Vice President Kamala Harris will make her first foray into international diplomacy on the border situation this weekend, heading to Central American to do some nation-building with a promise of $4 billion in American cash, hoping things can improve enough to keep people at home.
It’s a strategy that’s been tried before, but analysts warn it’s not going to be easy — and can in fact “backfire,” paving the way for even more people to come at least in the near term.
When Mexico saw incomes rise after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1992, it coincided with a wave of illegal migration “literally unprecedented in history,” according to Mark Krikorian, executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
More recently, the European Union took on a project to try to build societies in more than two dozen African nations, hoping to stem a migrant surge. It committed 5 billion euros to jobs, communities, and governing institutions to make the countries more attractive for residents to stay.
It seemed to work, in the beginning, with migration rates falling. But they’re rising once again, said Camille Le Coz, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. It turns out that boosting economic development can give some people more regular incomes, actually making it easier for them to save up to make the journey.
“The relationship between job creation and employment and migration is very complicated,” she said. “This can really backfire.”
Avoiding those pitfalls is the challenge awaiting Ms. Harris, who will head to Guatemala on Sunday, then Mexico on Monday, personally deputized by President Biden to get a handle on why people are leaving their homes and rushing north.
She’s setting low expectations for her first international foray, characterizing discussions as still in the learning phase.
“It’s going to be an honest and real conversation,” she told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m there to listen as much as I am to share perspective.”
Ms. Harris has already had several conversations with the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico, though relations with Honduras and El Salvador appear to be more strained at this point.
She said part of her message to Guatemala will be “the need to have very frank and honest discussions about the need to address corruption, to address crime and violence, and in particular against some of the most vulnerable populations.”
Last month Ms. Harris took the first concrete steps on solutions, hosting a meeting of American business leaders and urging them to pursue more economic opportunities in the region. The Biden administration has carved out thousands of visas for guest-workers from the area, too.
Mr. Biden is gambling here, betting that the surge of migrants is less about the pull factors in the U.S. — the ease of illegal immigrants jumping the border and gaining a foothold here, with no significant fear of deportation — and more about the push factor of conditions in home countries forcing people to flee.
Many analysts question the wisdom of that bet.
“I’m skeptical that this talk about root causes and what have you will yield anything useful in Central America, but just for the sake of argument let’s say it will work — it’s actually an argument for toughening border controls, not a substitute for it,” Mr. Krikorian said.
He offered the experience of Mexico in the last 30 years as a caution, pointing to more than 1 million Mexicans who jumped the border each year at the turn of the century, before the numbers tapered off by 2010.
“Immigration pressure increases as development increases, and only later does it taper off,” Mr. Krikorian said.
The declining Mexican migration sent border numbers plummeting to modern record lows in the early part of the last decade, though the Central American surge, which took off in 2014, has sent numbers rising again.
Ms. Le Coz said there’s a parallel in the Biden administration’s society-strengthening goals in Central America and what the European Union has been trying to do in Africa, with its 5 billion Euro Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. After five years, the fund says it created 131,936 jobs.
Ms. Le Coz said there are still many reasons why investment may be the right call, and she offered suggestions for how to make sure they are targeted.
She said the Biden team is on the right track in saying it wants to work not only with the national government but also with local governments and directly in communities themselves.
She also said expanding legal pathways — another move the Biden administration has dipped its toe in, with dedicated guest-worker visas — is important. And she said finding ways to hold the recipients accountable for the money they get could cut down on the kinds of waste that plagued past U.S. assistance efforts.
“There needs to be an investment in what can we tell about this initiative’s achievement as a whole,” she said.
Ms. Harris is under pressure from activist groups to scold the leadership in both Mexico and Guatemala over recent moves seen as deviations from democratic governance, and for stiffening their own immigration controls to try to block some of the flow of people headed north.
“Prioritizing harsh immigration enforcement and deterrence over the ability to access protection jeopardizes the security of thousands of families and individuals fleeing for their lives,” a coalition of activist groups said on Wednesday.
For the Central American nations, there’s also the issue of how willing they are to change. One factor is the money their citizens who do reach the U.S. end up sending home — a flow known as remittances.
In 2019, remittances accounted for 14% of Guatemala’s GDP, 21% of El Salvador’s GDP, and 22% of Honduras’ GDP, according to the World Bank. Analysts had predicted a pandemic plunge, but early signs are that remittances are setting new records.
That kind of money proves addictive for some governments, and can dampen chances for change, Mr. Krikorian said.
Ms. Harris’s involvement in the migrant surge has been controversial.
When Mr. Biden tapped her for the job, reporters and analysts quickly dubbed her the “border czar.” The White House rushed to clarify that her role was not to deal with the people arriving, but rather to try to stem the flow of people leaving elsewhere.
That clarification hasn’t dampened the calls for Ms. Harris to visit the border itself — something she’s unlikely to do, at least as long as it’s still a mess.
And even without purview over the border itself, her diplomatic challenge is tough enough.
Siphoning money to the region isn’t anything new.
The Congressional Research Service, in a 2019 review, said the U.S. had allocated $2.6 billion over the previous four years “to promote economic prosperity, improve security and strengthen governance in the region” — a description that could easily be applied to what the Biden team is talking about now.
Rep. Tom Tiffany, Wisconsin Republican, said if Ms. Harris wants to get a handle on the border situation she needs to go even further south than Guatemala, to see what’s going on in Panama.
That country serves as a chokepoint for migrants making their way up the spine of the Americas from Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and elsewhere. Mr. Tiffany just returned from a trip to a village near the Darien Gap, the wild jungle that those making the trip on foot must cross, and is considered one of the most dangerous points on the trip.
“If they think they’re just going to throw money at the problem and say it’s fixed, that’s not the case because they’re not getting to the origin of the problem, because these migrants are coming from all over the world,” Mr. Tiffany told The Washington Times.
During his trip, he saw hundreds of migrants departing the village, and while there he met a man from Senegal and heard from villagers about people from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Romania who’d made the trek through the jungle.
Still, if Ms. Harris can make a dent in Central America’s numbers, that’s something.
During the previous migrant surge in 2019, about 600,000 of the 860,000 migrants the Border Patrol nabbed were from the key three countries.