Vice President Kamala Harris is making her first foray into international diplomacy on the border situation, heading to Central America with a promise of $4 billion for nation-building and with hopes that countries can improve enough to keep their citizens at home.
The strategy has been tried before, but analysts warn it won’t be easy and can backfire by paving the way for even more people to come to the U.S., at least in the near term.
When Mexican incomes rose after leaders of the U.S., Mexico and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992, it coincided with a wave of illegal migration “literally unprecedented in history,” said 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 with hopes of stemming a migrant surge. It committed 5 billion euros to jobs, communities and governing institutions to make the countries more attractive for citizens to stay.
It seemed to work, in the beginning, with migration rates falling. But migration is rising again, said Camille Le Coz, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. It turns out that boosting economic development can provide more regular income and make it easier to save enough money 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, scheduled to head to Guatemala on Sunday and Mexico on Monday. President Biden personally deputized the vice president to determine why people are leaving their homes and rushing north.
Ms. Harris set low expectations for her first international foray by saying discussions are still in the learning phase.
“It’s going to be an honest and real conversation,” she told reporters Wednesday. “I’m there to listen as much as I am to share perspective.”
Ms. Harris has had several conversations with the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico, though relations with Honduras and El Salvador appear to be more strained.
She said part of her message to Guatemala would 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.”
Ms. Harris took the first concrete steps toward solutions last month by 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 Central America.
Mr. Biden is betting that the surge of migrants is less about the pull factors in the U.S. — the ease of jumping the border and gaining a foothold with no significant fear of deportation — and more about the push factor of conditions forcing people to flee their home countries.
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 past 30 years as a caution. More than 1 million Mexicans 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 reduced numbers to modern record lows in the early part of the last decade, though the Central American surge, which took off in 2014, sent numbers rising again.
Ms. Le Coz said there is a parallel in the Biden administration’s society-strengthening goals in Central America and what the European Union has been trying to do with billions of dollars in its EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. The fund said it created 131,936 jobs after five years.
Ms. Le Coz said there are many reasons why investment may be the right call, and she offered suggestions to ensure they are targeted.
She said the Biden team is on the right track by planning to work with national governments and local governments and directly in communities.
She also said expanding legal pathways — another move the Biden administration is making with dedicated guest-worker visas — is important. Finding ways to hold recipients accountable for the aid money could cut the kinds of waste that plagued past U.S. assistance efforts, she said.
“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 Mexico and Guatemala over recent moves seen as deviations from democratic governance and for stiffening their own immigration controls 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 Wednesday.
Another issue is how willing the Central American nations are to change. One factor is remittances, or the flow of money back home from their citizens who reach the U.S.
In 2019, remittances accounted for 14% of Guatemala’s gross domestic product, 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 records.
That kind of money proves addictive for some governments and can dampen chances for change, Mr. Krikorian said.
Ms. Harris’ 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 arrivals but rather to stem the flow of people leaving their countries.
That clarification hasn’t dampened calls for Ms. Harris to visit the border. She is unlikely to do so, at least as long as the situation is messy.
Even without purview over the border, Ms. Harris‘ diplomatic challenge is tough.
Siphoning money to the region isn’t anything new.
The Congressional Research Service said in a 2019 review that 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.” That description could easily be applied to what the Biden team is talking about.
Rep. Thomas P. Tiffany, Wisconsin Republican, said if Ms. Harris wants to contain the border situation, she needs to go farther south than Guatemala and see the situation in Panama.
Panama 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 said, he saw hundreds of migrants departing the village. He met a man from Senegal and heard from villagers about people from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Romania who had made the trek through the jungle.
Still, if Ms. Harris can dent Central America’s numbers, it will make a notable difference.
During the surge in 2019, about 600,000 of the 860,000 migrants whom the Border Patrol nabbed were from the key three countries.