Conference Call: Central America’s Migration Crisis: What’s Next for U.S. Policy?

Central America’s Migration Crisis: What’s Next for U.S. Policy?

Loren Elliott/Reuters
from Member Conference Calls

More on:

Immigration and Migration

Central America

United States

Donald Trump

As tens of thousands of migrants from all over Central America, many of whom are unaccompanied minors, have arrived in the United States in recent years trying to escape violence in their home countries, the United States struggles to come up with an effective strategy to combat the migration crisis. While much of the United States’ focus has been on border policy, less has been on the regional security and stability of Central American countries. Speakers discuss the security and political situations in Central America that are driving the migration crisis and policy options for the United States in the region.


Roger F. Noriega

Visiting Fellow, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research; Former Ambassador, Organization of American States; Former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Julissa Reynoso

Partner, Winston & Strawn LLP; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central American, Caribbean and Cuban Affairs, U.S. Department of State 


Edward Alden

Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

ALDEN: Thank you very much, Operator. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations conference call on “Central America’s Migration Crisis.”

I’m delighted to be joined by Roger Noriega and Julissa Reynoso.

Roger is the—is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was formerly ambassador to the OAS and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department in the—in the George W. Bush administration.

Julissa is a partner with Winston & Strawn. She was formerly the deputy assistant secretary of state for Central America, Caribbean, and Cuban affairs at the State Department during the Obama administration.

My name is Edward Alden. I’m a senior fellow here at CFR in Washington, and I will be presiding over this discussion.

I would like to remind members that this conference call is on the record, and I think I’m correct in saying there will be a transcript published of it. I’m going to start by engaging our two speakers in a—in a short conversation for about 20 minutes, and then we will open it up for your questions.

So, Roger, maybe I’ll start with you and then—and then ask the same question of Julissa. The title of this call is “Central America’s Migration Crisis.” Is there actually a migration crisis at the moment? And, if so, why?

NORIEGA: Yes, it is, and it is Central American. In recent years you see a considerable increase in people primarily from the Northern Triangle countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—leaving their countries because of insecurity in their countries, because of economic problems, stagnation in growth that fails to keep up with population growth and job requirements, criminality, ultra-violent activities by gangs that level threats against people who fail to join their ranks or defy them in any way, just a generalized insecurity that impacts the lives of the people in those three countries in particular. Because of the decimation of institutions precisely because transnational organized crime organizations have moved in there, threatened, co-opted local authorities, you know, has a lot of impact on national politics, so you gradually kind of let down the antibodies of criminality. And crime is really bad for business—bad for investment, bad for companies being able to operate and expand, and jobs dry up, markets dry up. So it is a—it is a genuine crisis, and it’s caused a lot—to a large extent by the consumption of illegal drugs here in the United States that drives that criminality.

ALDEN: Julissa, same question. And maybe give us a sense of why the problem seems to have become more acute in recent years. We have seen the migrant flows from these Northern Triangle countries increase quite significantly. What is your explanation of what’s going on?

REYNOSO: So I think there are a combination of factors. You have a situation in Central America where really because in a—in a(n) indirect way, because of our successes in places like Colombia and to a certain extent even Mexico and the Caribbean, you have the movement of illicit and organized crime and transnational criminal elements moving into Central America, where the institutions have been historically quite weak. And because of that, if you will, geopolitical move by organized crime elements, you have a significant increase in crime, in homicide, in all types of insecurity in these countries. And so these countries—and we’re talking here about Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador in particular—have really seen a remarkable surge over the last 10 to 15 years in crime. And I think we can see a direct link between that domestic crisis and its impact in forcing people to by all means try to flee their countries. And so that’s all the—those are—one of the reasons we’re seeing people flee.

In addition, these are some of the least-developed countries in the Western Hemisphere. They’re extremely poor. And you have entrenched inequality and lack of opportunity, especially for the historically marginalized people, including indigenous people. And so these—that’s another reason—and it’s related—that folks are fleeing in such numbers.

ALDEN: Most of what we’ve seen from the current administration—and it certainly wasn’t only this administration; you saw some of it, certainly, during the Obama administration—is an effort to increase deterrence, to send a message back to Central America that traveling to the United States, making a successful asylum claim here is going to be difficult. Julissa, maybe I’ll start with you on this one and then—and then go to Roger. If we’re going to try—if the United States is going to pursue policies that are likely to reduce the migrant flow, how much of that can we do through deterrence and how much has to actually tackle some of the conditions in these countries?

