President Biden, facing a political crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border early in his term, tasked Vice President Kamala Harris with leading a sweeping response that would focus heavily on improving conditions in three Central American countries.
This was called the “root cause” strategy. The border, administration officials argued, was just a symptom. If the United States could improve economic, security, and political conditions in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, fewer people would risk the perilous journey and much of the problem could be solved, they believed.
Three years later, the border crisis has only worsened, with record numbers of migrants from across the hemisphere flooding the border and a president on defense as Republicans make immigration a key issue in his re-election campaign.
Migration experts say the administration miscalculated, choosing a narrow and time-consuming strategy that failed to anticipate the changing nature of migration.
“It was focused on a long-term scenario and on countries that are no longer the primary countries of origin,” said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group.
Today, the record number of migrants at the border is fueled by people fleeing Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti, who together accounted for 583,000 border apprehensions in the 2023 fiscal year.
All three countries in Harris’ initial portfolio saw significant declines in annual migration, from more than 700,000 border apprehensions in the 2021 fiscal year to fewer than 500,000 in 2023.
But they are on the rise again from the first three months of the 2024 budget year.
Mexico, meanwhile, remains the largest source of migrants, with 717,000 in 2023.
“You can’t have a ‘root cause’ strategy for every country in the Western Hemisphere,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director of the American Immigration Council, an immigrant rights group.
The administration’s struggle to keep up with a moving target is part of a decades-long trend, Ruiz Soto said. Smugglers and migrants tend to adapt more quickly to dynamics on the ground than U.S. policymakers, he said, noting that Venezuelans are now more likely to risk coming north than Guatemalans because that there are fewer flights sending them home.
“The U.S. immigration enforcement system is reactionary,” he said. “It responds to what’s happening on the day. He’s not looking forward to it. »
Administration officials say Harris should be judged on promises of $4.2 billion in private investment that she encouraged and U.S. aid of about $1 billion a year to the three countries of his wallet. And they say his high-profile mission was only part of the plan to address the border crisis.
Biden is now engaged in negotiations with congressional Republicans, who are balking at the border control deal they initially proposed.
“There are root causes,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a recent press briefing, referring to Harris’ portfolio. Second, “this is a broken system, which is why we put forward an immigration proposal that addresses policy and funding.”
Besides private investment, administration officials point to efforts to connect 4 million Central Americans to the internet and train 400,000 people in skills programs, as well as less tangible efforts to promote workers’ and women’s rights In the region.
Harris’ national security adviser, Phil Gordon, was also instrumental in establishing offices in Guatemala that screen migrants seeking refugee status and other legal avenues of entry without going through the border. The program now also includes Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica.
The administration says more than 120,000 people applied through the centers as of mid-January.
It is difficult to measure the impact of such programs when dynamics beyond the control of the United States are often the most important factors.
Harris has spent little time in Central America, recently avoiding the inauguration of Guatemalan President Bernardo Arevalo. His swearing-in on January 15 was a victory for the administration, which supported him publicly and privately, fearing he would be blocked from taking office.
An administration official said Harris plans to meet with Arevalo in Washington in March, where she will announce new private sector investments.
Arevalo’s rise is seen as positive for one of Harris’ main goals: improving democratic institutions. Harris and other administration officials have said corruption and institutional failure are key factors — along with crime, poverty and lack of security — that push people to leave their homes.
The Biden administration has begun to view Guatemala “as an issue of defending democracy and I think rightly so,” said Eric L. Olson, policy director of the Seattle International Foundation, who has written, sometimes critically , on the “root cause” strategy when it was deployed under the Obama administration.
Guatemala is an example where improving democracy is likely to help slow migration, he said.
“If you don’t help whoever was overwhelmingly elected get across the finish line, then you’re going to find yourself dealing with a whole new level of immigration problems,” he said.
However, what is good for democracy is not always good for slowing down migration.
El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has alarmed human rights advocates with his sweeping crackdown on gangs, which includes widespread arrests and detentions. He ran for office on Sunday, in defiance of a constitutional term limit. But Bukele’s crackdown has played an important role in stemming immigration from El Salvador, as residents who once feared gang violence are no longer forced to leave, experts say.
“It’s a huge contradiction,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “And beyond that, there is also a growing willingness in the United States to accept authoritarianism in exchange for cracking down on migrants crossing the U.S. border. »
An administration official insisted that Biden and Harris remain committed to both human rights and immigration enforcement, highlighting specific efforts to curb extrajudicial killings and professionalize security forces. security.
Harris’ conservative critics dispute another assumption of the “root causes” plan: that aid projects and foreign investment in the country will prove more attractive to people than coming to America.
“The root cause of current migration is the enormous pull to the United States,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), who is leading Republican border negotiations. “If you cross the border, you can enter the country and you immediately get a work permit. I mean, that’s the real attraction factor.
For most migrants arriving at the border, this is not true. Asylum seekers must wait at least six months after submitting their application before they can receive a work permit.
Staff writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.
Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from www.latimes.com