Investing in economic development in Central America should be a major U.S. objective

Moises Castillo / AP

After reviewing the Biden administration’s proposed immigration bill, named the US Citizenship Act of 2021, the one thing that stands out would be the desire to provide support to Central American countries. This is a stark contrast to Trump’s approach, which featured doing nothing to help stabilize the violence and disarray.

Through the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, Biden has put forth a $4 billion four-year plan that aims to decrease violence, corruption and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the home countries of many of the migrants who have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum in recent years. The bill would also establish centers throughout Central America for people to pursue refugee resettlement in either the U.S. or other countries. (Aguilera, Time)

Lately, in our political realm, it’s been hard to distinguish whether the majority feels like it’s a good idea to fix the “issue” at its root cause; as opposed to just ignoring it and blaming migrants for attempting to flee violence and devastation. I’ve always thought about this route in the past, especially when thinking about ways to revise the current system. We know it’s not possible to allow millions of migrants into our country, but the more our federal government ignores the failing system in these countries, the more the border crossings have surged.

Though the $4 billion is an increase in investment compared to the Trump and Obama Administrations, Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, says that $4 billion over the course of four years alone will not be enough to tackle the underlying issues. Investment from the U.S. needs to coincide with partnerships with the governments of Central American countries and Mexico, he says, and include special attention to education and jobs for youth, not just emphasis on security and enforcement measures, as was done under Trump and Obama. Improving economies could allow for people to have a stable future in their home countries, causing migration to decrease in the long run, possibly decades from now. (Aguilera, Time)

I turned to Ruiz’s report, titled, “Building a New Regional Immigration System,” in which he lays out in detail the degree to which we can improve economic and institutional development in Central America. Absorbing his report, it’s clear to see that we must set our sights on disbanding corruption and encourage citizens to have an opportunity to thrive economically.

The elimination of international investigative bodies in Guatemala and Honduras, one supported by the United Nations and the other by the Organization of American States, dealt a major setback to efforts to strengthen the investigative and prosecutorial powers of attorneys general in those countries. It may be possible to revive some version of these bodies, though with more circumscribed powers and a more explicit role in buttressing national prosecutors. The U.S. government might also wish to evaluate the potential of making significant investments in the protection of a free press and those civic organizations best placed to help hold government leaders accountable and to build greater institutional capacity.

The advances of organized crime groups — both those tied to international drug trafficking (transnational crime organizations) and those engaged in local criminal activities (gangs and other criminal syndicates) — also need priority attention. This requires continued investments in capacity-building for public security and judicial institutions, as well as close collaboration in intelligence-sharing and operations to disrupt criminal networks, including their financial and logistical structures. The nature of this relationship will have to be different from country to country, but it deserves careful consideration in all.

These and other conditions play a critical role in how residents of the region decide whether to remain where they are, move within a country, or attempt a longer and perhaps unauthorized journey abroad. One detailed study of migrants who left Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2018–19 found that violence and economic stresses were the major drivers of migration, and that 60 municipalities from across the three countries contributed more than half of the region’s emigration. Family ties also play a role, but the study found them to be less important than economic and security challenges in people’s decision-making. (Ruiz, 22).

It becomes more prevalent than ever for these journalists to expose the violence and corruption in their countries, and for these injustices to be revealed. The United States can’t merely “take over” and run these countries, but as Ruiz makes clear, it is through the power of “investment” that our formidable country can wield its power. Furthermore, as Ruiz states in the first passage: by removing the process of law, such as the case of Honduras and Guatemala, the media was rendered useless and the crime groups were able to carry out their corruption undeterred. When these crime groups are exposed — just like they are here in the United States — government, under the law, can prosecute these groups to properly maintain the rule of law. Why would the people of these Central American countries, living in chaos, choose to continue living in a country where the injustices are concealed, and the crime groups have more authority than the government?

That brings us to our next point: allowing citizens to thrive by having the opportunity to build on their entire country’s economic prosperity. Ruiz makes an exceptional summarization of this: the assessment of allowing people to invest their remittances into family businesses. After all, this is a major source of the economy in these countries. This would be a great start in trying to build up the economy and not just allow crime groups to apportion profits for their drug trafficking motives.

One particular opportunity that has yet to be leveraged effectively is supporting remittances as an investment strategy. Governments, partnering with financial institutions and international development actors, could create incentives for migrants to invest a portion of their remittances in family businesses, in return for access to credit that expands the investment and brings these businesses into the formal market. There are several ways to structure this to help migrants turn remittances into productive investments that benefit communities and the country as a whole and not only their immediate family members. In countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, in which remittances comprise more than one-fifth of GDP, this is a particularly urgent challenge. (Ruiz, 22–23).

I’m holding out optimism the bill will find life in congress. However, as with most issues these days, I’m sure Republicans will do everything possible to hold up the money Biden is proposing to invest. They seem to be mired in the theory that doing nothing and ignoring these countries’ detriments will be the best approach for us. It seems they are willing to adopt the approach of the last administration, where showing hardness and implementing an inhumane policy will just get people to stop crossing.

It’s time for an innovative approach, and that’s why I’m thrilled the Biden administration wants to present a plan for reform. Ruiz brings up another aspect of this current crises that should not be ignored:

Any plan for investment should also cater to the specific needs of each country, Ruiz says. For example, 47% of Guatemalan children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition according to the World Bank, and Guatemala ranks ninth in the world for level of risk to the effects of climate change, meanwhile in Honduras, 48% of people live in poverty and there is a high level of violence.” (Aguilera, Time)

We have to be vigilant that while all countries have their issues in Central America, we must acknowledge we have a great responsibility as one of the world’s leading powers to help struggling countries. We can’t let these countries fall apart and allow their citizens to fall victim to the crime groups and failed system of governance. When you read that 50 percent of children are malnourished in Guatemala, it should strike any American as unacceptable, especially when you consider why Guatemalan families are seeking refuge in our country. Wouldn’t you do the same for your family?

I hope – out of all components of the proposed bill – this unambiguous part of the bill will present a message to Congress. I feel like this the most imperative and intricate part of how we slowly begin to reform the immigration crisis occurring in Central America. It’s no longer possible to just ignore what is happening in these failing countries, and the dilemma will not just fix itself.

Finally, as Ruiz states:

Improving skills and credential recognition processes between Mexico and the United States is another opportunity, as professionals from both countries move between the two. A clear process that allows these skilled immigrants to work in their chosen professions more effectively in the other country is an opportunity recommended by the original Regional Migration Study Group, and it remains equally or even more important today. (Ruiz, 23).

By providing support, we then create a substantive argument for immigration reform. We know, now, that reform has to be creative but also fundamental, and we must constantly strive for both…

Works Cited:

1. Aguilera, Jasmine. “Joe Biden’s Immigration Bill Aims to Address the Root Causes of Migration: Will it work?” Time. February 18, 2021. Accessed February 24, 2021.

2. Selee, Andrew, Soto Ruiz, Ariel. “Building a New Regional Immigration System. Redefining U.S. Cooperation with Mexico and Central America.” Migration Policy Institute. November 2020. Accessed February 24, 2021.




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