REYNOSO: I think people are—I’m a migrant myself, so I can—I can speak to this. When you are—when you have no opportunity and you are—everywhere you look in your—in your immediate environment there’s—there is loss and desperation, and on top of that you have a lot of relatives that have already left and people in your community—so there’s also that pull factor—you will—you will take a risk, and you always assume that you are not the one that’s going to be picked up or stopped on the way to where you need to—where you think—where you’re going. So I think there’s so much we can do here to prevent the flow of migrants without really focusing and investing in trying to serve and solve the problems that these countries are facing back home.

In a way—and it would be useful to do the economic calculus—an investment in those—in those countries and the development of those countries, and also managing the chronic insecurity they’re facing, is probably much more economically doable or feasible for us, and will probably give us much more of a long-term return on our investment than the vast amount of resources we’re spending here for the same—at the end—at the end of the problem. And then not only in terms of the practical issues of that domestic—of that migration issue, but also just the political crisis that is—that is—that has been created here in the United States.


ALDEN: Roger, same question. And maybe—yeah, go ahead. And maybe—and maybe if you could focus a little bit on initiatives that you think would make some difference in these countries.

NORIEGA: Well, so far we—if you don’t mind, I need to double back a little bit because neither one of us did something we wanted to do, which was to talk about the pull factor, the attraction because of policy decisions made here to migrants, where the coyotes literally run radio ads and recruit business based on what the policies are in the States. For example, there was a distinct spike after President Obama announced the DACA policy. That crisis began, really, within weeks of that announcement. And certainly that’s unintended, but it does have consequences. And the things that Trump is doing now will have consequences, too.

What’s really important to note is that there has been a spike even with Trump talking about the border’s closed. So it does indicate that there is this push, that the people are fleeing instability, are fleeing a lack of economic opportunity. So we really have to do both of these things. We have to address the push and the pull factors.

In addition to just, you know, investing in the—in stability in this Central American region, it has benefits not just in terms of controlling migration, but also to our economy. Remember, not quite ten years ago we were selling CAFTA, reminding everyone what—that these five Central American countries plus the DR, we traded more with them than we did with India at the time in terms of products. And so it’s a natural market for us. And we’ve just done a much—we haven’t done a good job following up, realizing the potential of those markets in generating economic growth, encouraging countries to adopt the kinds of policies that are going to create jobs and attract investment. We haven’t done as good enough job as they—as we should have. On the other hand, the coyotes and the narcos have done a pretty effective job of destroying institutions that get in their—in the way of their illegal activities.

ALDEN: Have you—you know, have either of you seen—

REYNOSO: But just to—

ALDEN: Yeah, go ahead, Julissa.

REYNOSO: Just to be clear, there’s no—there’s no evidence that DACA or any legislation directly triggers folks leaving their homes. What I—what I said—when I mentioned the issue of pull factors, there is, obviously—if your family’s here and your—and your community’s here, there is, obviously, a link to this country that does—that does—and that they made it, and they made it and they’re—and they’re doing better than you are back home—there is, obviously, that incentive also in people’s calculus of whether to leave or not their home country.

ALDEN: Yeah—go ahead.

NORIEGA: Well, I certainly don’t—I don’t want to dwell on any—on the point, but there is—there was a distinct spike after the DACA announcement. I’m saying this is unintended consequences, but it is something we do need to keep in mind because we all agree that the real tragedy isn’t just at the border, our border. The real tragedy is all along that way of that path, and the tragedy is when people have to abandon their own countries to survive. So we all agree that discouraging that downrange is a better investment and more effective way of dealing with this, and really an unavoidable, inescapable responsibility of the United States because of the drug trafficking and the drug consumption that drives a lot of this criminality.

ALDEN: Let me ask you both, what mix of policies do you think might actually be effective in making some headway on this problem, whether having, you know, to do with our own immigration/asylum laws here in the United States and with challenges on the ground in the Northern Triangle countries? Roger, maybe I’ll start with you. You know if you—if you were in charge and you could say here are the three or four things that we should be doing to tackle this problem, what would you list be?

