NEW YORK – At the same time the Biden administration is doubling down on deterrent policies at the U.S.-Mexico border, a new report highlights the need to address what drives migration from Mexico and Central America in the first place.
The report, published this week by the El Paso-based nonprofit Hope Border Institute, found that traditional drivers of migration – poverty, violence, government instability and criminal control among them – persist in Mexico and Central America, and have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change leading to the record number of migrants at the border this year.
The report states an essential step to getting a handle on the 2021 immigration surge is addressing those root causes within the countries migrants flee.
“By following the lead of local organizations in Mexico and Central America working to mitigate the causes of forced migration, Congress and the Biden administration can end the cycle of ineffective and interventionist efforts by the US that have failed to meaningfully improve life in the region or stem outward migration,” the report states.
The report, “No Queda de Otra: An Exploration of the Root Causes of Migration to the Southern Border,” was compiled by Hope Border Institute’s special projects coordinator, Hannah Hollandbyrd; and humanitarian support coordinator, Omar Ríos.
The information was compiled over two months of in-person interviews with 51 migrants across three migrant shelters in Ciudad Juárez – the Mexican city across the border from El Paso. The interviews were centered on the question: “What led you to leave your home?”
The migrants interviewed came from as far away as Ecuador, Colombia and Cuba, according to the report. The majority came from southern Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The latter three are known as the “northern triangle” countries, where a majority of migrants at the border have come from throughout the year.
Mexican migrants revealed in the interviews that they fled their homes in the southern part of the country primarily due to violence and threats involving the cartels. Central Americans, meanwhile, fled for a myriad of reasons, the report found, including poverty, gang violence, or domestic violence. Extortion at the hands of gangs was another hardship, which 70 percent of interviewees said they suffered from – decimating small businesses and threatening lives.
Nearly all of the interviewees also said their income in their country of origin was insufficient to cover basic needs, according to the report.
“There are days we eat and days we don’t eat,” Marta, 44, a single mother of six from Guatemala said in her interview that was transcribed into the report, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic took away the little work she had.
COVID-19 pandemic-created hardships were another common theme of interviewee responses.
“Most of our interviewees experienced the pandemic as a deepening of poverty and economic instability rather than a sickness,” the report states.
Lofty Promises, Little Change
Earlier this year President Joe Biden appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to lead efforts to address root causes of migration in Central America, mainly El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In June, she met with Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei.
At the end of July, the vice president announced a strategy to address root causes anchored on five pillars: addressing economic insecurity and inequality, combating corruption and strengthening democratic governance, promoting human rights, countering and preventing violence and combating domestic violence as well.
Not mentioned was climate change mitigation, which the Hope Border Institute report argues needs to be a “central pillar” of “development efforts and root causes policy” given the destruction and displacement forced by natural disasters and “extreme fluctuations” in precipitation and hotter temperatures.
Harris cautioned at the time that “progress would not be instantaneous.” The outline didn’t include a timeline or policy actions that will be taken related to the pillars.
Root causes aside, the Biden administration – Harris or otherwise – haven’t taken short-term steps to aid the present crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, either. Instead, they’ve relied on existing deterrent policies they vowed to terminate; to no avail. US Customs and Border Protection encountered over 1.7 million migrants at the southwest border in Fiscal Year 2021, with record monthly encounters from March-September 2021.
The report offers two solutions to the border issues: legal pathways and access to asylum.
“By making the process of accessing legal pathways fast, efficient and accessible, the US government will reduce the demand for irregular migration, reduce the role of organized crime in the migration process, mitigate human suffering and ease stress on border infrastructure,” the report states.
It further argues that restoring and expanding access to asylum will have a similar effect.
“Allowing asylum seekers irrespective of nationality to arrive at a port of entry, state fear and immediately enter a dignified asylum process on US territory will drastically reduce the demand for crossings between ports of entry and ensure that no one seeking protection is turned away,” according to the report.
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