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The Real Root Cause of Central American Migration

If the Biden administration is committed to aiding the region, it must first acknowledge the destructive role of U.S. interventionism.

Amelia Frank-Vitale and Lauren Heidbrink

Then-Vice President Joe Biden poses for a photo with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and former Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala are deploying 18,500 troops to stem migration from Central America to the United States as part of a deal the Biden administration announced April 12. In the words of the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, the agreement will make it more difficult to make the journey.” It comes on the heels of the United States pledging $4 billion in development aid to address the root causes” of this migration. 

This type of approach, which ties aid to securitization, has long enjoyed bipartisan support. It has also long failed to achieve the desired aim of reducing migration by reducing poverty. If President Joe Biden hopes to avoid replicating these failures, he must acknowledge that U.S. policy itself is one of those root causes” of migration — and then adopt a fundamentally new approach to development aid. 

As researchers of Central American migration, we have seen firsthand how ineffective development” is in addressing the needs of local communities. Frequently, aid comes with ideological strings that hinder, rather than support, local efforts to reduce poverty, corruption and insecurity. In Guatemala and Honduras, where we conduct our research, this aid is often siphoned off to subcontractors and organizations with little on-the-ground knowledge, or used to bolster military training and equipment. Not infrequently, that money finds its way directly into the hands of the same predatory elites decried by the United States as responsible for the region’s instability. 

Truly addressing the root causes of migration will be a decades-long endeavor, but it must begin with the United States owning up to its complicity in creating the very conditions it now seeks to remedy — and its sordid history of undermining democratically elected governments to advance U.S. business interests. Most recently in Honduras, for example, the United States backed a 2009 coup and then, in 2017, validated the clearly fraudulent re-election victory” of the enormously unpopular Juan Orlando Hernández. By supporting Hernández, the United States continues to undermine Honduran efforts to enact local change. The ongoing situation continues to motivate many Hondurans to seek safety and opportunity outside of their country. 

Taking responsibility for the violence it has inflicted on the region also means the United States must re-examine unequal trade agreements that privilege U.S. financial interests over the well-being of Central Americans. 

The Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement — made by the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic — has created a boom of extractive megaprojects that includes multinational mining, hydroelectric plants and African palm oil production. Rather than foster economic development, these projects actually displace communities, contaminate agricultural land and waterways, and exacerbate social inequality. This kind of exploitation speaks to larger trends in development: for every $1 the Global South receives in so-called aid from the Global North, it loses $14 through unequal economic exchanges. 

Meanwhile, government corruption is so widespread in Central America that it’s now functionally part of the operating system. Biden says he aims to bypass corrupt governments and channel aid directly to nongovernmental and community organizations, but he is hardly the first president to pursue such a strategy. Instead of mitigating the worst conditions, outside actors like the United States exacerbate them, co-opting grassroots associations and making them less responsive to local needs through a process known as NGO-ization.”

Even if these nongovernmental organizations were more attuned to their communities, placing government functions into private hands— while simultaneously supporting, funding and training security forces under the guise of development” — does little to address the urgency of long-term structural reform. 

Truly addressing the root causes of migration will be a decades-long endeavor, but it must begin with the United States owning up to its complicity in creating the very conditions it now seeks to remedy.

The Biden administration cannot simply wish away the damage inflicted by decades of U.S. interventionist policy. If it is interested in pursuing holistic solutions, the U.S. has an obligation to listen to local communities and to pursue local strategies. In Honduras, for example, this would mean investing heavily in public education and healthcare rather than privatizing these sectors, as at least one powerful USAID-funded NGO has recommended. 

The United States has a debt to pay to Central America; any plan to improve the material conditions of those endeavoring to emigrate must start with repayment for what has been extracted. Development aid essentially operates under the logic of teach a man to fish,” to (in this case) learn” from the United States how to be less corrupt, less volatile and more democratic. But Central Americans do not need to be taught to fish.” They need the United States and the predatory elites it has enabled to stop plundering and poisoning the waterways. 

New proposals for aid must reflect a new commitment to local priorities and shared transparency — and provide a mechanism to hold the United States accountable. Corruption can only be addressed by strengthening public institutions, not undercutting them. As climate change and the fallout of the pandemic upend the region, the Biden administration must ask itself whether it’s willing to break with the legacy of U.S. imperialism. Any other approach will ensure future generations continue to seek refuge elsewhere.

AMELIA FRANKVITALE is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Michigan specializing in the experience of deported Honduran youth and transit migration in Mexico.

LAUREN HEIDBRINK is an anthropologist and the author of Migranthood: Youth in a New Era of Deportation.

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