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Sending aid to Central America won’t stop migrants from coming

But it can break the endless cycle of crises at the border.

A migrant mother and daughter from Honduras sit with fellow asylum seekers after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States on March 26, 2021, in Penitas, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

President Joe Biden’s promise to renew foreign aid to the Central America in an attempt to improve living conditions that are driving migrants to flee reflects what the prevailing line of thinking among Democrats for years: that the best way to deter large numbers of migrants from the region is to help their home countries become more peaceful and prosperous.

The White House has announced $310 million in emergency aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, collectively known as the Northern Triangle, to help refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and other vulnerable populations. It’s meant in part to address what Vice President Kamala Harris has called the “acute factors” pushing people to migrate: recurrent drought, resulting food shortages, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Biden has proposed a broader $4 billion aid package over the course of four years that would grapple with the “root causes” of migration: poverty, lack of economic opportunities, climate-related issues, government corruption, and violence.

The Obama administration had a similar philosophy, allocating more than $1.6 billion in aid as part of the so-called “Alliance for Prosperity” plan for the Northern Triangle in the wake of a spike in arrivals of unaccompanied children and families at the US-Mexico border in 2014. (Former President Donald Trump cut off that aid shortly after taking office.)

Sending aid to Central America is a more humanitarian solution than Republicans’ call to militarize the southern border even further. But that doesn’t mean it will work the way Democrats want it to.

Research on foreign aid and migration provides no evidence that foreign aid will significantly reduce migration from the Northern Triangle. In fact, it might even increase it: It takes money to seek a new life elsewhere, and countries that are more developed have more people with the resources to go.

“The overall pressure from Central America to migrate is a sign of development success in the region,” said Michael Clemens, the director of migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “It takes a much higher level of development in order to do the many things that it takes to aspire to migrate internationally and actually realize that aspiration.”

Improving the quality of life in the Northern Triangle still has benefits for the US. And there are other ways of breaking the cycle of crisis at the US-Mexico border: Experts say that rather than focusing on deterring all forms of migration, the US could aim to make migration levels more predictable and have more control over who comes, including by opening up new pathways for legal immigration for Central Americans. That’s a strategy that seems to have worked with Mexican migration in the past.

“It’s magical thinking to believe that anything the US government does can eliminate the need for many families in this region to make choices involving migration,” Clemens said.

Aid can make people more likely to migrate

There are two assumptions embedded in the Biden administration’s approach to administering aid to the Northern Triangle. The first is that sending aid can meaningfully improve living conditions on the ground. The second is that improved living conditions will will broadly dissuade people from leaving their home country.

But the Biden administration shouldn’t take either of those things for granted, according to Clemens.

His research with Princeton PhD candidate Hannah Postel found that, among poor countries, foreign aid has not historically brought about anything more than small improvements in overall economic growth, job creation for youth, mitigation of civil conflict and human rights — all factors typically associated with rhetoric about the root causes of migration. There might be ways to improve the delivery of aid to these countries that is more effective and better targets factors that are driving people to leave, but at this point, it’s largely a matter of trial and error.

“The evidence we have implies that aid would need to act in unprecedented ways, at much higher levels of funding, over generations, to greatly affection some of the most important plausible drivers of emigration,” Clemens and Postel write. “That implies a case for experimentation and patience, but not confidence in a surge of aid to end a crisis.”

They also found that foreign aid focused on economic development is actually associated with increases in emigration from poor countries. That’s because the people who have disposable income, family members who live abroad, and access to education are more likely to have the ability to migrate to the US and other rich destination countries. They may be facing dire circumstances in their home country that could allow them to qualify for forms of humanitarian protection in the US, but they also need resources to have the option of leaving at all.

Children from the regions of the Northern Triangle with the highest poverty rates, including Gracias a Dios in Honduras and Alta Verapaz in Guatemala, were among the least likely to arrive at the US border unaccompanied between 2011 and 2016. The regions with the lowest poverty rates, on the other hand, represented the largest fraction of unaccompanied children during that period.

But if foreign aid has actually increased migration from the Northern Triangle, it creates a dilemma for US policymakers. Cutting off aid and inhibiting development of the Northern Triangle wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest. But there are other ways that the US can better manage migration from the region.

It’s possible to break the cycle of border crises

Every few years since at least 2011, there have been a series of sudden peaks and valleys in migration levels from the Northern Triangle. While Republicans have been eager to decry the most recent peak as a crisis that Biden invited, the same pattern played out under the Obama administration in 2014 and under the Trump administration in 2019.

These peaks have put pressure on US resources at the border and subjected migrants to unnecessary danger, making them easy targets for criminals and smugglers.

While it might be difficult for the US to influence the overall tendency of people from the region to move, it can make the number of people showing up at the border less volatile.

One way is to focus more directly on violence, a primary factor driving unaccompanied children and families from the region to migrate. For every additional homicide per year in the region between 2011 and 2016, there were an additional 3.7 unaccompanied children apprehended at the US border, Clemens found.

