Kamala Harris is right about how to deal with root causes of migration

Kamala Harris is right about how to deal with root causes of migration
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The Biden administration is facing the tough, politically volatile task of dealing with an increasingly complicated immigration issue. To his credit, as one of his first acts in January, President BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE sent to Congress a comprehensive immigration reform bill. He later took an equally important, albeit longer-erm step, as part of his reform push when he asked Vice President Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisKamala Harris and our shameless politics Pelosi: House Democrats 'ready to work with' Biden on eviction ban Meghan McCain predicts DeSantis would put Harris 'in the ground' in 2024 matchup MORE to lead the U.S. diplomatic effort to address the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.  

An integral part of the bill sent to Congress acknowledges the root causes of immigration: “The bill codifies and funds the President’s $4 billion four-year inter-agency plan to address the underlying causes of migration in the region, including by increasing assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, conditioned on their ability to reduce the endemic corruption, violence and poverty that causes people to flee their home countries.”  

The last comprehensive immigration legislation, signed into law by President Reagan in 1986 — the Immigration Reform and Control Act — was a significant bipartisan effort that took several years to enact. It focused on the pull factors of immigration — i.e., making it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented persons, while legalizing those undocumented persons who had been living and working in the U.S. for a number of years. Although the bill was not a complete failure, it was by no means a success; undocumented immigration increased after it became law. One possible reason for this was that it did nothing to address the push factor of immigration, the reason so many people from these countries risk so much to come to the United States.


Harris has been criticized for her trip to Guatemala and Mexico in June, because she did not go to the U.S.-Mexico border (although she later did pay an official visit to the border). That criticism is not only unfair, but it misses the point of the importance of the humanitarian and political issues involved with her mission to the region. The long, hard trek from any of the Northern Triangle countries to the U.S. is treacherous and its success is far from assured. Yet a steady flow of people are willing to take the risk, because they view it as a better alternative than remaining at home. Migration from these countries will never be handled effectively unless the root causes are part of a comprehensive immigration effort. 

Gang violence, corruption and failing economies are significant reasons people leave home. For example, Honduran President Juan O. Hernández is alleged to be a co-conspirator in the case against Mexican drug kingpin “El Chapo” Guzman. There are allegations that the administration of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has been negotiating with the notorious gang MS-13 about political support and other issues. He has restricted press freedom and stormed the parliament with security forces. Unfortunately, corruption is de rigueur for the region. In Guatemala, the government of President Alejandro Giammattei closed a successful United Nations-supported anti-impunity commission responsible for the indictment of more than 400 politicians, business people and ex-military officers.

The pandemic hit these nations particularly hard. Their economic situation had been improving, but that is not the case now. The International Monetary Fund projects that Central American economies shrunk by 6 percent in 2020. Honduras has the second highest poverty rate in Latin America after Haiti. Remittances — which, according to the World Bank, in 2018 accounted for 20.7 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product (GDP), 19.9 percent of Honduras’s GDP and 12.0 percent of Guatemala’s GDP — fell between 2019 and 2020, with El Salvador having the biggest reduction at 8 percent. Further complicating the situation, approximately 70 percent of those living in the Northern Triangle work in the informal sector of the economy without social protections.   

Poor governance exacerbates the problems facing these countries.  A Woodrow Wilson Center study emphasized that while foreign assistance is important to these countries, political reform — good governance — is even more essential. There is also the very real threat of China’s involvement in the region. As an important study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies points out, “China has also greatly expanded its influence and economic involvement in the Northern Triangle, bringing the dynamics of the great power competition into regional and international politics. As of mid-2019, China had invested $2 billion in Central American infrastructure projects.”

There must be an all-hands-on-deck effort if there is to be any chance of successfully dealing with the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle nations. The Biden administration’s $4 billion in assistance to the region can be augmented by funds from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank Group. The UN and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development can help with governance issues.  

With her legal experience as former attorney general of a border state, and her involvement with national security matters as a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Vice President Harris is the right person to lead the effort. As she aptly put it, “In our focus on the Northern Triangle, [we are] looking at the fact that we have an opportunity — as the United States of America, with the resources and with the will that we have — to provide the people of the Northern Triangle with some hope that if they stay at home, help is on the way and they can have some hope that the opportunities and the needs that they have will be met in some way.”

William Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations.