In visiting Mexico and Guatemala for her first foreign travel as Vice President, Kamala Harris sought to underscore the Biden Administration’s shift from an immigration policy and narrative centered on the U.S.-Mexico border to one directed at the root causes of migration flows. Despite her “do not come” comment having grabbed the headlines, the visit promoted a sober long-term view as well as strategies to engage both migrant source and destination countries that are long overdue. But diplomacy and economic development must be buttressed by other measures in managing today’s unauthorized migration.
The idea that development can slow migration has become a major policy focus not only in the Administration’s strategy toward Central America, but also in the European Union, where it has been at the center of EU policy toward Africa for a number of years. The idea is attractive and intuitively appealing—development provides more opportunities to live in conditions of freedom with sufficient nutrition, regular income, access to education and health care, as well as decent housing and financial systems. Thus, people are less likely to decide they need to seek opportunities elsewhere.
This relationship between migration and development is, in the broadest sense, true. However, significant evidence suggests that there is a “emigration life cycle” in which migration from low-income societies increases as development increases, at least over the near term. Decreases in emigration set in only after a certain level of per capita income is reached, often pegged at around $10,000 in purchasing power parity, although it varies in different studies.
Mexico and Turkey, for example, are countries that have already passed the peak on the emigration life cycle, and their emigration has decreased significantly. But most countries in Africa and Central America are still far from that point. Assistance can help countries move toward a higher level of development, leading people to feel less compelled to emigrate, and it can address specific triggers for migration, like debt, famine, and natural disasters. But in the short term, development investments do not necessarily slow, much less stop, outmigration.
This requires policymakers to think beyond development, as important as it is in the long term, to look at strategies for managing migration in the short to medium term. These strategies need to include employment-based pathways, humanitarian protection measures, efforts to reduce violence, investments to help people who return to their countries succeed, and immigration enforcement that treats people with dignity. There are opportunities for the three countries of North America—the United States, Canada, and Mexico—to work together on all of these in a coordinated way, in addition to collaborating on development in Central America, to establish legal, predictable, and safe pathways for migration as development efforts take root.
The challenge is well illustrated by a research visit one of us recently made to Huehuetenango—Guatemala’s most ethnically diverse region and the largest source of its international migration—to meet with young leaders, most of them indigenous, across seven municipalities. Guatemalans, Hondurans, and, to a much lesser extent, Salvadorans account for the major share of migrants currently coming to the United States from Central America.
Guatemala is a profoundly divided, extremely poor society with sharp differences between urban and rural, mostly indigenous, communities in the Western Highlands where Huehuetenango is located. The region is mountainous with incredibly poor infrastructure making it difficult to reach isolated villages. Schools and medical facilities are scarce, and the state presence is minimal.
Rural Guatemalans have long migrated to large plantations in the Pacific coast and to southern Mexico. More recently, destinations have shifted to Cancun, Mexico City, and the United States. As migrant communities in the United States have become established, international migration has become a better option than the plantations.
Based on our research, coyotes charge $10,000-15,000 for the trip to the United States (a significant increase in the past year), usually with 25 percent paid upfront and the remainder paid gradually once the client is in the United States. The guarantee for this arrangement is usually a land or house title. Family members abroad play a major role in supplying the initial smuggling fee and then migrants work to pay off the remaining debt post-arrival. If their migration plans do not work out, migrants lose their land or house, though most seem to be succeeding right now. Some smugglers make the full trip with their clients; others hand people off to Mexican coyotes once they cross into Mexico.
Everyone uses the same phrase to describe their reasons for migrating: “lack of opportunities.” Migration is a means to get income for those who have next to nothing; it is also an investment strategy for those who already have productive land or a job but do not have another way to help them get ahead. It also provides a way to handle costly health problems and unpredictable agricultural cycles. It is seen as the one avenue open to everyone absent meaningful chances for people to get ahead where they live.
Violence is a much smaller factor for migration in the Western Highlands, though intra-family violence is present, as is political persecution around land issues. However, for most, migration to the United States is a continuation of earlier generations having gone to work on plantations, but with more danger along the way and greater payoff for those who succeed.
Everyone has a migration story in their close family, with most seeing it as a temporary strategy. Many, of course, end up staying in America, but initially most intend to return to their families and communities someday. This profile is quite different from parts of urban Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where people are often fleeing from endemic violence and giving up on their country for good.
