How to Actually Tackle the Root Causes of Central American Migration
By Sarah Bermeo – Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, Sanford School, Duke University
Innovative Action Needed to Tackle Root Causes of Central American Migration
People from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras continue to arrive in large numbers at the U.S. southern border. The Biden administration, like others before it, has declared its intent to decrease this form of migration. The administration is pursuing a two-pronged strategy, sending a message that “the border is not open” while increasing foreign aid to address root causes of migration.
The strategy as outlined will not stop people from coming. Discouraging messages have been used before and migrants continue to arrive. Neither family separations under the Trump administration nor the “do not come” remarks delivered by Vice President Kamala Harris have stopped people from fleeing violence, corruption, and extreme food insecurity at home.
Successfully addressing root causes is the only viable path for reducing the number of people deciding that migration is their only chance for a life of safety and food security. U.S. efforts to improve living conditions, including a proposed $4 billion foreign aid package, will fail without significant shifts in policy and implementation. Restructuring institutions and practices to meet needs on the ground is essential; forcing solutions from an existing, ill‑suited development architecture will not work. The administration must choose: business as usual or difficult reforms that offer a chance of success where previous policies have failed.
Violence, Corruption, and Food Insecurity
Causes of migration from Central America are numerous and intertwined. Violence, threats, and extortion linked to gangs and transnational drug trafficking are endemic. The region has one of the world’s highest rates of gender-based violence. Homicides remain high, although they have decreased in recent years, replaced in El Salvador by a spike in “disappearances.”
Political corruption is rampant. Mayors have been linked to gangs, drug trafficking, and migrant smuggling operations in El Salvador. Similar situations arise with cocaine smuggling in Guatemala. The family and political party of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández have strong ties to international drug trafficking. Previous efforts to partner with outside bodies to fight corruption – such as CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras – were disbanded by central governments.
Food insecurity linked to climate change is increasing in Central America. Crops have failed repeatedly in the Dry Corridor that runs through these countries. The Covid-19 pandemic and two severe hurricanes in 2020 significantly increased hunger in the region. Entrenched poor governance inhibited effective response to these crises, magnifying their negative impacts and further eroding citizen trust in government. High levels of poverty and lack of economic opportunity increase overall feelings of hopelessness.
Biden’s “Root Causes” Strategy Unlikely to Decrease Migration
The Biden administration released its “Root Causes” strategy to tackle the drivers of migration. The administration has asked for $4 billion in aid and issued a “call to action” to encourage private-sector investment. There is little reason to believe the strategy will succeed where its many predecessors have failed.
Unwillingness to acknowledge root causes that are uncomfortable for the U.S. will hamper effectiveness. The contribution of U.S. drug demand in fostering lawlessness and violence in Central America was acknowledged by then‑Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but not mentioned in President Biden’s root causes strategy. Production of cocaine in Colombia and demand in U.S. and European markets have increased. Guns in the region are trafficked from legal sales in the U.S. market, fueling violence in countries with no notable domestic weapons production. Violence and corruption are often symptoms of trafficking in drugs and guns, rather than root causes of migration themselves.
Reliance on foreign aid and private-sector investment, two key pillars of the administration’s proposal, has not decreased migration in the past. President George W. Bush increased aid to the region and called the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) “good immigration policy” that would benefit the private sector and create economic opportunity. The Obama administration further increased funding for Central America under the Alliance for Prosperity. The Trump administration was heavily criticized for decreasing aid to the region, which also failed to stop migration.
Scholars have raised concerns that foreign aid can cause increased migration, with development making migration more affordable. That is unlikely here. People are leaving Central America because their situation is getting worse, not because migration is suddenly attainable. Driven by violence and climate change, many have lost the “right not to migrate” – they are forced to leave because they lack viable opportunities to stay. Foreign aid and private sector engagement could provide these opportunities, but they depend on effective implementation strategies that have been lacking.
Potential Solutions: Increase Legal Pathways, Promote Research, and Work Locally
Addressing the root causes of migration requires a multi-pronged approach. The Biden administration has announced new plans to work with Mexico to combat trafficking. It will need to innovate beyond the Mérida Initiative, the U.S.-Mexico security agreement in effect since the George W. Bush administration, to be successful.
Increasing legal pathways for entry can decrease demand for undocumented crossings, as it did historically with Mexican migrants to the U.S., and disrupt financial flows to traffickers smuggling migrants. The Biden administration plan to allot 6,000 additional temporary work visas for Central America is a small move in this direction.
Investment in research would guide policymakers in formulating effective solutions. We need to better understand internal migration and the support necessary to make this a viable option. Rather than tout the number of companies expressing interest in the region, the U.S. government could fund research to understand the benefits and costs of investing in particular sectors. Results could be used to target incentives to the right types of businesses – local and international – that provide better quality jobs than those currently available in the large informal sector.
Effective progress on governance, food security, and development will not occur without a wholesale change in U.S. foreign aid delivery in Central America. Less than ten percent of U.S. aid in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras is given directly to local companies and non-governmental organizations. For aid to show sustainable results, this has to change. Community-based groups understand local problems and can often formulate solutions more efficiently than outsiders. When outside expertise is needed, external actors can play an advisory role with local partners in the lead. Empowering local actors in planning and implementation grows knowledge and leadership skills that will reach beyond individual projects and spill into the public sector. This helps improve governance capacity from the ground up, in countries where governments are not willing partners for top-down reform.
Working directly with local groups requires a sea change in the modus operandi of the U.S. aid regime. Potential local partners are currently disadvantaged by the preference for U.S.-based contractors and the high administrative burden associated with aid programs. For U.S. aid agencies, it is easier to have large contractors vet local groups and assume the risks associated with potential failure. These contractors lack incentives to build long-term local capacity that could become their competition for future projects. Building this capacity is a key to turning the tide in the region.
Working more with local partners requires increasing aid agency knowledge and staff. It requires reducing administrative burdens to a manageable level for small organizations. It requires willingness to take risks, knowing some projects will fail. It requires nothing less than a significant overhaul of the aid apparatus as it currently functions in these countries.
The Biden administration needs to break with past policies and adopt bold, innovative, research-based, and locally-focused approaches to tackle root causes of migration in Central America. The alternative is an increase in desperation and forced migration, the near-certain result of business as usual.
This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Civility Without Borders” series, covering a range of topics fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. Through this series, we ask scholars, journalists, government officials, and activists to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.
Sarah Bermeo is an associate professor of public policy and political science in the Sanford School at Duke University, a faculty affiliate of the Duke Center for International Development, and director of graduate studies for the Master of International Development Policy program. She is the author of Targeted Development: Industrialized Country Strategy in a Globalizing World (Oxford, 2018) and multiple articles on foreign aid, trade agreements, and migration. Sarah is a frequent commentator on foreign aid and on migration from Central America in national and international news outlets.