U.S. Faces Key Opportunity to Reset Cooperation with Mexico and Central America & Build a Workable Regional Migration System
WASHINGTON — Migration from Central America and Mexico to the United States is an enduring, often shifting phenomenon that demands intelligent management. While the Trump administration focused heavily on a unilateral, enforcement-only approach to managing migration from the region, the strategy is unlikely to be sustainable.
As the incoming Biden administration begins to formulate its immigration policy agenda, it faces a signal opportunity to create a sustainable strategy, one built around regional cooperation. Such a strategy will not end illegal immigration entirely, an oft-cited if unrealistic policy aim, but stands a chance of managing it more effectively while also allowing the countries in the region—including the United States—to better harness the value of immigration.
A new report from the Migration Policy Institute’s Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy initiative, Building a New Regional Migration System: Redefining U.S. Cooperation with Mexico and Central America, outlines a strategy to turn some of the region’s unauthorized migration flows into legal ones, restore access to humanitarian protection, professionalize border enforcement and make targeted investments to address some of the pressures that contribute to large-scale emigration.
The report, by MPI President Andrew Selee and Policy Analyst Ariel Ruiz Soto, offers the elements that a successful regional cooperation strategy should encompass:
- Expanded temporary labor migration pathways. Extending seasonal work visas, currently primarily allotted to Mexican nationals, to workers from Central America would help reduce irregular movements and provide economic migrants with short-term employment opportunities. Incentivizing employers to develop talent pipelines in the region and improving visa programs so that they are flexible and preferential to the countries with high migration pressures (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) may facilitate more orderly and transparent migration flows.
- Rebuilding humanitarian protection systems. Following the Trump administration’s near-total ending of asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, the incoming administration should move to re-establish fair asylum procedures while taking actions to streamline the process and relieve an overburdened immigration court system. Among other steps to revive humanitarian protection, the United States should create alternative ways to protect those facing persecution, including with in-country protection programs that identify them closer to home and resettling some through refugee programs as part of a multilateral effort that involves Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica and other countries in close coordination with UN agencies.
- Ensuring transparent and rules-based border enforcement. While enforcement of immigration laws will continue to be a central component of a regional migration management strategy, U.S. and Mexican enforcement measures should be transparent, rule-based and prioritize humanitarian considerations, including in the United States by way of alternatives to detention.
- Investment in economic and institutional development in countries of origin. While Mexico and Central American countries have made economic advancements, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate existing economic and social pressures that lead people to migrate. Devising innovative strategies, such as leveraging remittances for economic development and strengthening institutions that protect the rule of law, serve migration management goals alongside regional security and economic growth.
“To move the needle towards safer, more orderly, and legal migration, the United States will need to enhance collaboration across the region and, together with its partners, design and implement a multifaceted regional approach to an enduring regional phenomenon,” said Selee.
In a related article in Americas Quarterly, Selee noted the stakes are high, and the incoming administration must make its policy moves carefully lest it incentivize new immigration flows towards the U.S. border with a resulting new border crisis, particularly given the devastation in Central America wrought by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, as well as the dire effects of the pandemic on the region. “At a time of economic crisis, Central American countries have enormous opportunities to change their economic models towards a more inclusive pattern of growth. And external partners, including a new U.S. administration, can play a critical role in this process, so that the on-and-off cycle of irregular migration eventually becomes a thing of the past,” he writes.
The regional migration cooperation report is part of the multi-year Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy Initiative, launched in 2019. The initiative is generating a big-picture, evidence-driven vision for the role immigration can and should play in America’s future. Reports focusing on the immigration detention system, the attorney general’s referral and review powers, the immigration courts and a wide range of other topics will be published in the coming weeks and months.
See all of the work published to date by the Rethinking Immigration Initiative here: www.migrationpolicy.org/rethinking. And to keep up with the latest developments in the Rethinking initiative, sign up for updates here.