Either way, most people have mixed feelings about migration. They regard it as the only path to get ahead and as central to livelihood strategies, but at the cost of breaking up families and destroying community ties. This is a common theme in all conversations—a deep ambivalence that recognizes migration as economic necessity while also destructive to family and community life.
All of this is not to say that Vice President Harris’s portfolio is a futile effort, nor that interventions cannot have some effect, at least until countries reach a certain level of development. The number of people who will leave is not pre-determined, and some well-targeted measures could have an impact on specific short- to medium-term migration triggers, as well as giving many people more reasons to stay.
For example, there is some evidence that workforce training and employment creation programs help some young people decide to stay. Community-based policing programs have increased confidence between citizens and law enforcement, lowering migration pressures in certain communities beset by threats and generalized violence, a factor that does not figure into models of the development/migration life cycle.
Another opportunity is to provide better access to credit to counteract downturns in agricultural cycles, especially coffee, since climate change has made rainfall more unpredictable. Return and reintegration programs for those who are deported or return voluntarily may provide another small but important intervention that offers alternatives to re-migration. Creating access to job information, documentation, and, especially, financial inclusion gives people an anchor in their home country after repatriation.
Still, although aid efforts can temper short- and medium-term triggers, development goals are fundamentally longer term in their aims and impact, both in elevating incomes and enhancing rule of law. The U.S. government is right to want to elevate the scale and importance of helping to develop the countries in the region, given recurring migration spikes from there since 2014 that have not been solved through border enforcement alone. This is, after all, the geographic neighborhood in which we live. The United States cannot fully thrive when nearby countries fail. But even betting on development to instigate long-term migration pattern changes raises further difficult questions about how developed and developing countries interact.
Ultimately, the U.S. government (and Canadian and Mexican government partners) or EU countries cannot achieve development in another country. The best outside governments can hope to do is find partners on the ground, inside and outside of government, who are already working for change and empower them to sustain and expand their work, including efforts to limit corruption and build better governance. Some youth anti-violence and skills training programs in Central American countries supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) appear to have been successful, like Alianza Joven in Honduras or Puentes Project in Guatemala, but bringing them to scale has been a challenge.
In the case of Central America, and many other countries, the challenges are compounded by the existence of governments with weak democratic mandates, limited institutional consolidation, and significant records of corruption and abuse of power. While civil society might seem to be the alternative, in many countries, civil society groups are also weak or only strong in certain areas, typically larger cities.
This is not surprising—authoritarian governments persist in part by controlling, co-opting, and dividing other sources of power in society, including civil society organizations. So part of the work of development has to be partnering with the stronger civil society groups but also gradually building up smaller organizations. This takes time and getting government leaders to buy into strategies that build better, more transparent, more inclusive forms of engagement. Broader U.S. foreign policy considerations can also get in the way. In the past, the United States has failed to question the governments in Guatemala and Honduras when they undermined the institutions of rule of law, including expelling anti-corruption commissions backed by the international community, because the U.S. government had other short-term interests at play. In turn, this may have deepened the economic and political despair of their populations.
Despite the good work of civil society groups, some of the most urgent challenges are things that only domestic governments can do themselves. Development has to include building state institutions that work—education that is effective and inclusive; health care that is open to all and geographically accessible; and access to credit for private- sector ventures that need public resource guarantees to reach small producers, micro-enterprises, and sometimes-risky new enterprises. These must involve the state lessening practices that inhibit democratic participation and accountability, private sector investment, and innovation. Such changes almost inevitably run counter to what many political leaders in affected countries want or have incentives to do.
For all of these reasons, countries seeking to address the root causes of irregular migration must approach development assistance as a long-term matter aimed at changing the calculus on migration over time. Development is a complicated process that needs close monitoring to assess results and determine what actually works. There are real opportunities to make change, but none of them are easy or clear-cut.
Thus, the overarching assumption driving U.S. policymaking should be that there is probably no single root-causes intervention or set of interventions that would significantly slow migration from Central America in the near term. Migration is simply too profitable a strategy to get people out of poverty and to build capital for investment at the household level—nothing can compete with migration for the same economic benefit to families and communities, its downsides notwithstanding.