NORIEGA: Well, I think there’s a bipartisan consensus on this. It really started under President Obama. Vice President Biden pushed in with a lot of leadership with the Central America Regional Security Initiative, and we engaged the Inter-American Development Bank to sort of help these countries write an integral development plan. We have resources against the problem. Notwithstanding the draconian cuts recommended by President Trump’s administration, the Congress in a bipartisan fashion has sustained this funding in a comprehensive way to go after job creation, economic development in general, helping these countries retool their economy, incentivizing them to do so—and, yes, directly addressing the migration—illegal migration forces, and doing in-country processing for asylees so that people that have legitimate claims to asylum have an opportunity to espouse those claims, you know, without making the dangerous trek across Mexico to get here.

ALDEN: Julissa, what would—what would your list be?

REYNOSO: I think, again, it has to be—Roger, I think we agree on this. It has to be a combination of programs and policy. I do think we have to do a much better job of robustly supporting those countries so they can—they can have institutions in place and local opportunities for folks so that there is—there is not that significant need to flee irrespective of whatever penalties we may—we may try to implement here.

I think—and given the lack—the dramatic economic problems in these countries, and the insecurity, and essentially the chronic violence, I don’t—I don’t know how much we can do here that will—irrespective of how harsh our penalties may be—and by no means am I suggesting they should be harsh—but I think people will take the risk anyway unless we emphasize economic development in these countries, integrate a comprehensive development—working with these governments, working with civil society and the business sector, we have made significant progress in that regard. But we have—we can do a whole lot more than we’re doing. And I think this current administration has not given enough urgency and importance to that foreign policy issue and the—and the priority it needs to—it needs to get.

ALDEN: Do either of you have a sense of how big such an initiative would need to be? I mean, wasn’t it roughly $750 million was appropriated during the Obama administration for additional aid to the region? Is it going to take a lot more than that? I mean, what sort of a scale of commitment are we talking about in terms of actually making a difference in both the economic and security conditions in these countries?

NORIEGA: Well, a similar level was approved in the last fiscal year as well, so we’re talking about 1.5, 1.6 billion (dollars); and even, you know, going back several years approaching $2 ½ billion into these countries. And we—and, frankly, we can’t just throw money at the problem. I’m not saying that we don’t have to have an investment. I’m not even saying we—maybe we need to have even more put up against the problem. But we—one of the things we need is accountability.

These countries have to be held—these governments have to be held accountable for retooling their economies, making the right decisions, fighting corruption, and—because all of that undermines growth. And the American taxpayer doesn’t want to continue to invest in countries that don’t want to help themselves, where they have political establishments that, you know, tolerate generalized corruption, including at the very top and including their own political leaders—presidents, vice presidents. We have to invest an awful lot in incentivizing policy shifts and cultural changes. So if they address that, if they basically have zero tolerance for corruption, and particularly starting with the presidents and working their way down.

REYNOSO: So I would just say there’s—one thing is how much money you throw at a problem, and the other—the other relevant thing, I think more importantly, is how you spend that money. A lot of the money—a significant portion of the funds are allocated—were allocated towards security measures that ultimately may not have led or do not necessarily lead to economic development of some of these communities. So I think we have to be more mindful of creating economic opportunity for folks and especially targeting the most vulnerable parts of these countries, and less so on, you know, hardware. And these—and/or in addition to hardware. But when we’re talking about $700 million, a lot of that money is toward security, and that doesn’t necessarily create jobs for people who are the ones that want to—who want to work and don’t have the opportunity, or are—or are tempted and lured into gangs and the like. So I think there has to be a greater—a greater percentage of those funds or more funds in absolute terms invested in job creation and opportunity, especially for young people. And that’s not necessarily a priority of the budget allocations that I’ve seen.

ALDEN: Right, right. OK.

Operator, at this time I would like to invite our members to join into the conversation with their questions. If you could give the instructions, please, and then I’ll ask one final call before we—one final question, excuse me, before we turn to their questions.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

ALDEN: Thank you very much.

While the members are queuing up, Roger, I just wanted to ask one last question of you, which is we’ve got a Mexican election coming up on Sunday. Mexico is obviously a key partner for the United States in terms of dealing with some of these challenges.

What do you think happens after the Mexican election? How concerned are you about whether Mexico will continue to be a partner of the United States in trying to tackle some of these challenges in Central America?

NORIEGA: Well, I think it’s a pretty good bet that Andrés Manuel López Obrador will be elected president on Sunday. The polls give him at least a 10 percent lead in a three-way race.

