Border Crisis: Biden Administration Faces Challenges With Northern Triangle Plan

U.S. efforts to tamp down migration to the southern border by strengthening Central American countries will have to overcome corruption and bad governance.

Honduran parents hold their sleeping boy after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on April 15, 2021 in Roma, Texas.
Honduran parents hold their sleeping boy after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on April 15, 2021 in Roma, Texas. (photo: John Moore / Getty)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s plan to stem northward migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle faces sobering challenges and will not offer a quick fix to migration at the border, according to experts. 

President Joe Biden made assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, collectively known as the Northern Triangle, part of his campaign platform and promised to address the “root causes” pushing people toward the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Vice-President Kamala Harris has been assigned to lead diplomatic efforts toward Mexico and Northern Triangle countries to reduce migration, and Biden also appointed a special envoy to the region. The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which Biden submitted to Congress in January, allocates $4 billion over four years for Biden’s strategy for Central America, in addition to its domestic provisions on immigration. 

Tom Hare, senior technical associate at University of Notre Dame’s Pulte Institute for Global Development, told the Register, “This level of heft is something unique, and a recognition of the challenges faced in the region.” 

The bill lays out a broad vision of strengthening democratic governance and the justice system, combating corruption, countering gang violence, disrupting money laundering operations, promoting civil and political rights, and addressing poverty and economic inequality in the region. 

Up to 50% of the funding allocated each year is available without conditions. Beyond that level, aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras can only be made available for each country after consultations between Congress and the State Department show those governments are taking “effective steps” to implement their reforms and address the factors pushing their citizens to emigrate. 

 

Regional Challenges

The challenges faced by people in the Northern Triangle are well documented. Violence is endemic and murder rates in the region are high. Gang activity and drug trafficking are pervasive. Per capita GDP is low, and corruption is rampant. The effects of the coronavirus and two hurricanes in November have also devastated the region. 

Relations between the U.S. and Honduras and El Salvador have also become more difficult recently. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was a subject of a U.S. investigation into drug trafficking and money laundering. El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele recently refused to meet with Ricardo Zúñiga, the U.S. special envoy to the Northern Triangle, after he was snubbed by Biden administration officials during a February visit to Washington, D.C.

Ryan Berg, an American Enterprise Institute research fellow, told the Register that while there are difficulties, the amount of aid offered by the U.S. should have a strong effect on smoothing over differences.

“This is just too good for a lot of countries in the region to pass up,” Berg said. At the same time, Berg explained that the level of U.S. aid on offer gives it significant leverage it can use to get concessions on anti-corruption and good governance efforts. 

“Without that leverage, it’s hard to get concessions,” he said. 

Berg said disbursing the aid would not “immediately stymie” the flow of migrants to the southwest U.S. border, which saw 170,000 persons in March. Building up democratic institutions in the region will also be difficult, because they have been historically weak and the countries went through vicious civil wars. 

“We’re trying to build something almost out of the ether,” Berg said. 

 

Private Sector Assistance Needed

Strengthening the private sector offers a stronger chance of success, though. 

“Even in a country as corrupt as Honduras, there is a private sector, and they do want to clean up corruption and partner with the U.S. There is something to build on there in a way that’s different from the democratic institutions part,” Berg said. 

U.S. assistance in strengthening the private sector in Northern Triangle countries can also build the confidence of U.S. businesses to provide more development and private investment in the region, he said. 

Refusing to aid Northern Triangle countries not only will do nothing to address migration patterns to the U.S., it provides opportunities for China to increase its influence in the region, he said. 

By doing nothing, “you’re going to leave a massive vacuum for the Chinese to come in and basically be the dealmakers in the region, in terms of development assistance,” Berg said. “The Chinese are seen in the region as players and that’s why we have to get into the game.”

Another outstanding issue is how the funds allocated by the Biden administration will be targeted and who will receive them. While civil society groups will be the chief recipients, a similar plan during the Obama administration had difficulty using all of the aid. 

“We allocated a lot of money but didn’t disperse it because we ran into the limitations of civil society in the region, and didn’t find enough organizations to give money to,” Berg said. There simply were not enough “vetted, trusted partners to work with and give the money to,” he said. 

