SELEE: Sending Aid To Central American Countries Could Help Stem The Migration Surge

(Kaylee Greenlee. - Daily Caller News Foundation)

Andrew Selee Contributor
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that sending foreign aid to Central American countries could be a factor in addressing the root causes of migration. You can find a counterpoint here, where Federation for American Immigration Reform press secretary Matthew Tragesser argues that foreign aid will not help reduce illegal immigration.

Since 2014 there have been four migration surges at the U.S. southwest border in which hundreds of thousands of Central Americans try to get across. It happened twice under President Obama, in 2014 and 2016, once under President Trump, in 2019, and now under President Biden this year. The fact that this keeps happening, despite the policies that U.S. administrations have tried to implement to deter unauthorized immigration, suggests that a different approach is needed.

When Vice President Kamala Harris went to Guatemala and Mexico this week, she was displaying one element of a new approach: Making sustained investments in development coupled with leverage to address corruption in the region. While it is true that the U.S. government has already funded projects in the region for many years with mixed results, what is new about this approach is the focus on governance and rule of law — essentially how to provide incentives to those inside and outside government who are fighting against corruption in their countries. This approach includes supporting courageous prosecutors who are tackling organized crime and the politicians who abet them, journalists who are covering graft and extortion, and community organizations that are monitoring government actions. While there is no reason to believe that funding for these efforts alone will change life in Central America, they could make a difference if coupled with leverage to change corrupt practices and build institutions.

However, most of this is a long-term investment in change that will take years to be fully realized. There are some efforts aimed at short-term triggers for migration that might help some people decide not to migrate, such as providing access to credit for micro-business and small agricultural producers, who often find themselves in debt to local money lenders in a volatile market and use migration to deal with these downturns. Other short-term assistance to help rebuild infrastructure and provide basic nutrition after two hurricanes wiped out roads, houses, and schools late last year might also help deter some migration. Other efforts need to address the violence that gangs and organized crime groups inflict on local communities. But most development aid is a long-term bet that the countries in the region can build better government institutions over time that invest in education, health care, housing and productive enterprises.

In Guatemala, a new business organization called the National Business Council released a report last week that showed how monopolistic practices and the lack of credit access for new ventures strangles competition and makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to start new businesses. Part of where U.S. aid can be particularly influential is in creating the incentives for a new institutional framework for a competitive and open economy that allows innovators and small producers to flourish without having to migrate to the United States to build their own financial capital and mitigate risk.

Of course, none of this will happen overnight, so the U.S. government needs to figure out how to manage migration from Central America in the meantime. Not everyone who wants to migrate will be able to come legally, but they should be able to have alternatives to an illegal, dangerous and expensive journey. We did this with Mexico years ago by making it easier for employers in the United States to hire seasonal workers. Today around 250,000 Mexican seasonal workers come to the United States each year for a few months and return to their country afterwards. These same programs could work for Central America, but so far there are fewer than 10,000 people (and usually many fewer) recruited each year in Central America. The Trump administration signed agreements to expand access to seasonal visas in Central America, but the COVID-19-induced recession interrupted this effort. Now the Biden administration is aptly picking it up and trying to see if there is a way to create seasonal work opportunities for those who want to work for a few months in the United States but not remain permanently. History tells us that when there are legal options, people use them rather than hiring a smuggler, even if it means waiting in line for a year or two.

These tools need to work together to manage migration flows from Central America. It is not a question of stopping migration but of finding ways that over time give people confidence to remain in their own countries while creating legal opportunities, at least for some, in the short term. And development strategies work well over the long term if they are focused not just on helping people get to work but on creating a competitive economy and a clean government. There is no easy recipe to do this, but it is in our national interest to make the effort.

Andrew Selee is president of the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.