He has avoided any sort of provocative comments toward the U.S., and I think almost miraculously, President Trump is not an issue, really, in that election. I mean, there—it may be under the surface, but there are bigger issues that he is tending to, and the candidates are tending to, and that’s how they are breaking down on corruption, and in personal insecurity. These are the most important issues in that election.

So he has not—he has indicated that he wants to have a good, mutually respective relationship with the United States, and that’s healthy. It remains to be seen—after he takes office and if there are sort of provocations—how he will react. And we have to remember that we need partners, and Mexico stops as many or more migrants from Central America than we do. And if we lose that commitment, if we lose that partnership, it’s going to become a bigger problem for us. So we need those partnerships and need to build bridges much more than building walls.

ALDEN: Thank you very much. So, operator, I will turn to questions now, and a reminder to all the members, again, that this conference call is on the record.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question will come from Mercedes Fitchett with the Department of Defense, Air Force.

Q: Oh, yes, hi. Good afternoon. Thank you.

I was hoping that you could share some insights on whether we’re also seeing southward migration to Costa Rica and Panama, and if not, why not? And are there some potential roles that those two countries could play to accept these migrants fleeing violence and insecurity?

Thank you.

ALDEN: Julissa, do you want to try to take that one or—either of you?

REYNOSO: There has always—there has always been migration, at least from—during the wars in these countries, and in the case of Costa Rica and Panama—in Costa Rica, in particular, you have a—you have a significant population of Nicaraguans moving to Costa Rica, especially because of the economic differences and development differences these two countries. But also you have recently, obviously, the Nicaraguan political crisis.

When I was at the State Department, Central America was a sub-region that we saw—and I think it should be seen in an organized manner. These countries share borders, they share information. A lot of the transactional organizations that are hurting these countries don’t see borders and they see Central America as just a place to come through to the United States, and obviously through Mexico. So it’s important to work with all of them.

In term of migration, obviously it’s going to be tough to convince Nicaragua and—well, Costa Rica and Panama, in particular, to take more migrants or refugees. That’s something that could be a point of dialogue. However, these countries have their own challenges, their own security. You have seen an increase in security in both countries, so I would—it would be a tough sell to give them that additional issue to try to manage, but obviously on things related to the collective that affect migrants and people, and the reasons behind people fleeing, they are all important in trying to manage that whole situation.

ALDEN: Thank you. Thank you very much, Julissa.

Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Pablo Pardo with El Mundo.

Q: Hi, thank you. Actually my question has already been responded because it was about the potential impact of the Mexican election, so I have no question. Thank you very much.

ALDEN: Thank you.

Julissa, did you have anything additional you wanted to add on Mexico, or we will—

REYNOSO: On Mexico—yes, well, I just—you expect it of who wins, but let’s make believe it’s López Obrador. It just reinforces the fact that we need to work closely with Mexico to ensure that the border and the migration issues that are so prevalent facing their southern border are managed properly, not only in terms of deterrence, I have to say, but also Mexico’s role in working with Central America. Like we are looking at ourselves now, Mexico also plays a significant role and is collaborating with Central America on security, on rule-of-law issues, and also, given Mexico’s experience in combatting—and its ongoing saga combatting organized crime, and working with development challenges on its own, it has a lot to share and a lot to give in terms of experiences and policy objectives to the Central American countries that are facing these similar problems.

ALDEN: Thank you very much. Operator, next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Lilia Ramirez (sp) with—(inaudible).

Q: Hi, this is Lilia (sp).

I just wanted to have you help me understand why the U.S. should do more when families or child traffickers are actually bringing these children and endangering them? And I ask this because I was an immigrant. I was five years old when my parents emigrated from Colombia. They actually went through the process of getting visas. As a matter of fact, my mom was pregnant with my brother, Henry, and she actually left before us—before my dad and my other two siblings. We stayed safely back in Colombia even though it was a tough time. I mean, we left because my grandfather had been kidnapped—you know, was never found.

So it was under a tough situation, but I just don’t understand what more we can do when families choose to endanger their children and bring them across the border.

ALDEN: Roger, do you want to talk about this—because you raised a little bit the role of the coyotes and other things, so maybe I’ll let you take that one.

NORIEGA: Sure, absolutely.

