the home stretch as we prepare for the Summit of the Americas in June. And as I said, we expect that we will have a broad migration compact or agreement that specifically helps us keep populations safe and integrated and in place where they are in our hemisphere that increases information sharing among the governments and migratory authorities of our hemisphere that leverages the resources of multilateral development banks and other international organizations like the IOM and the UN to support migration requirements throughout our hemisphere, that countries continue to take steps to regularize migration by instituting visa requirements, while appropriate that countries continue to invest in things like services for migrants at risk and shelters. Those are all things that we’ve made significant progress on since the last ministerial, and we believe that that process will continue through Panama right up to June and the Summit of the Americas. But perhaps my colleague Marta Youth would like to make a comment as well.
MS YOUTH: Sir, I think you did a fantastic job covering it, but just to kind of sum up, I mean, this really – what we’re really looking at in Panama is really continuing the conversation that we began in the original virtual meeting that the Panamanian Government hosted last year and then the October migration ministerial which we co-hosted with Colombia in October.
This is – we really changed the narrative, I think, in the region in terms of understanding what is really meant by shared responsibility and how we can all work together on this really unprecedented challenge, which is really not just in this region but is actually a reflection of the challenges that we are seeing happening globally in terms of forced displacement throughout the world. And this is an event where we can discuss and act on what we need to do together to address these challenges. Over.
MR BARTLETT: Thank you. Let’s next go to Nick Kalman from Fox.
QUESTION: Thanks. I just had a follow-up to my colleague Conor’s question on the Maduro regime, and you said that no representatives from that regime are attending the ministerial. Could you just advise as to whether or not any representatives from the regime were invited to attend? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: Not to my knowledge.
MR BARTLETT: Thanks. Let’s next go to Ted Hesson from Reuters.
QUESTION: Hi, all. Thank you for having the call. My question is similar to what Priscilla asked, and I’m hoping maybe you could give us some more practical examples. I guess I understand sort of symbolically what you’re working towards, and there have been many meetings and you’ve been at this for over a year, but has there been any tangible result, and is there anything you can show us that’s affected migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, for instance, that’s come out of these talks?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: Well, we’re working on addressing the root causes of migration as a collective effort, and one of the things that I think has been quite powerful in the near term has been Vice President Harris’ call to action, which has mobilized over $1.2 billion in private sector investment in Northern Central America and created thousands of jobs in that part of the hemisphere. And we know that those people are not migrating. We know that our efforts to provide COVID-19 vaccines to countries throughout the hemisphere – some 60 million vaccines in the Western Hemisphere – have helped countries recover more quickly from the COVID-19 pandemic which was a driver of migration to our southern border.
We know that our efforts to provide assistance to communities that are hosting migrants in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile have all helped stabilize those populations to a greater degree. But this comes in the context of literally millions of migrants on the move in our hemisphere; some six million Venezuelans are migrants outside of Venezuela right now, over five million of them in the Western Hemisphere. There are half a million Nicaraguans who are displaced and living in Costa Rica right now, and I had the opportunity to meet with some of them when I was there a couple weeks ago. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants in Chile, in Brazil.
There are really unprecedented challenges and I think that our assistance has helped to mitigate some of that migration movement, but the challenges did not begin yesterday and they will take time for us to resolve alongside our partners. And as Marta signaled, one of the things we don’t hear anymore is that this is a U.S. problem. What – no one has said that to me and they – all the countries that I have talked to very much accept that we have to work together to address this challenge, and that’s what we’re doing in Panama.
MR BARTLETT: Thank you. We’ll take a final question from Beatriz Pascual from EFE.
QUESTION: Thank you. You have mentioned a couple of times that this meeting in Panama is in preparation for the Summit of the Americas. So I was wondering if the United States has invited Cuba and Venezuela to the Summit of the Americas. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NICHOLS: So the White House will determine which leaders are invited to the Summit of the Americas, and the White House has not yet issued invitations. I will note that the Western Hemisphere is a part of the world that has a broad commitment to democracy, as enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. And I believe that as we move forward, we will see countries that share that commitment toward democracy as the key participants in the summit.
MR BARTLETT: Thank you both again. Thanks to our speakers. And thanks to our participants for your questions. We’ll post this transcript shortly on state.gov, and you know how to get in touch with us if you have questions in the lead-up to or during the trip. Thank you, everybody, and have a great day.
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