Guatemala talks
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) speaks next to Guatemala's President Bernardo Arevalo (L) during the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection ministerial meeting in Guatemala City on May 7, 2024. AFP

Washington is redoubling efforts to disrupt irregular migration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday at regional talks in Guatemala, as the hot-button issue looms large once again over US elections in November.

Blinken led the US delegation at a meeting in the Guatemalan capital of the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, a cooperation framework agreed to at a summit in California in 2022.

The United States has "stepped up efforts against those preying on vulnerable migrants," notably those flying people from Asia, Africa and elsewhere to Central America, Blinken said, six months ahead of the election in which President Joe Biden is expected to face off again against Republican predecessor Donald Trump.

In February, Washington announced a new visa restriction policy that targets "individuals who knowingly provide transportation to those intending to migrate irregularly to the United States, including through charter flights arriving in Nicaragua," he said.

On Monday, the United States unveiled visa restrictions on Colombian maritime migration executives who are facilitating irregular migration, Blinken added.

"We're redoubling our efforts to protect migrant workers from exploitation," he said.

Blinken announced an additional $578 million in planned humanitarian, development, and economic assistance, which will help to provide water, shelter and emergency healthcare to migrants and refugees.

"The United States also announced expanded enforcement partnerships to deter irregular migration, including increased consequences for the smuggling networks that prey on vulnerable migrants," a White House statement said.

Record numbers of migrants have been seeking to enter the United States, largely from Central America and Venezuela, as they flee poverty, violence and disasters exacerbated by climate change.

Nearly 2.5 million people were intercepted at the US-Mexico border in the 2023 fiscal year to September, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

Trump and other Republicans around the United States have tried to link the wave of illegal migration to Biden's border policies, pledging a harsh crackdown if elected in November.

Foreign ministers and other senior officials from around 20 countries took part in Tuesday's talks in Guatemala City.

In a speech to the regional meeting, Guatemalan President Bernardo Arevalo called for "safe, orderly, humane and regulated migration."

Washington has been wooing Arevalo's new administration as a partner on migration, with Biden hosting him for a meeting in March. That visit also saw the announcement of $170 million in US aid.

The month before, Guatemala also agreed to three-way cooperation with the United States and Mexico on migration.

Arevalo, a former lawmaker, diplomat and sociologist, took office in January, following unsuccessful attempts by the political establishment to block the inauguration of the underdog anti-corruption campaigner.

"We're convinced that migration is a multilateral challenge and it is from there that we must find joint solutions," Chilean Vice Foreign Minister Gloria de la Fuente told AFP.

Diego Beltrand, the International Organization for Migration's director for North and Central America and the Caribbean, urged participants to "agree on concrete action plans" to address the crisis.

US-bound migrants arrive in Central America not only by land but also by air and sea to avoid the treacherous Darien jungle between Colombia and Panama.

Complicating matters for the United States is that some of the migration along the way is legal.

Nicaragua for example serves as a waypoint for Asian and African migrants taking charter and commercial flights, helped by a more relaxed Nicaraguan visa policy, according to US officials and Central American analysts.

Nicaragua did not attend Tuesday's talks and did not sign the 2022 declaration.

Biden refused to invite the leftist leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to the Los Angeles summit on the grounds that they are authoritarians.