GOP push to label cartels 'terrorist groups' could hurt innocent people

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Experts warn that designating cartels as foreign terrorist organizations is complicated and comes with a host of unintended consequences.

GOP lawmakers and state officials are demanding the Biden administration designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations, a complicated move even the Trump administration avoided previously.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter on April 15 to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris demanding the designation.

"They smuggle narcotics and weapons into the United States to fund their illegal enterprises. They force women and children into human and sex trafficking — enriching themselves on the misery and enslavement of immigrants. They murder innocent people, including women and children," he wrote.

"These Mexican drug cartels are foreign terrorist organizations, and it is time for the federal government to designate them as such," he added. "... The sooner they get it done, the sooner America can secure the border and protect Americans from these deadly cartels."

Rep. Lance Gooden (R-TX) threw his support behind Abbott, tweeting on April 15, "This is a NO-BRAINER."

"If Joe Biden won't recognize these terrorists for what they are, then we will," he said. "Thank you, @GovAbbott, for your leadership."

Gooden co-sponsored the Drug Cartel Terrorist Designation Act, introduced by fellow Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy on April 15.

"To anyone remotely familiar with the brutal tactics and extensive operations that cartels use on both sides of our southern border every single day, there is absolutely no question that they should be described, designated, and treated as terrorists," Roy said in a statement at the time. "... We need to get serious, treat cartels like the terrorists they are, and give law enforcement even more tools to bring them down."

But there's a catch.

Calls to label cartels as foreign terror groups would make it unlawful for anyone to provide "material support" to them — and experts say that's one crucial reason officials have thus far chosen to sidestep the issue altogether.

As the national security blog Lawfare explained, "Some commentators have argued that designating cartels as [foreign terrorist organizations] would actually bolster some migrants' asylum claims as fleeing violence from terrorist organizations would be a more compelling reason than fleeing general criminal violence. While this may be true as a general principle, the designation of cartels as [foreign terrorist organizations] would likely have a far more negative impact on the asylum claims of migrants because of their frequent and often coerced interactions with cartels along their journey."

In basic terms, that means immigrants accused of providing assistance to a terrorist organization — in this case the cartels — even if they were coerced or threatened into doing it, could be punished for that scant association.

As Lawfare puts it, "If one materially supports [a foreign terrorist organization], they could face an automatic bar to entry, no matter how compelling their case may be. The statute defines engaging in terrorist activity very broadly, covering people not ordinarily associated with terrorism. ... Someone may 'materially support' a terrorist organization by being forced to cook and clean for the group."

Experts say that's a dangerous qualification that could impact already vulnerable groups.

"Reliable, systematic scientific research shows that innocent or very minor league people are coerced into doing work for cartels, such as working as watchmen, labor in packing drugs, drug carriers ('mules')," Josiah Heyman, professor and director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, said in an email.

Further, immigrants already face threats of kidnapping from cartels during their trek to the U.S.-Mexico border. If a cartel designated as foreign terrorist organization were to kidnap an immigrant and demand a ransom, and the immigrant or their family pays that ransom in exchange for their freedom, that could disqualify the immigrant from entering the country under the "material support" rule, according to Lawfare.

Immigration experts have also spoken out against the designation.

"Designating organized criminal cartels as terrorist organizations would likely not have the intended impact on reducing violence in Mexico and may even harm migrants forced into unspeakable violence with organized crime in their transit through Mexico by denying them the right to seek protection at the U.S.-Mexico border," Dainella Burgi-Palomino, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, told the American Independent Foundation.

Ernesto Castaneda, professor and director of the Immigration lab at American University, said in an email, "Drug cartels are violent, but designating them as foreign terrorist organizations would only further politicize them and make them see the states in the region as declared enemies. Thus, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy."

"This designation would also create further stigma, policing, and abuse of Latin people," he added. "It would bring together two largely unsuccessful undertakings: the war on drugs and the war on terror. What we need is to revive the war on poverty so that dealers are not pushed to work in this industry to pay the bills."

In November 2019, after nine U.S.-Mexican dual citizens were killed in a cartel-suspected ambush in Mexico, Donald Trump attempted to push forward with the Mexican drug cartel terrorist group designation, even after his Cabinet and top aides opposed the move, according to Reuters.

But by December 2019, Trump had reversed course, putting the plan on pause at the request of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Mexico had viewed the action as violating the country's sovereignty, BBC noted.

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations also considered the designation but eventually decided the benefits did not outweigh the disadvantages.

"When they realized the economic and trade implications it would have on U.S.-Mexican ties, they backed down," Arturo Sarukhan, a former U.S.-Mexico ambassador, told the Washington Post in 2019.

The GOP's petitions to the Biden administration come amid broader pushback to the president's immigration policies, which Republicans insist have launched a crisis at the southern border.

Experts say no such crisis exists and that increased border apprehensions are due in large part to seasonal spikes and a reversal of Trump's harshest immigration policies. Many of those intercepted at the border are fleeing threats of violence and poverty at home, with parents at times sending their children alone or with others, knowing they stand a better chance at reaching safety in the United States that way.

Republicans, meanwhile, have launched attacks on the president, claiming baselessly that asylum seekers pose a threat to U.S. citizens and accusing Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Biden appointed to address the root causes of immigration from Central America, of not caring about the border situation.

Harris' spokespeople have noted that the vice president has held repeated meetings with foreign leaders to address the issue of immigration to the United States and that the southern border is not within her purview.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.