The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Why Kamala Harris should push constructive disruption in Central America

Vice President Harris listens as President Biden speaks on the COVID-19 vaccine efforts in the South Court Auditorium of the White House
Getty Images

As Vice President Kamala Harris embarks on her first international trip in office, to Guatemala and Mexico, it is all but certain she will face Republican attacks for not yet achieving a miracle cure to the chronic condition of irregular migration from northern Central America.

Such attacks will obscure that Harris has been methodically laying out a path to success that, if fully realized, could bring sustained order to the long-standing chaos that has been irregular migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Success will ultimately rest on something lost in the headlines — the ability and willingness of the United States government to constructively disrupt a failed status quo in the region and in the U.S. migration system itself.

Such disruption begins with steps Harris has taken to align the United States with the people of Central America as a catalyst of hope. It requires, as she has, lifting up and embracing local civil society as the partner of choice. It also involves putting governance first by targeting corrupt actors inside and outside governments across the region and embracing those who have taken on corruption at the highest levels. Even, and especially, as the corrupt push back across the region.

The path to ultimate success also includes distinguishing — as the vice president has also done — between acute and root causes of irregular migration and taking decisive action to address the acute ones. The Biden-Harris administration, for example, has significantly increased disaster and humanitarian assistance in response to Hurricanes Eta and Ito that ravaged the region in late 2020 enhancing the Trump administration’s meager offer of $42 million to more than $300 million in help. The Biden-Harris administration’s recent announcement prioritizing COVID-19 international vaccination distribution in Latin America and the Caribbean is also an invaluable step forward.

Nevertheless, more remains to be done on acute causes. In particular, the United States needs to work with partners in the local civil society, as well as the private sector, to empower the region’s young people to rebuild from the storms. The U.S. debate about migration from Central America often ignores the agency of Central Americans themselves. It is time to embrace it and realize vast majorities across the region yearn for the opportunity to build a better future in the communities into which they were born.

The closer the vice president gets to the root causes, the more disruptive she will need to be. And the more challenging the work will be. To address true root causes will require the United States to — above all else — confront entrenched interests who will do everything to preserve a rigged status quo. This includes major players in the region’s private sector; local and transnational criminal groups; and their allies and enablers in governments across the region.

What does this mean in practical terms? Take, for a moment, Harris’ call to action from the U.S. and international private sectors. Investment in northern Central America is critical to fuel economic growth. But to address the root causes of migration, it cannot be just any kind of investment — nor just any kind of economic growth.

Today, northern Central America’s economies benefit small, entrenched interests at the expense of the vast majority of the people across the region. Those who have rigged the system, in effect, treat their fellow citizens as export commodities. Investments that simply build out that deeply flawed economy will do nothing to curb irregular migration.  

Northern Central America needs disruptive investment that catalyzes inclusive economic growth. That means the United States partnering with the private sector to force down formal and informal barriers to competition. It means the United States being intentionally disruptive in its development efforts. Helping small hold coffee farmers simply subsist, for example, cannot be how success is defined. The United States must use its development tools, including the U.S. Development Finance Corporation, to nurture meaningful market access — at scale — for those farmers and others like them.

Finally, to bring sustained order to the chaos of irregular migration, the United States will have to disrupt its own neglect of legal avenues for migration from northern Central America. Today, those seeking legal entry into the United States from the region face a “one-door, one-place” problem. For too long, the only legal access point has been to claim asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. It is past time to establish alternative pathways — for family reunification, for protection, for temporary workers — that alleviate pressure on a border that has been overtaxed for 30 years.

While her critics chirp, Harris and U.S. national interests will be well served by staying on her path to driving constructive disruption across northern Central America to help eliminate the drivers of irregular migration.

Dan Restrepo served as special assistant to the president for Western Hemisphere Affairs for President Obama. 

Tags Central America Central American migrants Dan Restrepo Immigration migration Northern Triangle southern border

More International News

See All

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video