The pictures grip our hearts; the policies spin our heads. Curbing the current flow of migrants at our southern border requires massive coordination, especially with the Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. This means thinking creatively and applying wisely a variety of carrot-and-stick incentives, both there and here.
It won’t be easy, and, with no quick fix, the Biden administration must manage expectations. Simply throwing money at problems will not be enough and, in some cases, could be counterproductive. Our history in the region has been storied and checkered. The United States has too often been ham-handed, ineffective and worse, frequently failing to cooperate with civil society groups that can contribute to long-term social, economic and political resilience. Whatever positive small programmatic steps had been taken under Obama were cut by Trump.
Well known are chilling tales of gang violence wreaking devastation on fragile lives. But there are some evidenced-based initiatives to build safer communities, train a more professional police force and engender rule-of-law guardrails that are worth supporting. It will, however, take the sustained engagement of often fearful local citizens.
Providing billions of dollars of aid will have limited effect if funds are channeled primarily through corrupt, poorly administered and wasteful governments or left to the decisions of outside contractors insensitive to local needs and conditions. In addition to government aid, we’ve not yet tapped the potential of thoughtful private investment and private-public partnerships designed to encourage entrepreneurship and improve largely rural economies.
According to the IMF, the Covid-19 pandemic devastated the region causing the worst health and economic crisis in more than a century. With economies shrunk by approximately 74 percent, and with limited vaccine availability, reports of renewed job growth in the US are a Siren call.
The US helped in the aftermath of devastating November 2020 storms Eta and Iota, but there has been widespread incomprehension of how storms and other climate changes have spurred mass migrations worldwide. Study after study have pointed out the links of decreased precipitation and increased migration. What are farmers in the dry corridor of Central America to do when seasonal crop production in once-arable land drops 70 percent? Coffee production has been hit hard, pushing more into poverty.
The biggest obstacles to long-term change may come from powerful interests both in Central America and the US that have vested interests in maintaining a broken system. Beyond the drug cartels, there continue to be “predatory elites” in poor countries who benefit from lax law enforcement, fail to pay any taxes or otherwise contribute to their country’s social welfare. And, as Adam Serwer pointed out in the Atlantic, there are influential elements of corporate America that are quite content with a status quo that “ensures a frightened and exploitable undocumented workforce.”
Perhaps a sharp appeal to critical national security needs might bridge some of the congressional political divide and impel action. For years we have watched China grow its regional economic influence in Africa and Asia. Its role in Latin America has mistakenly been receiving less attention. China has been using predatory loans to aid infrastructure development with ports, information technology and unregulated mining, fishing and logging projects. In congressional testimony last month, Admiral Craig Faller, commander of the US Southern Command, said that China’s corrupt influence and tacit support of transnational criminal organizations are a direct threat to US nation security. Chinese money laundering is, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, “the number one underwriter of transnational criminal organization. Trafficking in illegal weapons, drugs and human migration are all part of this package.”
President Biden has tasked VP Kamela Harris with curbing the current flow of migrants at the southern border and addressing root causes of the problem in coordination with Northern Triangle countries. What has been described as the “most politically thorny” issue facing the administration could be a golden opportunity. Harris will be helped by Lt. Gen Laura Richardson, one of two female generals recently given 4-star commissions, who will be well-positioned to help with her leadership of the Southern Command. Skilled diplomat Roberta Jacobson, former ambassador to Mexico whom I’ve watched up close in her different State Department roles, has now been tapped to manage the southern border.
I like to think that these talented women leaders can succeed where men have failed.