That means that root-causes policies and narratives must be paired with other migration management strategies that can have impacts in the shorter term. This requires building refugee and asylum protection systems, work visa programs, and family reunification opportunities that can serve as meaningful alternatives to irregular migration. Figuring this out is not easy or ready-made. However, redirecting flows of people who will be trying to migrate anyway is a must. To that end, it is encouraging that the Biden Administration is increasingly using the language of “managing migration” rather than “controlling” or “stopping migration.”
While Mexicans receive 250,000 or more employment-based visas each year, the three major out-migration countries of Central America get fewer than 10,000 annually, which means that almost no one has an opportunity to migrate legally. The Canadian government offers four or five-fold more employment-based visas to Guatemalans. U.S. employment-based visas are employer-driven, so incentives that get employers to look to Central America and rules that ensure fair and transparent recruitment must be established.
Similarly, implementing an expanded Central American Minors program to reunite children with family members in the United States helps create another legal pathway. And there are some limited but important ways the refugee resettlement system can provide humanitarian protection to would-be migrants before they start a dangerous journey.
Beyond legal pathways, border control and broad U.S. interests surrounding immigration and America’s future must be on the table.
A large share of Central American migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border—as well as growing numbers from other nations, such as Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Cameroon, and Romania—apply for political asylum once reaching the U.S. border. After an initial screening, asylum decisions are made by immigration courts that are overwhelmed with historic backlogs. As a result, it typically takes years for applications to be decided. Meanwhile, asylum seekers reside in the United States—often with immediate or extended family members—and may be granted work authorization.
The Administration has recently proposed a regulation that details significant policy changes aimed at rebuilding the asylum system on principles of timeliness and fairness in deciding claims. Asylum determinations would be made in months, not years, enabling those who are eligible to soon establish new lives. To guarantee fairness, all applicants would have access to appeals and legal services, with the longer-term goal of universal representation. But the intent is also to deter weak claims and opportunistic flows by more reliably and readily repatriating those whose asylum claims are ultimately denied.
These reforms are of utmost urgency not only to overcome the failures of a system that has sidelined humanitarian obligations. They are also essential for countering the promises smugglers make to desperate migrants and for winning public trust and confidence in the government’s ability and commitment to meet its border enforcement responsibilities. As long as there is a broadly held public perception that the nation’s border control is faltering, immigration antagonists will exploit border issues for political gain and frustrate opportunities beyond the border to address the more fundamental legal immigration system challenges that are begging for solutions.
The United States is badly in need of an update to its legal immigration system, so that the country can better embrace legal, orderly immigration as a source of economic and social strength. Properly managed, immigration is a strategic asset that benefits Americans and U.S. society broadly by sparking innovation, generating jobs, meeting essential needs in fields such as food and health care, strengthening families and communities, renewing democracy, and deepening global power and influence.
Current immigration policies are mismatched with market forces and demographic realities. The U.S. population is aging, setting the United States on a course toward the fiscal, economic, and social challenges that countries like Japan and some in Europe have been facing for a while. With the aging of the Baby Boom generation and declining fertility rates, those over age 65 grew by more than one-third between 2010 and 2020, while the number of children under age 18 declined, and the working-age population held steady.
Because immigrants tend to be in their prime working years, a steady flow can help to support growth in the U.S. workforce, fill labor market gaps, and contribute to a higher worker-to-retiree ratio as the country navigates the retirement years of the Baby Boom generation. As the economy recovers from a global recession, there’s never been a better time for immigration policy to be central to economic policymaking.
Future immigrant-selection policies should continue to promote bedrock American values of diversity, family unity, and humanitarian protections. They should also, however, have built-in flexibility so that employment-based immigration levels adjust to periods of lower or higher need, depending on fluctuations in the economy and labor markets. To that end, our organization, the Migration Policy Institute, has developed proposals that include bridging temporary and permanent immigration streams and a mechanism for Congress to regularly reset immigration levels.
At its core, immigration is a unique asset and comparative advantage that advances the prosperity and success of the United States as a nation. A modernized, well-functioning immigration system is the necessary counterpart to root causes policies and measures in Central America that are critical and necessary, but that cannot succeed in the absence of more immediate, effective border management and legal immigration reforms that re-orient immigration to meet broad U.S. national interests moving forward.