It’s Time to Solve the Real Crisis at the Border

We have seen a surge of migrants at the southern border this year, but the crisis at our borders has been around for decades. In fact, migration from Central America because of rising instability in the region goes back to the 1980s. Since then, we have continued to see a surge of migrants at the southern border at various points in time.

There are several reasons why migrants are fleeing their countries in seek of a better life, including economic hardship, government corruption, crime, gang violence and severe weather resulting from climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with recent severe weather events has only intensified these longstanding issues leading to the spike we see now.

Several proposals are being considered by federal lawmakers and policymakers. Earlier this year, President Biden proposed $4 billion in funding to address the root causes of the surge in Central America. Moreover, just last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators met to discuss a possible path forward on an immigration reform bill to help address the surge.

As Congress and the Administration consider proposals to solve the problem, it is critical that politics is put aside to find a path forward on comprehensive immigration reform. To address this challenge, we must find bipartisan solutions that will get to the root of the problem: the true reason people are fleeing.

This edition of Inside Story will examine the root causes of the migration crisis and explore some of the solutions to address them.

Gloria Story Dittus, Chairman, Story Partners




What Role does Climate Change Play in the Central American Migration Crisis?

Migration from northern Central America has been ongoing for years due to several deeply entrenched and compounding problems. Climate change, however, is currently on the minds of the Biden-Harris administration. While climate change necessitates a complex response, the administration could implement three steps today that could address the issue in the region.

Northern Central America is no stranger to climate-related disasters. Recently, two category four hurricanes, Eta and Iota, displaced thousands and caused dangerous flash floods and landslides, which destroyed homes and disrupted livelihoods from Panama to Southeastern Mexico. At the same time, the ‘dry corridor,’ which extends from Southern Mexico to Costa Rica, is prone to extreme weather patterns that have eroded the livelihoods of people in this area, particularly those that rely on rain-fed agriculture. For example, the Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 3.5 million people have faced food insecurity in the past 10 years due to recurring droughts.

Climate science makes it clear that these events are the new normal.

However, while climate change may supercharge some of these natural hazards, it is rarely the only or primary factor driving migration in the region. Longstanding political, economic, and social phenomena, including violence, poverty, and government corruption also play a role.

For example, poverty and food insecurity may have been exacerbated by climate-related disaster, such as drought and hurricanes, but the COVID-19 pandemic has served to deepen both. As of March 2021, at least 2.9 million people face high levels of acute food insecurity in Honduras and this is likely to increase to up to 3.3 million in the coming months. In Guatemala, almost half the population cannot afford the basic food basket. In addition, El Salvador and Honduras have some of the world’s highest rates of violence, and gangs have been emboldened by the chaos of the pandemic and have used it to tighten their control in parts of the region.

Recent research also shows that violence and climate change may intersect to drive migration patterns from Honduras, with increasing rates of homicide and rainfall variance correlating to higher rates of migration and subsequent apprehension at the U.S. border in 2019.

These complexities mean that addressing “root causes” are difficult. However, the Biden-Harris administration can implement three simple steps today to build the foundation towards a comprehensive approach.

First, the U.S. should ramp up funding for humanitarian and development assistance, with an emphasis on climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and resilience in order to build up the capacity for Central Americans to stay in the face of climate change, if they wish to do so. USAID deploying a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to the region is a good first step. However, more long-term resilience strategies can and should be channeled through Biden’s plan for Central America.

Second, given impending climate change impacts, a Biden-Harris administration must reassess the “temporary” nature of Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a designation that allows individuals of countries affected by conflict or environmental disaster already residing in the United States to live and work in the country for a limited period of time. In some cases, slow-onset disasters — such as sea-level riseglacial melt and desertification — will be dramatic and irreversible, calling into question the ability of TPS holders to return safely to their countries of origin. The Biden-Harris administration should request that the Department of State develop a mechanism and guidelines around assessing country risk to slow-onset disasters in order to assess the viability of return for TPS holders. Once the assessment is made that certain TPS-designated countries are highly at risk to face slow-onset impacts, the administration may wish to explore possible pathways to permanent residence and citizenship for those populations.

Third, the United States should support Central American nations in creating a policy and legal framework that acknowledges internally displaced people and follows the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in affected countries. By providing a legal framework for internally displaced people, Central American governments can begin to understand the number of internally displaced and the challenges that affect them to create tailored policies.

All of the above recommendations function best if they complement and bolster one another. Without preventative and proactive measures to address climate-related displacement and support our southern neighbors, protection and resettlement options may become more salient.

Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager for the Climate Displacement Program, and Rachel Schmidtke, advocate for Latin America, Refugees International


The Root Causes Strategy

Violence, lack of food, corruption, and poor governance intersect to drive migrants from Central America to the United States. These are compounded by Covid-19 and the November 2020 hurricanes. When people feel safer and more food secure, and have confidence in their governments to function effectively and fairly, the level of migration will decrease. This is the logic behind the “root causes” strategy.

Demand for illegal drugs in the United States is a key contributor to violence in the region, as drug traffickers bring cocaine from Colombia to the U.S. market. Criminal gangs exert control in many localities, engaged in extortion and violence to maintain their power. Internationally backed bodies that made strides against government corruption, such as CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras, were terminated with little protest from the U.S.

Food insecurity has increased in the region, particularly in the Dry Corridor, with a drought in 2014 followed by multiple years of low and unreliable rainfall. My research shows that food insecurity and violence work together to drive migrants to the U.S. border.

