How to address the causes of the migration crisis, according to experts

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Merlin, a Honduran migrant, takes shelter on a sidewalk with one of her sons on June 19, 2019, in Tapachula, Mexico. | Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images

Migrants are fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador for the US. Here’s what a better foreign policy on Central America might look like.

The photo showed a father and a daughter, her tiny arm hooked around his neck. Both lay face down in brown water, foreheads skirting the banks of the Rio Grande. The picture was published a day before the first 2020 Democratic primary debate and immediately became a visceral, monstrous reminder of the humanitarian crisis at the southern US border.

Against this backdrop, some 2020 Democratic candidates during the debates chose to explicitly mention the father and daughter in the photograph by name — Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Angie Valeria, from El Salvador — as symbols of why the US immigration system must be reformed.

Many of them also talked about addressing the “root causes” that are driving families to flee to the US in record numbers, primarily from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, sometimes referred to collectively as the “Northern Triangle.”

But identifying what those root causes are and crafting effective policies to address them is a lot harder than it sounds. In general, most agree that any solution will likely have to involve substantial US foreign aid to the affected countries to promote good governance and the rule of law, improve security, and reduce poverty.

But what that assistance looks like in practice and how it’s implemented are far more complicated questions. “The devil’s in the details,” Elizabeth Oglesby, a professor at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, told me. “Where is this money going? Who is it shoring up?”

Aid is also not an immediate fix. Nor is it a wholesale solution. But advocates and experts say an investment in the region to mitigate violence, corruption, and poverty can help over the long term.

In March, President Donald Trump threatened to cut off all aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador if those governments failed to stem unauthorized migration to the US.

In June, the State Department announced that the administration would move forward with the more than $400 million in projects and grants that had already been approved. Another $180 million would be put on hold unless the governments in those three countries began curbing migration to the US. And $370 million would be rerouted to other foreign programs.

There were bipartisan objections to Trump’s plan. Both Democrats and Republicans argued that reducing aid would achieve the opposite result and make the future status of programs already in place uncertain.

Congress has allocated about $2.6 billion in the past four years toward Central America, a big chunk of that — $750 million in 2016 — prompted, in part, by the surge of unaccompanied minors who crossed the southern border during President Barack Obama’s term. But since then, under Trump, funding has decreased each year, down to $527 million in 2019.

It’s hard to gauge the effects of that aid in such a short period of time and to determine whether it is at all linked to some positive signs from the region — like the murder rate declining in all three countries in 2018.

But it may at least offer a potential model of what a more effective US policy toward the region might look like. Aid needs to be sustained over years, experts told me, so that programs know their funding is secure. It should build on what civil society groups are already doing in the region.

Whoever emerges from the crowded field of 2020 Democratic candidates as the nominee will have to face down Trump on his hardline approach to the border — including another attempt to severely restrict who can seek asylum in the US — and the countries of origin for the migrants trying to cross it. And whoever becomes president, whether Trump again or someone new, will inherit a crisis — and decide what comes next.

What are the “root causes” of migration from Central America?

On the first night of the first 2020 Democratic debate, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro declared that to “get to the root cause” of the immigration crisis, the US needs to implement “a Marshall Plan” — the massive US program to rebuild Europe after World War II — for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, so that the people living there “can find opportunity at home instead of coming to the United States to seek it.”

Sen. Cory Booker also brought up the importance of an aid package: “We solve this problem by making investments to stop the reasons why people are driven here in the first place,” he said.

On night two, it was former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders stressing the need to address the “root causes” of the immigration crisis. “I’m the guy that got a bipartisan agreement at the very end of the campaign and our term to spend $740 million to deal with the problem and go to the root cause of why people are leaving in the first place,” Biden said.


So everyone seems to agree on the need to address the “root causes.” But what exactly are those root causes? The answer, of course, is complicated, and in many cases, it’s likely more than one factor driving people to seek safety or opportunity outside their home countries.

Violence is a problem in all three countries, specifically gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras. In Guatemala, especially, poverty is a major driver of migration. This is particularly acute among indigenous populations, who suffer from higher rates of malnutrition and insufficient access to health care and education. Drought and other erratic weather, linked to climate change, are also a factor.

