The World

The Problem With “Root Causes”

It’s great that Biden cares about poverty in Central America. But that’s not going to stop migration.

A large group of migrants sitting on the ground and standing close together outside under a blue sky
Honduran migrants, part of a caravan heading to the United States, remain in Vado Hondo, Guatemala, on Jan. 17. Luis Vargas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last month, Vice President Kamala Harris was assigned the unenviable task of leading the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts to work with Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to “address the root causes of migration.” These efforts are complementary to President Joe Biden’s landmark immigration bill, which, among other things, puts forth a $4 billion four-year plan to promote “the rule of law, security, and economic development in Central America.”

Not surprisingly, this plan has been attacked from the right. Rep. Matt Gaetz, for example, taking up one of the most common right-wing talking points, criticized the administration for prioritizing Central American development over increasing security measures at the border (to be clear, the Biden proposal would also direct significant funding to the border). Less aggressive but still dismissive was Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who often votes with Republicans on immigration, who criticized the administration’s plan because it is not going to address the flow of migrants in the short term. As he told Politico, “foreign aid and private investment takes time. It’s not going to be done today, tomorrow.”

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Both Cuellar’s statement and the administration’s proposal share the myopic belief that poverty, unemployment, economic stagnation, and crime are the main drivers of migration. I say “myopic” because while these factors do influence individual migration decisions, they do not account for large-scale movements of people. Rather, more than economic factors, half a century of data points to two main factors driving large-scale migration: extreme violence and the modern form of international development.

To understand why, we must recognize a number of things. First, all mass migrations have beginnings, middles, and, eventually, ends. The simple fact that all countries that have large emigration flows were at one point not producing many migrants is proof of this. For example, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador saw very little emigration through much of their history and then suddenly experienced mass exodus. Notably, in none of those countries was there an economic downturn that coincided with the outflow of people. In fact, Saskia Sassen, a sociologist at Columbia University who has been studying migration flows for over three decades, has documented that large-scale migration accelerates when economic growth increases. She writes: “Annual gross national product (GNP) growth rates during the 1970s ranged from 5% to 9% for most of the leading migrant-sending countries.”

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Second, modern international development efforts have not been ideologically or politically neutral. That is, foreign investment has not been solely about creating economic growth, but about fostering a particular type of growth through unencumbered free-market capitalism. In Central America and Mexico in particular, although by no means exclusively there, foreign investment transformed national economies, emphasizing export-oriented large-scale agrobusiness and manufacturing. Sociologist William Robinson, among many others, has shown that these efforts destabilized national and traditional economies, forcing people to move, at first internally and eventually internationally, in search of the jobs that were replaced by new forms of production.

Sassen has argued that these dynamics have deepened over the past two decades, as development efforts have sought to increase growth through large-scale infrastructure projects at the expense of “traditional” economies and the environment. While some of these projects can be justified, they also lead to a “loss of habitat due to land and water grabs, massive expansion of mining, large-scale occupation of land to build modern high-rise environments for the upper middle classes, and more.” Moreover, the loss of habitat is only going to increase as international capital values “the natural resources of much of Africa and good parts of Latin America and Asia … more than the people on those lands count as consumers and as workers.”

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In sum, international development efforts all across the globe, and in Central America in particular, have led to the hollowing out of national and traditional economies, which produced displacement of a large number of people. The expansion of these efforts is currently literally destroying the lands where many people come from, making return not unlikely but impossible. The United States has a great responsibility to bear in all of this. After all, it has been the great promoter of precisely the kind of development efforts that lead to these mass migrations. All of which brings us back to the administration’s goal of reducing migration by addressing its root causes.

Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act establishes a wide-ranging policy agenda that seeks among other things to promote human rights, improve government capacity and accountability, combat corruption and violence, weaken criminal gangs both territorially and financially, and tackle extreme poverty and advance economic development in Central America. It is clear that many of these objectives are good things that if accomplished could change millions of people’s lives. If the U.S. can help promote human rights or end gender violence, for example, it should. But that doesn’t necessarily mean migration will be quelled through these efforts.

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What I hope is clear by this point is that the policy prescriptions to alleviate poverty and promote growth are only likely to increase migration. In fact, if anything, Section 2106 of the immigration proposal seems like a recipe for mass migration through development. This section proposes improving competitiveness in the region by promoting and protecting foreign investment, ramping up free trade, and improving access to credit. These are precisely the kinds of policies that have transformed local economies, leading to mass expulsions. Of course, one can think that these policies are the right recipe for development—many people do. It’s just that they also cause migration.

Some on the left have gone further than I have here. Historian Aviva Chomsky, for example, argues that the Biden bill only outsources border enforcement to Mexican and Central American security forces and, pointing to historical precedent, that its model for development will only serve to benefit American business interests in the region while further destabilizing local economies. This may well be true, but even if you don’t believe that American interventionism is always nefarious, international development through foreign investment and free trade is still likely to increase migration flows in the long run, whatever its good intentions.

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To be clear, for me migration in and of itself is not a problem. If a program can on the whole improve the living conditions of people, then it should be implemented regardless of what effects it has on where people live. However, that is very much not the view of the Biden administration, nor of the policy consensus in the United States and other developed countries.

Biden’s plan for Central America need not repeat the formula of the past of achieving growth through expulsion. Some parts of the bill indicate that policymakers are thinking about such issues, for example, pushing for “small and medium-scale sustainable agriculture.” Moreover, the fact that U.S. officials are currently developing plans to condition aid on anti-corruption and good governance, as well as prioritizing spending through civil society rather than governments, is encouraging. Yet the 50-year trajectory I outlined should, at the very least, give us pause.

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On the other hand, if the United States can deliver on pacifying the region, then that could actually bring migration levels down because extreme violence is a major migration driver. Central America is right now one of the most dangerous regions in the world, with pockets in which the state is essentially absent. We must recognize that achieving peace will be a remarkably difficult thing to do. One does not need to look to the American failures in the Middle East to see the near impossibility of a foreign nation ending cycles of violence. The foundering Mérida Initiative, a now over-10-year-old bilateral security cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, has been unable to even put a dent in violence and corruption in Mexico.

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None of this is to say that the Biden administration should not try to implement its plans. For starters, it is much better to try to slow migration by uplifting communities than by punishing, jailing, and exposing migrants to ever more dangerous journeys. Donald Trump tried the latter strategy, and it didn’t work either. Second, there is a chance that the Biden team will not confuse economic growth with locally driven sustainable development, thereby avoiding many pitfalls of the past and laying the groundwork for change in Central America.

A big part of the problem is the political narrative, and on that front the Biden administration’s mismanagement of the media frenzy around the recent migrant upswing is not encouraging. Still, it’s not too late for Biden to show that even if migration increases, that is not a problem but a boon for the U.S.

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