An effective root causes strategy will simultaneously pursue multiple paths with different time horizons. Most immediately, emergency relief is needed for those who lost everything in the November hurricanes. Without hope that assistance will allow them to survive and rebuild, people who were not planning to migrate will feel forced to leave.

A second leg of the U.S. response should target rural food security. International groups have assessed the agricultural sector and can provide advice on adopting climate-resilient crops and improving agricultural techniques. With funding and local partnerships to help devise effective strategies for change, hope of reliable food production will decrease the need to migrate.

The third piece of the strategy will address violence, corruption and poor governance. This is the most difficult and has the longest time horizon for impact. In addition to funding for anti-violence programs and civil society, it requires diplomatic pressure and political will to reinvigorate international efforts to fight corruption and develop a regional response to international criminal groups.

The U.S. government needs to abandon approaches that have been ineffective in the past and invest for the greatest impact. This means working with local partners on aid-financed projects and relying less on U.S.-based contractors. Aid programs require local expertise to be effective, and using local partners can build capacity within societies that will remain after aid programs are finished.

Sarah Bermeo, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science in the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University

The Need for a Comprehensive Partnership with Central America

The migrant surge at the Southern border — and the outrage the headlines generate— is understandable. As of late March, over 600 unaccompanied minors were, on average, detained at the US-Mexico border each day. In less than a month — from February 28 to March 20 — Border Patrol had apprehended over 11,000 minors. In border facilities that are meant to hold 250 people, there are now over 4,000. Seeing children in cramped conditions is gut-wrenching and is only part of the reason urgent action in Central America is needed.

The pandemic has devastated Central America’s already vulnerable economies. With the 2021 hurricane season fast approaching, back-to-back natural disasters may bring the region to the breaking point and an effective response to the situation is key. However, prospects for long-term regional recovery require a strategy rooted in opportunities. Persistent lack of economic opportunity, weak institutions, insecurity, and corruption inhibit sustainable development.

A comprehensive partnership with Central America will pay dividends for decades to come. Without significant international investment led by the United States, the region will descend further into chaos. Over the past four years, efforts to help strengthen the Northern Triangle and improve conditions on the ground have been scarce. Since 2018, policies to deter immigration focused on separating families, “taking away children”, and raising the credible fear threshold for thousands of asylum-seekers who were escaping situations of abuse, violence and life-threatening danger. Then, additional policies like the Migrant Protection Protocols continued to put migrants in danger, by returning them to perilous Mexican border towns while they waited for asylum hearings. But perhaps the most damaging policy from the past four years was the safe-third country agreements that the Northern Triangle countries acquiesced to, under pressure from the United States, which deemed murderous corners of the Northern Triangle safe for asylum-seekers to await hearings. Changing the on-the-ground conditions demands a more holistic approach to development in the region – the focus cannot just be on deterrence.

Substantial obstacles stand in the way of Central America’s rich potential. The countries must improve governance, take serious steps to reduce corruption, and work across sectors to promote inclusive economic opportunities. Undeniably, the best way to alleviate the pressure at the border is by focusing in-region. Central America cannot wait for help – and in the long run, Central American prosperity is in the interest of the United States.

Maria Fernanda Bozmoski, Deputy Director, Programs, The Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council

Priorities for Central America and Beyond

The surge of migrants coming from Mexico and Central America through the southern border poses a continuing challenge to the wellbeing and sovereignty of the United States. It cannot be ignored and needs to be tamed, especially since it is likely that the exodus will keep growing as our COVID-19 pandemic eases, and our job market strengthens much quicker than in the many countries south of the border.

The Biden Administration needs to come up with a range of incentives that will help alleviate the immediate causes of outmigration, especially from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This includes everything from providing funding and technology for Mexico to better defend its own southern border, to funneling more food and cash assistance to the people most impacted by either prolonged drought in some regions or by flood damage from severe tropical storms in others.

It must also come up with funding that will help to prevent other, underlying reasons from outmigration from parts of Central and South America where organized crime and corruption – namely, lawlessness – are rampant. They, too, have contributed to the climate of insecurity and hopelessness that drives refugees to the United States.

Here are four priority areas for stepped-up foreign aid that is clearly in our national interest:

  • Start donating surplus vaccines against the COVID-19 pandemic as supplies become increasingly plentiful in the United States. The United States has already begun shipping some doses to Mexico but not further south, while Russia and China have been making “vaccine diplomacy” incursions elsewhere in the region.
  • Increase funding through USAID, the State Department, and the National Endowment for Democracy for the local civil-society organizations, independent investigative reporters, and academics that are exposing crime and corruption while pushing for expanded government accountability and transparency.
  • Augment funding, including partnering with the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, for local government and civil society projects that expand access to justice, strengthen the independence of the courts, and professionalize civilian law enforcement, discouraging corruption and political interference.
  • Expand budgetary support for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, so it may staff up and reduce its huge backlog of investigations into human rights violations.

The Biden Administration’s ambitious U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would provide new pathways to citizenship for “Dreamers” and farmworkers while offering billions in aid to Central American countries, was well intentioned but will not pass muster in Congress. Therefore, it is best to unbundle it as soon as possible, giving top priority to legislation funding initiatives such as those listed here that can make a difference in slowing the current surge and future exodus of migrants from the most desperate parts of Central and South America.

Arturo C. Porzecanski, Distinguished Economist in Residence, School of International Service, American University