Corruption is also endemic in all three countries. Weak rule of law, poor governance, and instability fuels both poverty and insecurity. The murder rates in both El Salvador and Honduras have fallen in recent years, but organized criminal gangs frequently operate with impunity, because politicians and police can’t — or, in some cases, won’t — stop the bloodshed. In Guatemala, the exploitation of indigenous groups, including suspected human rights abuses, has exacerbated income inequality.

“There is no way to successfully address the region’s chronic violence or poorly performing economies without tackling corruption,” C.J. Wade, an expert on the region and a professor of political science and international studies at Washington College, told me.

Though the broad contours of the problems all three counties face may be the same, experts say the specifics vary significantly, and how to fix them often varies not just by country, but by locality.

Which means that a one-size-fits-all approach to “root causes” will fail.

Where US aid to the region stands now

In 2016, Congress approved $750 million for Central America, including Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, as part of its US Strategy for Engagement in Central America. That policy tried to look a bit more holistically at the region’s issues, and how weak institutions and poor governance were connected to the security and economic situation (and vice versa).

The Trump administration, at least in the beginning, kept the skeleton of this program intact. But it tweaked its goals a bit, according to the Congressional Research Service, to focus a bit more on preventing migration, cracking down on narcotics, improving the security situation, and creating a more favorable environment for US investment.

But funding decreased each year of the Trump administration, even before the administration’s threat to cut off aid altogether. And the US has taken off a lot of the pressure on these governments to root out corruption, quietly backing away from its full-throated support of those anti-corruption initiatives.


For instance, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales began trying to stymie the work of and later, in January 2019, tried to shut down a United Nations-backed anti-corruption panel that had been investigating him and other powerful politicians — and the US barely protested. Morales, an evangelical Christian, has built strong ties with the Trump administration, and also just happened to move the Guatemalan, embassy to Jerusalem.

Overall, it’s hard to make a judgment about how effective the Obama-era plan was, or whether Trump’s moves have halted progress, as the timelines for both are just too short.

But few experts I talked to thought Trump’s decision to scale back aid — or follow through on threats to cut it off altogether — would achieve the desired result of curtailing migration to the US.

Aid to Central America has to be separate from political whims

Addressing the “root causes” of migration requires a dose of realism: migration from these countries to the US isn’t going to stop completely, and any successful efforts will take an investment of years, if not decades, to show real results.

That means sustained foreign aid — not something that Congress and the administration squabble over every year, but a multiyear commitment — so that programs, once selected and started, know they have resources locked so they can carry out their missions.

Otherwise, it kind of defeats the purpose. “It’s just a really tragic use of money,” Jason Marczak, a Latin America expert at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, told me. “A program is given money to start up and it’s funded for one year, and then all of a sudden the money dries up,” Marczak said.

When it comes to stemming the flow of migration to the US, short-term fixes can make the problem worse in some cases. Short-term bursts of investment can make people temporarily better off financially and thus more inclined to finally take the risk of making the journey north while they can afford it — and before the money dries up again.

Marczak said a more effective model would be something like the US’s “Plan Colombia” — a 16-year, multibillion-dollar security investment in Colombia to uproot drug trafficking and crush the insurgency that was ravaging the country.

The plan is often touted as a bipartisan success, as Colombia’s government signed a peace deal in 2016 with the FARC rebels, ending decades of bloody conflict, and is now a major American ally. But the initiative is not without massive controversy, including the thousands of civilians killed and displaced during its execution, and its record of success is mixed at best.

Which is why other experts disagree that a Plan Colombia model is the right one for Central America. “That is a war plan — Plan Colombia was a plan for war,” Lisa Haugaard, of the Latin America Working Group, told me. “And when you say that, you strike terror in the heart of civil society groups in Central America, and it sounds like an invasion. It’s the wrong model.”

Haugaard said that Plan Colombia did improve toward the end, moving away from security and more toward peace-building and human rights. There are pieces to pick out, she added, including protecting human-rights defenders and indigenous groups.

