What to Do About Central America’s Exodus

Daily news stories chronicle the number of people—many of them children or families—trying to get across the US southwest border. It’s a compelling and all-too-human story, but it’s hardly a new one. We’ve seen a steady march of Central Americans heading to the US border since 2012, almost a decade, with large surges in 2014, 2016, 2019, and now in 2021.

The long-term solutions to the problems that drive people from their homes in Central America are not easy to achieve. The countries in the region—especially Honduras and Guatemala—face significant poverty, declining agricultural productivity, pockets of suffocating violence, and chronically bad governance that gives little hope that things will get better. Turning this around requires long-term investments in development aid, but also a willingness to confront corrupt politicians and practices that have kept the situation from improving. This is hardly something that the US government can do alone, so it requires a delicate partnership with Canada and Mexico, careful coordination with international organizations that have a presence in the region, and identifying key change-makers inside and outside of government in Central America who are trying to make a difference.

In the meantime, it also requires smart migration management. While some analysts say that the current surge from the region responds to the perceived openness of the Biden administration, the truth may be exactly the opposite: people are heading to the border because there are simply no legal ways to get to the United States. Of course, people are leaving because of the long-term circumstance that makes life miserable and hopeless, and after a year of Covid-induced recession and brutal hurricanes that made things much worse, but they also have no legal way of going anywhere else.

The smart policy would involve creating legal opportunities for people to migrate—for work, for protection from violence, and, in some circumstances, for family reunification. Giving people an option to start their lives over abroad—or, for many, just earn some money for a few months—would go a long way to creating a more predictable, safe, and organized movement of people out of the region, and help families to solve their most pressing problems. And it is the kind of effort that the United States could partner with its neighbors in Mexico and Canada to carry out.

Andrew Selee, President of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI) and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University