Well, I think neither one of us has suggested that we should take more people who come illegally. We do have obligations in terms of people espousing human rights asylum claims. That’s an international obligation, and we need to at least do that when people arrive here illegally.

But what we’ve emphasized during this conversation is doing more working with our neighbors in Central America, in Mexico, to make it less likely that people will try to immigrate illegally, to help generate economic growth. When we invest—just with these programs—a dollar, these countries have committed to invest two dollars to support these programs, to generate economic growth, address the security issues, address the rule-of-law issues that destabilize these economies and drive people over the border.

And so—as a matter of fact, I want to emphasize that we need to be very clear that, as you come to the border and you cross illegally, it’s quite likely you’ll be sent back. I think it’s very—you know, we incur a considerable risk if we send the wrong signal that we’re going to welcome everybody across that border—who comes over that border because then people do make that economic and personal decision: I’m going to run for the border, and by the way, I’m going to run all the way across Mexico to get to the United States to get these migration benefits.

So I think we do have to send a very clear signal, as a matter of fact—not that we’re going to be accommodating more illegal immigrants, but that really we have the laws and we’re going to enforce those laws. If you have a legitimate claim, you can espouse that claim in your country—if there’s a human rights violation or that sort of thing—but you should not assume that you have any right to enter the United States illegally.

ALDEN: Roger, just to follow up on that, how would that work in practice? I know there has been some effort to do that, but in-country processing—if you are talking about people who really are fearing for their lives, how do you have an effective in-country processing procedure?

NORIEGA: Well, it’s going on right now, and I’m not saying that—you know, because a lot of times these people are threatened by gangs and, you know, it’s not the government that’s coming after them, per se, as in many cases, human rights violations are committed by government.

And there should be facilities in these countries that should be well known, and if it’s not well known, then it’s a failure of our program. But we—as I understand it, we have in-country processing to handle these people. It’s the kind of thing that happens in, you know, half a dozen countries, maybe more in the world, where we offer this opportunity for someone to make a claim and have it communicated.

ALDEN: Julissa, my—I’m sorry, go ahead.

Yeah. Julissa, am I correct in thinking that, under the Obama administration, there was an experiment in setting up a processing facility in Costa Rica, partly under U.N. auspices? Correct me if I’m wrong about that, but have there been other efforts to try to give people avenues other than crossing Mexico and arriving at the border of the United States?

REYNOSO: Yeah, as far as I—as far as I know, there hasn’t been a comprehensive approach in the three countries that are really the main countries that face the most significant problems, which are El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, to manage these issues internally with the embassies there.

I think that is something that we can—that should be looked at and potentially addressed. The issue is that if you are not—if the problem that drives people to—and the human rights conditions are in place already and you are going to complain about it, seek some relief domestically or in the country, your situation does not change. It doesn’t really give people a lot of relief—immediate relief. So you’re stuck in the same condition that drove you to seek asylum to begin with. And I would be shocked if whatever process is in place to facilitate these complaints and these conditions by individual are so efficient that people can get some form of relief immediately while their underlying circumstances still remain in place.

ALDEN: Yeah, I think that’s definitely one of the big challenges of this.

Operator, let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Michael Lipper (ph) with Booz Allen Hamilton.

Q: Thank you. How’s it going?

Thanks for taking the time today. I have a question kind of from a sociological perspective—if there has been any research into kind of seeing an effect of a feedback loop in communities where people are migrating from. So, you know, if someone leaves that community it creates further economic depression, and then that kind of increases the chances that someone else will then migrate and kind of—et cetera.

And then in addition to that, has there been any research into kind of the effect of different development programs within the communities, so if you can show that for every dollar invested, someone is, you know, five times less likely to attempt migration, that seems kind of a good way of going about, you know, justifying economic aid as opposed to border security because if you can compare them kind of with a dollar cost, you know, benefit, it seems like that would be a way to kind of get more people on board behind intervening within the countries themselves.

ALDEN: Excellent question. Do either of you want to try to tackle that?

NORIEGA: I don’t have any kind of background on that.

REYNOSO: On the feedback—on the feedback loop, you know, folks—a lot of these countries, as you know, are very much dependent on remittances, and payments, and monies that are sent by migrants to the communities. In the circumstance you are looking at, between 20 and 30 percent of the entire economies of these countries that are dependent on these—on the remittances sent by migrants.

