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5 immediate migration management steps for Kamala Harris

Migrants at U.S. border
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As Vice President Kamala Harris takes the leadership mantle on addressing migration from northern Central America and especially as she turns to address “root causes” of migration, many will lament that it is an impossible task or one that will simply take too long to bear fruit.

They are wrong.

There are at least five immediate steps the Biden-Harris administration can take to help take pressure off the U.S.-Mexico border while it simultaneously stands up a system to manage migration at that border in a safe, humane, and orderly manner. 

Doing so, requires adopting policies that understand that given the levels of despair migrants are fleeing, it is impossible to dissuade migration. Instead, the United States must urgently address the reasons people are on the move in the first place.

To understand why, we need look no further than the legacy of failure of 30 years of fear-based policies aimed at prevention — culminating in the intentional cruelty of the past four years. The number of migrants from northern Central America apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border rose steadily from the low tens of thousands in the early 1990s to more than 600,000 in fiscal year 2019. 

To confront despair, the United States must marshal hope among the people in its “near abroad” — a region that must be prioritized when it comes to crisis response. And do so now in at least five concrete, practical ways.

First, the United States must marshal and deploy immediate, large-scale food assistance to those suffering the impacts of Hurricanes Eta and Iota — two “once-a-century storms” that made landfall 15 miles and two weeks apart in November 2020. While the region is not alone in facing acute food insecurity, it is the only one whose residents can walk to the United States and that must put it at the top of the list of any U.S.-led responses.

Second, those suffering from the impacts of Eta and Iota are also in need of immediate employment opportunities to root them in their communities. Fast disbursing, cash-based programs can and should be stood up to do that.

Third, the people of the Americas cannot wait for COVID-19 vaccines — and certainly should not wait behind more geographically distant partners. The Biden-Harris administration has put Mexico and Canada at the top of the list for excess supply of U.S. manufactured vaccines. The countries of Central America (and the Caribbean) must be next. 

Fourth, potential migrants from the region — people in need of immediate protection, people seeking family reunification and people willing to fill gaps in the U.S. labor market — need alternatives to the dangerous, disordered journey north. Regional protection mechanisms; robust family reunification parole programs; and enhanced temporary labor mechanisms are all within the reach but need U.S. leadership to open the way.

Put into motion — and even if simply announced — such mechanisms generate hope among many would-be migrants that there are viable alternatives to entrusting their life savings and their lives to smugglers even if they will have to wait to access them.

Finally, a strategy of hope requires sending unmistakable signals to the people of northern Central America the United States stands with them and not with the region’s corrupt, predatory elites that treat their fellow citizens as export commodities.

And here again, the level of depravity in northern Central America provides an opportunity. One that Harris, a former prosecutor, should find too compelling to pass up. Honduras’ President Juan Orlando Hernandez has been repeatedly identified by U.S. federal prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in the successful drug prosecutions of his brother . It seems past time to publicly indict Hernandez or at a bare minimum publicly sanction him under existing authorities. 

Sanctioning a president — who to this day tries to hold himself out as a supposed friend of the United States” while he actively undermines U.S. interests — would send as clear a signal as possible that things are different. And it would help foster much-needed hope across Honduras for a better tomorrow.

Immediate disaster relief, cash-for-work programs, COVID-19 vaccines, alternatives to irregular migration, and a clear break with predatory elites are certainly not the only elements of a new U.S. approach to managing migration and addressing root causes, but they are essential to building a new, durable and effective approach.

Dan Restrepo served as the principal advisor to President Barack Obama on issues related to Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada, serving as special assistant to the president and senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council.

Tags asylum seekers Barack Obama Border crisis Central America Immigration Souther Border

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