Global Policy Studies & International Security

Biden’s ‘Root Causes Strategy’ for Central America Must Look Past the Current ‘Crisis’

The Biden Administration is developing a “Root Causes Strategy” (RCS)  to reduce violence, strengthen the rule of law, and reduce economic insecurity in Central America, in the hopes that these measures will reduce migration from the region by addressing the problems at the source.

The Biden Administration issued an Executive Order (EO) calling for a “Comprehensive Regional Framework to Address the Causes of Migration” from Central America on February 2, 2021, within the first fifteen days of taking office.  The primary focus is in the “Northern Triangle” region of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the three primary source countries for migrants from the region. Since that EO came into effect, the United States has seen increasing numbers of children and families arriving at the Southern Border, and a blitz of media coverage decrying a supposed “crisis.”

This migration flow does present relatively novel governance challenges compared to recent decades. Previous migration arrivals to the Southern border of the United States, particularly those processed at the border itself, involved the undocumented entry of individual migrants seeking seasonal work and other forms of economic opportunity. Conversely, newly arriving migrants from Central America are families or unaccompanied minors who often purposely turn themselves in to border authorities to apply for asylum. This change has significant implications for an appropriate policy response. Past administrations―going back to the 1990s―have consistently turned to expanded enforcement and securitization of the border as a solution to increased migration, often falsely framed as a threat to American’s jobs or safety. The Biden administration’s RCS must move beyond crisis narratives and fulfill the ambitions of a true “root causes” strategy along with its intended asylum reforms rather than repeating past failures.

Through the multi-pronged initiatives outlined below, the Biden administration can begin to address the “root causes” of forced migration from Central America. It should be clear, however, that this change will not occur immediately, and that managing the migration flow as it currently exists can contribute to a long-term RCS framework. Priority for aid and resources should go towards communities hit hardest by violence, climate events, and food insecurity. Likewise, design and implementation for programs should be informed by specific “place-based” contexts and involve multiple stakeholders in order to build local institutional capacity. Thus, another crucial element of this plan will be preliminary evaluation work to identify where interventions will be the most impactful. By combining these efforts with reforms to asylum and the development of migration pathways, the Biden administration can finally move beyond reactive politics and “crisis” response, towards effective regional governance of decades-old migration flows.

Background: 40 Years of Insecurity in the Northern Triangle

The increase in migration from the Northern Triangle began in the 1980s with the onset of civil wars in the region that raged throughout most of the decade. During this time, the number of immigrants in the United States from these countries tripled. From this time and throughout most of the early 21st century, the flow of people from Central America was dwarfed by the high number of Mexican immigrants to the United States both through regular channels and as undocumented immigrants. This changed in the mid-2000s, as immigration from Mexico declined rapidly while immigration from Central America increased. Between 2007 and 2015, the population of migrants from the Northern Triangle in the United States grew 24% for regular migrants and 26% for the undocumented. In 2014, the number of migrants from Central America apprehended at the Southern border surpassed that of Mexican migrants for the first time, a shift which has continued in almost every year since. This shift also accompanied a change in the demographic profile of the arriving immigrants. While in 2012, single adults accounted for nearly all (90%) of border apprehensions, their share has steadily dwindled to the point where, as of 2018, family units and unaccompanied minors together made up over half of all apprehensions.

The United States played a key role in several of the Central American conflicts that spurred the initial outflow of refugees, supporting military regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador known to have committed grave human rights abuses. As the conflicts in those regions subsided, however, emigration flows did not. High levels of violence, homicide, poverty, and political repressions continue to force migrants to flee northward. In recent decades, organized crime (usually local gangs and international trafficking organizations) has replaced right-wing death squads as the primary source of violence. The widespread prevalence of poverty is fueling this violence as well as the wider insecurity that leads to mass displacement and emigration from the region. Central American countries rank among the poorest countries in continental Latin America by GDP and have been plagued by foreign-driven conflicts and systems of extraction going back decades. Over the last 20 years, environmental degradation and natural disasters have also become a major factor in migrants leaving the region. 

Intensifying climate change has led to heightened food insecurity and physical destruction from natural disasters such as hurricanes. Consistent droughts across the Corredor Seco (“Dry Corridor”), which spans the length of Central America from southern Mexico to Panama, have left many agricultural workers without economic stability, driving them to migrate internally toward more urban areas. There, exposure to gang violence or further economic difficulty may eventually push them to leave the countries entirely. For others, the loss of homes with no recovery support sparks a direct journey northward. Following the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001, the United States granted “temporary protected status” (TPS) to displaced people from these countries. In December of last year, Hurricanes Eta and Iota destroyed entire communities and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Some of those people have already made their way to the United States, while others followed the previously outlined path and fled to cities, where ultimately emigration remains the only path to escape. 

These multi-layered “push-factors” underline the need for a comprehensive strategy from Biden. Even if such a strategy had been prepared and launched within Biden’s first 100 days, however, its effects on mitigating the need for Central Americans to migrate may not take effect by the time Biden faces potential reelection in 2024. The directive of Biden EO to fix the United States’ weakened asylum system after four years of Trump could address this need. Still, the Biden administration must also look beyond the asylum program, which by nature is only equipped to address those who make the dangerous journey to our borders, to alternative pathways such as TPS and temporary labor visas that would also serve to regularize migration.