The Obama administration tried to pursue anti-violence programs. In Honduras, it implemented a “place-based strategy,” which focused on reducing violence in the most violent communities. Paul Angelo, a fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations who was an officer at the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras during the rollout, said that the US funded community policing programs and provided lampposts to illuminate streets and prevent crime, seeing reductions in homicides of up to 60 percent in those communities.

But for the most part, the Obama administration focused on providing assistance to national security forces, which can have unintended consequences. One study by Stanford political science professor Beatriz Magaloni and her co-authors found that when Mexican security forces cracked down on transnational criminal organizations, it led to greater violence in the short term.

Community-level interventions, on the other hand, have had proven success in Central America. A 2014 study by researchers at Vanderbilt University found that a USAID community-level anti-violence program showed a 50 percent decline in reports of homicides at the street-block level.

So far, the Biden administration has emphasized collaboration with local civil society groups in the Northern Triangle, which experts see as a step in the right direction. Ricardo Zuniga, the administration’s special envoy to the Northern Triangle, said in a press call earlier this month that, in addition to government leaders, he has spoken with social issue groups and members of the private sector and the media in the region.

“Our goal is to work with the people in Central America to create safe, prosperous, democratic societies where citizens can build their own lives with dignity,” he said.

Harris also met with Guatemalan community-based organizations on Tuesday, calling them the “vital voices of this region.”

But the Biden administration has to ensure that the US can offer sustained support to these initiatives even beyond the four-year election cycle. The Obama administration’s strategy in the region was upended when Trump took office and cut off aid, allowing the security situation to regress to the point that it is now worse than it was in 2015.

“These are intractable problems that aren’t going to be solved in one fiscal year or even a four year administration, which is why it underscores the importance of generating bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill for this kind of engagement in Central America,” Angelo said. “I think there’s a there’s a broad acceptance in Washington DC that helping address the corruption and insecurity and under-development and inequality in Central America is in our best national interest ... but also a bit of a moral responsibility given the United States’ mixed record in the region.”

The US can shape future Central American migration

The US won’t deter migration by administering foreign aid to the Northern Triangle. But it could exert more control over the kinds of migrants who come to the US in the future.

While irregular migration is undesirable because of the risks involved for migrants themselves and the pressure it puts on US resources, migration from Central America overall has been massively beneficial to the United States and to migrants’ countries of origin. Critical sectors of the US economy — such as agriculture, dairy, meat processing, construction and hospitality — depend on those workers. Those workers, in turn, have been able to send billions of dollars in remittances to their home countries.

For many of them, the opportunity to migrate legally to the US is out of reach. Clemens said that, when comparing Hondurans and Mexicans in data from 2018, a Honduran was 20 times more likely to be apprehended at the US border, and a Mexican was 32 times more likely to get a work visa.

For the most part, migrating legally requires a job opportunity requiring certain skills or education or an immediate family member who’s a US citizen who could sponsor them for a visa. Their only option might be a H-2 guest worker visa, for which an application has to be initiated by an employer. But given that most employers don’t necessarily go to the Northern Triangle to recruit, that visa is also difficult to get.

“Those folks need a regulated mechanism to be able to come and go from the United States,” Dan Restrepo, a senior fellow at the Center for American progress who served on the Biden-Harris transition team, said. “You don’t need to create a legal pathway for each and every one of them to begin to fundamentally change the decisional calculus for broad swathes of migrants and would be migrants from Northern Central America.”

Opening up legal pathways for immigration has already proven to reduce irregular migration in the case of Mexico. Apprehensions of Mexicans at the border have fallen more than 90 percent from their peak twice in history: once from 1954 to 1956, which corresponds with an almost tripling of the size of the Bracero program that brought in millions of temporary farm workers from Mexico, and again from 2000 to 2018, when there was a roughly 1000 percent increase in the size of the H-2 visa program.

The Biden administration recently announced that it plans to increase the size of the H-2 program by 22,000 visas, with at least 6,000 reserved for workers from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. That is a “small but symbolic step in the right direction,” Angelo said.

But it’s still far short of the kind of increase in visas that would significantly reduce irregular migration from Central America. The program is currently capped at 66,000 visas per fiscal year, and Clemens said that there would need to be somewhere between three to 10 times that number for it to become a viable legal alternative for people from the Northern Triangle.

That’s not to say that migrants from the Northern Triangle are typically economic migrants. Rather, their motives for migrating might be partially economic, might be to reunite with family in the US, and also to seek protection from imminent danger and insecurity.

“The fact that there are different legal categories for family migration work migration and asylum seeking does not reflect the reality that the person who is moving or wants their child to move could be looking for better schooling, safety, economic opportunity, and seeking those things by staying with their uncle, all at once,” Clemens said. “The things driving migration from the region are so complex that it can’t be addressed just by humanitarian reform or economic visas. It needs to be action on all fronts.”

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