So you do have communities—local communities that are so dependent on the resources and the capital that is sent by the people who have left that it—basically the role of the state is non-existent because at that point the basic services and day-to-day of communities is maintained by migrants and the families that are—migrants send money to the families that are left behind. So that’s the consequence, really, of economic—local economic consequence of migration.

In terms of investment by the U.S., we have looked at—at least with funding from work with USAID has been the primary partner in terms of government assistance to some of these communities. We have created—we did create in the Obama administration programs matching funds between USAID and the business community, and it was in El Salvador now and also in Guatemala. The original program was in El Salvador where you did see, in specific communities that had large—that had a large number of migrants, especially young people, you did see a decrease in gang activity, and also migration, and at least three or four years where we did these programs and created—where you had job training and also employment opportunities for folks in those specific communities.

ALDEN: Yeah, if I could just add, you know, from my knowledge of the immigration research on this, there are very strong network effects in immigration so, you know, if you’ve got people from your village in Mexico—where a lot of the research has been done—who have succeeded in establishing themselves in the United States, then what happens is people are inclined to follow. So they’ve got family or close friends who are already established in the United States. That provides them a network whereby, if they succeed in getting into the United States, they can find employment, they can find places to live. Often the money that pays smugglers is coming from family in the United States, so there is a self-reinforcing quality to this which is, the more people coming from a particular location in a country, the more are likely to come.

So I thought that was an excellent question. I don’t personally know of any research that exactly tackles your point, which is targeted aid at those communities, can it succeed in reducing those migration flows. I think that it’s a very good question.

Operator, let’s move on to the next question here.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Linda Miller with the Wellesley College.

Q: Yes, the connection is rather poor. Are you able to hear me?


ALDEN: Yes, you are coming through clear.

Q: This is a contrarian question. Are there any positives values to corruption?

ALDEN: Your question, if I—yeah, any positive values to corruption. Is that the question?

Q: Are there any—yes, thanks. Is it greasing the wheels, making the society function—(off mic)—

ALDEN: I think she is fading out, but I think the gist of the question was there, which is are there—are there, you know, positive side effects from corruption in terms of making societies function a little more smoothly than they might otherwise.

Q: Exactly correct.

NORIEGA: Well, in the—

ALDEN: Roger.

NORIEGA: I would have to assert that there really isn’t. It certainly makes things work for the people who have the money to buy a legal judgment, or get a license or a permit to operate, or to throw a competitor in jail, or bring them under investigation.

It’s much better, I think, that you would build a system of the rule of law that would serve everybody and that would be accessible to all, that served people regarding whatever walk of life they—whether they are rich or poor. And so, yeah, corruption is—someone is stealing from someone, and so always going—there is—it is not a victimless crime. And it stunts the growth of these economies in appreciable ways. You know, I’ve seen estimates of 2 to 4 percent of GDP from a country—even higher—that is essentially forfeited because of corruption.

And so that is, you know, a long-term, fundamental problem that has to be overcome rather than acquiesced in, accepted.

ALDEN: Thank you—a very definitive answer.

Operator, do we have additional questions?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question will come from John Sullivan with George Mason University.

OK, it looks like he just disconnected. Our next question will come from Emerita Torres with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

Q: Thank you very much for the opportunity and the discussion.

I had a question regarding the unaccompanied minors who are showing up on the doorsteps of various states around the country. And wondering your thoughts on, you know, in the absence of new policies on how we handle these unaccompanied children as young as three or six or what have you, what are your thoughts on what cities and states might be able to do, or even civil society might be able to do, to handle the unaccompanied minors who are traveling? Thank you.

ALDEN: Either of you like to respond to that?

REYNOSO: Yeah. The first issue, the legal issue, is ensuring that these minors have proper legal representation and support to ensure that they have access to their families, so that there can be an immediate reunification with the family and make sure they have—they have their basic rights protected with respect to having family members there present to take care of them.

And then ensuring that you provide them with a process whereby they can—they can seek whatever legal remedies exist to have them—have them stay in the country, to mean there is a—they have a claim to such (today ?). And I think that those are—those are things that require cities and states to provide them with, obviously, the basic protections, but also ensuring that they understand where the family members are and giving—and providing them at that point with the legal support so they can look to seek either to stay in the country or some legal remedy to help them with their immediate situation while they’re here.

