The temporary processing facilities in Donna, Texas, process family units and unaccompanied children on Feb. 25, 2021. (CBP photo by Jerry Glaser)

Intelligence Assessment: Pandemic, Policy Perceptions, Instability Driving Migration ‘Resurgence’

The COVID-19 pandemic, political instability, and natural disasters will be key factors in a “resurgence” of migration to the United States this year while drug cartels that temporarily were stymied by pandemic-related restrictions on movement have been “highly adaptable” and overcome those challenges, according to intelligence agencies.

The 2021 Annual Threat Assessment from the intelligence community says that the turmoil driving people to leave their homes and attempt entry into the U.S. isn’t likely to abate anytime soon.

“This year we will see increasing potential for surges in migration by Central American populations, which are reeling from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather, including multiple hurricanes in 2020 and several years of recurring droughts and storms,” the report said. “The scourge of illicit drugs and transnational organized crime will continue to take its toll on American lives, prosperity, and safety. Major narcotics trafficking groups have adapted to the pandemic’s challenges to maintain their deadly trade, as have other transnational criminal organizations.”

The intelligence community expects the threat from transnational organized crime networks, supplying drugs that kill tens of thousands of Americans each year, to “remain at a critical level.”

“The pandemic has created some challenges for traffickers, mainly due to restrictions on movement, but they have proven highly adaptable, and lethal overdoses have increased,” the assessment said. “Mexican traffickers dominate the smuggling of cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine into the United States. They produce heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine in Mexico, and they obtain cocaine from South American suppliers. They almost certainly will make progress producing high-quality fentanyl through this year, using chemical precursors from Asia.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that opioid overdoses killed more than 50,000 people in 2019, with nearly 73 percent of those deaths involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Preliminary CDC data shows a 29 percent increase in overdose deaths from October 2019 through September 2020 compared to the previous 2018-19 period, with a surge in April and May during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“As of July 2020, provisional data suggests that the total number of overdose deaths have continued to rise,” the intel report noted. “Traffickers temporarily slowed drug smuggling because of stricter controls along the U.S. southwest border associated with the pandemic but have since resumed operations. Transnational criminal organizations will continue to employ cyber tools to steal from U.S. and foreign businesses and use complex financial schemes to launder illicit proceeds, undermining confidence in financial institutions.”

The annual assessment found that the “forces driving global migration and displacement—including economic disparities and the effects of extreme weather and conflict—almost certainly will encourage migration and refugee flows, but pandemic restrictions will remain a check on cross-border movements.”

“Migration and displacement will heighten humanitarian needs, increase the risk of political upheaval, exacerbate other health crisis risks, and aid recruitment and radicalization by militant groups—particularly as COVID-19 strains global humanitarian response mechanisms and funding,” it continued. “Many refugees and internally displaced persons are unlikely to return to their homes. The number of people being displaced within their own national borders continues to increase, further straining governments’ abilities to care for their domestic populations and mitigate public discontent.”

In the Western Hemisphere, “the combined effects of the pandemic and hurricanes, as well as perceived changes in U.S. immigration policy and seasonal employment opportunities in the United States, are creating the economic and physical conditions for a resurgence in U.S.-bound migration—especially if COVID-19 infection rates in the United States decline.”

“Last year, mobility restrictions tied to COVID-19 initially suppressed migration from Central America to the U.S. southwest border, but the number of migrants started to rise again in mid-2020,” the IC said. “High crime rates and weak job markets remain primary push factors for U.S.-bound migration from Central America because origin countries lack the capacity to address these challenges.”

The region “almost certainly will see hotspots of volatility in the coming year, to include contested elections and violent popular protests,” with several presidential and legislative elections in Latin America this year, “some of which—such as Honduras and Nicaragua—are occurring amidst heavily polarized environments in which allegations of fraud probably will arise.”

“Public frustration is mounting over deep economic recessions following the COVID-19 pandemic, which is also compounding public concerns about crime and widespread official corruption. Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru have witnessed protests during the pandemic,” the assessment noted. “Already-high rates of crime and narcotics trafficking probably will increase as poverty worsens and resources for police and judiciaries shrink, potentially fueling migration attempts to the United States.”

“The political and economic crisis in Venezuela will continue, sustaining the outflow of Venezuelans into the rest of the region and adding strain to governments contending with some of the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the world.”

Over in Europe, migration from the Middle East and North Africa “has continued to decline since its peak in 2015, and COVID-19 travel restrictions are likely to further suppress migrant flows this year, but renewed conflicts in the Middle East could trigger more migration, and previous waves fanned nationalist sentiments in many European countries.”

“Countries are witnessing the rise of populist politicians and parties campaigning on loss of sovereignty and identity,” the report added. “Some European countries are trying to balance migration and COVID-19 concerns with the need for workers to supplement their aging workforces.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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