Policy Options: Combating Insecurity In All Forms

For the RCS to succeed, the Biden administration must be aware of the complex and non-linear nature between development (both economic and social, as relating to democracy and the rule of law) and migration. Recent research has shown that, in some cases, development efforts can actually increase migration in the short term, as would-be migrants who previously did not have the means to travel become able to do so. Conversely, enabling more economic migration (that is, opening paths for migrants to gain higher wages in wealthier economies) can be a major contributor to development and economic stability via the large remittance sums that are sent back to home countries. Thus the RCS should not presume a linear relationship between increasing U.S. aid and reducing migration from Central America. Rather, the Biden administration must take a long-term strategic view that deploys development assistance in ways that strengthen local opportunities over time and formalizes migration (if even on a temporary basis) to reduce economic suffering in the short term. This section offers some initial measures and considerations to follow that path.

Leveraging Migration For Development:

  • Establish new, temporary labor migration pathways for Central American migrants. These measures would formalize existing patterns of irregular migration and provide alternative paths to entry aside from claiming asylum. Many migrants have had their asylum claims denied, leaving the rejected to either face a dangerous journey home or enter the country without authorization and legal protections. Not only would these labor pathways extend such legal protections, regulations around wages and work conditions can improve migrant’s abilities to contribute money to their home communities.
  • Extend TPS for migrants fleeing recent environmental disasters such as Hurricanes Eta and Iota. Given the region’s poor history on economic recovery, it is highly unlikely that these displaced people will find suitable jobs and wages to not only survive but rebuild what was lost in these storms. Similar to the prior recommendation, offering protected legal status reduces the likelihood that migrants will travel irregularly and be forced into exploitative labor systems that inhibit their ability to contribute to their home countries.
  • Create federal grants for “hometown associations” (HTA) in Central America. These are civic groups for migrants from the same hometown that have the potential to exert positive effects on governance in their home country. Where possible, and appropriate, the government should support these HTAs in liaising with both hometown residents and the local government, as well as helping to run development projects and services. 

A Long-Term Plan for Development:

  • Prioritize immediate needs such as poverty reduction, food insecurity, and climate resilience when budgeting for development efforts. Poverty and lack of economic opportunity consistently rank as the primary “push” factor for migrants fleeing from the Northern Triangle. While violence sits at a close second, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras, this too is driven by an underlying economic insecurity that makes criminal activity one of the few livelihood choices available for young people facing high unemployment. This demonstrates a need to prioritize needing immediate needs such as poverty and food insecurity as the most effective means of reducing the need to migrate. Research has shown the move towards export-oriented farming has had negative impacts on economic resilience, while also reducing food security and climate resilience due to environmental degradation.  The Biden administration should focus on supporting small-holder farms geared towards personal and internal market consumption, which not only reduce poverty, but improve food security and strengthen communities’ ability to withstand climate shocks.
  • Support investment in education and programs that increase the skills of Central Americans. Improved education is foundational for economic revival and growth in former under-resourced communities. Whether in their home countries or as migrant workers, Central Americans who possess a higher education and trade training can take on jobs requiring higher skill, earn higher wages, and support investment and economic activity in their communities. This requires research to identify labor market demand and train workers accordingly, funding to bring in civil society organizations that can fill existing gaps while public sector capacity improves, and improve support to children so they can take better advantage of educational resources.
  • Invest in hemispheric supply chains that bring manufacturing closer to the United States and provide jobs for under-invested areas in Central America. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the risks associated with global supply chain disruptions. To ensure resilience in the movement and provision of goods when such events occur, the United States should work with Mexico and Central American governments to set up the manufacturing of key goods, and invest in improved transportation infrastructure across the region, bringing new jobs and improving laborers skills.
  • Support the creation of a more developed “re-integration” system in Central America. Migrants who are able to return safely to their home countries often bring back new skills and economic capital that can boost the economic health and productivity of their communities. To enable this, there should be reforms around obtaining new identification for migrants and improving public awareness and geographic distribution of services. Likewise, programs that assist in matching returning migrants’ skills with labor-market needs can speed up the ability for migrants to contribute to their home countries.

Reducing Violence and Strengthening the Rule of Law:

  • Empower focused, context-specific strategies towards violence and crime interventions, strengthen legal institutions, and divest from militarized and punitive enforcement. The “place-based” strategy highlighted in Biden’s EO refers to a previous effort by the Obama administration to design programs specific to the communities they hope to improve. These efforts combined targeted violence interventions with poverty-reduction and employment initiatives to put forth comprehensive solutions in areas where violence is most prevalent. In doing so, they achieved significant success in reducing homicides and other violent crimes. These strategies should be pursued, along with efforts in behavioral therapy and other measures proven to work. On the other hand, the administration should move away from the militarization of enforcement and punitive carceral systems that can actually strengthen gangs and deepen young people’s ties to criminal network
  • Organize an international or regional commission on corruption modeled after the successes of the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. This Commission consisted of non-governmental investigators and legal teams with the authority and resources to pursue corruption charges. Over the course of 12 years, its investigations resulted in over 1,000 indictments and the resignation of then-President Otto Perez Molina in 2015 following massive and sustained protests fueled by the Commission’s revelations of corruption. The commission concluded its work in 2019 after suffering attacks from political elites, despite never losing a heavy majority of support from the Guatemalan people. Such a team, working on a regional basis, could work to identify corrupt actors and track financial flows to ensure delivery and proper use of development funds that rarely make it to their destination communities.
  • Support the technological renovation of aid delivery systems and other ways to improve the integrity of assistance and resilience against corruption. By leveraging technology to improve recordkeeping and transparency, the United States and partners in Central America can reduce the influence of corrupt actors and ensure that money and resources reach the communities they’re intended for.

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