Berg expressed concern that same issue would return. “The topline number is impressive, but we won’t know the real number distributed until much later,” he said. 

 

Consistency Needed

Reform in Northern Triangle countries has also been difficult to accomplish because it requires consistent attention, while U.S. foreign policy priorities are often focused on global rivals or threats, like China, Russia or terrorism. 

“Our tendency is to pay attention to the region when it’s in a dire state, throw money at the problem, and then we look elsewhere instead of keeping focus on policies that need to be in place,” Berg said. 

The Trump administration initially continued the Obama-era plan for addressing Central American migration through improving prosperity, good governance and security in the region, affirming its core objectives in 2017. Congressional funding for Central American aid decreased by 33%, however, from $750 million in fiscal year 2016 to $506 million in fiscal year 2021. The Trump administration redirected about $400 million in Northern Triangle aid allocated in 2018 to other areas, and in 2019 suspended all aid to the region for several months to push those governments to reduce the number of migrants heading to the U.S. 

President Trump’s administration also exerted less influence on domestic politics in the region, certifying Honduras’s controversial presidential election in 2017 and registering few objections to the end of anti-corruption organizations in Guatemala in 2019 and in Honduras in 2020. 

A Wilson Center report on U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle between 2014-2019 indicated that U.S. influence is critical to the success of anti-corruption efforts in Northern Triangle governments.

The lack of focus on what was happening in the Northern Triangle during the Trump administration “really allowed corruption to grow,” Hare said.

“We’ve seen what happens when we disengage and we have to engage more now because of that,” he said. “There’s a real focus and consensus that tackling corruption needs to be a precondition for collaboration and a step for demonstrating political will.” 

Hare said aid programs won’t be fully effective without governmental partners invested in really changing the conditions in their country, he added. 

“We can do good work on employment and violence reduction and strengthening the capacity of the justice sector, but we can’t do that without also taking on the work of anti-corruption or climate change,” he said. 

Hare said the governments of Honduras and El Salvador have not “demonstrated the necessary level of seriousness to tackle poverty, corruption and violence,” to the Biden administration, a view punctuated by Vice-President Harris’s current plans to only visit Guatemala. 

“It would be hard for the U.S. government to align themselves or work with a president [Hernández] who is named in federal criminal proceedings as complicit in drug trafficking without losing credibility, especially among Central Americans,” Hare said. 

 

Solidarity with Others

Hare said the “suffering and dignity of individuals” and their history has to be a starting point for responding to the migration crisis. 

“Migration from Central America is not a short term problem with short term solutions. Aid programs do work for those that they reach and we have the evidence to show that they work, but they don’t work in a vacuum. Issues like trauma, climate change, corruption and respect for human rights have a profound impact on each of these individuals. Until we take a real holistic view of this, we’re going to be going in circles,” he said. 

David Cronin, government affairs specialist with Catholic Relief Services, told the Register, “We need a steady focus on the human aspects of this crisis, the lives and dignity of people who are forced from their homes from despair or from the inability to put food on their table.”

Cronin emphasized that most of the resources the U.S. will make available will go to organizations focused on building the fabric of society, through agriculture, jobs, schooling and civil organizations.

The strategy for Central America will not pay off dividends immediately for the U.S.-Mexico border situation, but Cronin cautioned, “Unless we are committed to a long term sustainable solution, any policy goals we seek will just be ‘stop and go.’ Strategy and funding are pieces of the puzzle, but time and commitment are needed for sustained change.” 

“A dignified life doesn't just happen overnight, this is something we’re called to work on together,” he said. “Unless we do that, people will continue to seek alternatives in the form of migration,” he said.

Cronin said the reality of immigration is people usually prefer to remain where they are. A CRS study in Guatemala found access to education, farm land and job opportunities and participation in the local community were powerful factors for keeping people rooted in their community. The same survey found 75% of people had no intention to migrate and 95% were attached to their communities. 

He said, “Most people don’t want to migrate, so we need to address how to support people where they are.” 

Nicholas Wolfram Smith is a Register correspondent.

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