But those came later — and the idea, for many experts, is to start there when thinking about a plan for Central America: coordinating with civil society groups and building democratic institutions. That’s necessary, because security initiatives, like police training or intelligence sharing, likely won’t stick unless institutions, and the rule of law, are strengthened, too.

There are civil society groups already doing this work. The US needs to back them up.

The best way for the US to help, experts say, is to support the civil society organizations and local groups on the ground that are already working to improve their societies — find the organizations or activists that are doing the right things and that are effective (or have the potential to be) and help them succeed and give them the capacity to keep going if the US does leave.

Aid can’t just focus on the areas where people are fleeing. It also has to go places were people are staying put, and shore up the institutions to prevent migration in the first place. Because once people start leaving, it’s hard to stop; they have family, and support systems, already in place in the US.

“You look at communities where there’s massive migration and you say, ‘Okay, how do we stop this?’ But that may not be the only place or necessarily the optimal place to look,” Antica Isaacs, a professor at Haverford College who’s closely studied Guatemala, told me.

Each country, each community has different reasons people are migrating. The “root causes” in one neighborhood might be violence. Others might be lack of health care, or hunger. In other words, it’s not easy — it takes effort to figure out what fundings should go where, and to whom. But experts told me that it’s worth the effort: involving civil society groups and local leaders, who know their own communities and the problems facing them far better than diplomats in the US, is the most effective way to address the specific issues driving migration in each area.

There’s another step required: You have to make sure the programs allowed to operate safely. “The problem in Central America is not that people are not struggling to build these kinds of sustainable alternatives,” Oglesby, the University of Arizona professor, told me. “The problem is that when they try to do so, so often they’re violently attacked” — and often by the very governments in Central America.

There’s no doubt that getting governments to go along with this — to support policies that threaten their own grip on power — is a difficult task.

“We can talk about giving billions and billions of dollars to Central America,” Juan Gonzalez, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told me. “But no amount of money is going to accomplish what is necessary to address migration flows if the governments of the region aren’t willing to make some of these very difficult political commitments that often are against their own political interests.”

The US, then, has to be the muscle, and use its leverage to get Central American governments to let these organizations work unhindered.

Gonzalez, who worked intimately with these programs as a special adviser to Vice President Joe Biden from 2013 to 2015, tried not to underestimate the challenges. But, he said, having a prominent, high-level figure like the vice president doing the diplomatic work, meeting with heads of state, and offering incentives for cooperation can make a big difference.

In many ways, then, the Obama administration’s approach was a good start. But it was just that. “Something like that doesn’t succeed in a year, or two years, it takes some time,” William LeoGrande, a Latin America expert at American University, told me. “But over the long haul, it’s your only hope, really, for preventing large numbers of people fleeing.”

Democrats are recognizing this is a foreign policy priority

Gonzalez told me that when he saw how much attention Central America got during the Democratic debates last month, he texted his colleagues who’ve worked on Iran and North Korea and gloated a bit. “Central America got 10 minutes. You guys got, like, two,” he joked.

He’s not wrong — other foreign policy issues didn’t come up much in the debates. That’s not a big surprise, as American voters tend to care way more about domestic issues.

But the immigration crisis is important to American voters. And many 2020 Democrats seem to realize that addressing the problems in Central America that are driving the massive migration to the US is a critical piece of the solution.

Castro has his Marshall Plan. Biden, who advocated publicly and on Capitol Hill for the aid package to Central America when he was vice president, has advocated for returning to a similar model to address those root causes. He also brought up funding for Central America in his recent foreign policy address.

Sanders has said he would bring together the leaders of Central America and Mexico during the first week of his presidency to address the immigration crisis. Sen. Elizabeth Warren told the New York Times her first foreign trip as president would be to Central America.

Sen. Kamala Harris has said humanitarian aid to the region needs to be part of any immigration policy. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke has said Trump’s decision to cancel aid as made the migration crisis worse, and called on investing even more, with a focus on violence prevention. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has also promised to restore foreign aid to Central America.

Again, though, the devil is in the details. Wanting to address the root causes of immigration is a necessary goal. The hard part is figuring out how to do it — and mustering the political will to make it worthwhile.

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