ALDEN: Roger, I might—I might just add something quickly, too—this is Edward—that, you know, one of the real challenges, I think if we’re honest in this issue, is that our system for hearing asylum claims is hopelessly backlogged. So when young people arrive unaccompanied in the United States, they are reunited with family here, and it’s quite well-entrenched in communities here in the United States. So we have this hopelessly backlogged process that makes it very, very difficult to handle these claims in any sort of prompt fashion. So, you know, I mean, this is one of the challenges—to be fair to the administration—this administration and the Obama administration faced, which is the very, very slow process for hearing these claims, which I think has the unintended consequence of encouraging people to come because once they’re here they’re able to stay here at least for a couple years before their hearings are ever conducted.

I’m told we still have a couple more questions. Operator, can we go to the next one?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question will come from James Michaels Saxonruze (ph) with U.S. Department of State.

Q: Hi. Good afternoon. Thanks again for doing this.

Just a quick question. You know—as you know, Vice President Pence is in Guatemala today meeting with the Northern Triangle presidents. I guess this is for both of you. If you were still in your, you know, former roles at State, how would you advise him or what talking points would you give to him?

ALDEN: Roger, do you want to take that first, and then we’ll go to Julissa?

NORIEGA: Sure. I would encourage them to redouble their efforts to address the essential issues with security, corruption, and economic growth in their countries to make—for them to cooperate with one another in all of those areas, and with their other Central American neighbors, to make the sub-region more attractive to investment and make it easier for folks to start small/medium enterprises and to—and to do with engaging international trade.

But they all—these three presidents have to be personally accountable for—and I’ve said this to them directly. They have to take personal responsibility for corruption in their own political parties, their own families, and it has to start from the top to have—to start to address the issues of the rule of law. Which—when their institutions are weak and criminal justice systems don’t work, it makes everyone vulnerable. And that’s what causes this problem. And we want to do our part to help, but they have to do theirs as well.

ALDEN: Julissa.

REYNOSO: I would—yeah, I would—I would add that—agree with Roger that the governments and the politicians, and executive specifically, have a lot to do with this—these issues. These people are there for a short period of time, and they have a whole host of incentives and disincentives to behave a certain way. They also have even—even with the best of intentions, they have extremely weak institutions within their domain that are—that they must manage, and also budget deficits and lack of tax collection from the wealthy that is—that is chronic in all these countries. So I think there’s so much we can do to rely on these presidents, although I obviously agree that they have to all do as much as they can and, obviously, pursue corruption internally within their governments, which is key.

I think we have to expand the partners that we—that we work with; again, civil society, universities, the church, the business sector. I think we have to expand and diversify the folks and the institutions that are—we collaborate with to create employment. Also looking at local governments—the mayor, the governors, et cetera—because we have been focused on the president, and that’s important, for at least as far as I can remember, and there’s so much they are willing to do or are able to do.

And also, I would say the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, these other governments that are active, from the European Union to the other developed countries that are active in these—in these countries, they also need to do more and collaborate. We should collaborate with all these folks to make sure that whatever it is that we’re doing is having the optimal output and not just throwing money at the problem without really seeing results.

ALDEN: Thank you. Roger, go ahead.

NORIEGA: And I think another point—(I thought you would ?) agree with this, and I thought you were going to say this—is the private-sector folks have to be engaged. They need to pay their taxes. They need to hold their governments accountable, as well.


NORIEGA: But they have to—the corruption and fighting corruption starts with them, with their—(inaudible)—with their—with their associations, business associations, how they do business, starting with respecting labor rights, respecting the rule of law and local authorities.

REYNOSO: Yes, I agree. That should—agreed, Roger. I should add that when we look at organized crime, it can’t just be going after the, you know, the gang—the gang folks and the young people that are—that are in the—you know, working the streets. I mean, there are high-level folks in these countries that need to also be—that need to also be looked at, from the money-laundering piece of the story, from other forms of supporting crime.

And I think agencies, U.S. government agencies, not only the Justice Department, but Treasury and other agencies that are involved in the transnational—in pursuing transnational crime need to pay more attention to these countries to make sure that really we’re putting our best foot forward in pursuing the most—the most—the most sophisticated, if you will, criminal elements and not just the street crime that maybe is as—or the petty corruption that we all talk about here.

So it goes to, obviously, pushing the business sector to do more and incentivizing them to do more, not only with, obviously, our diplomacy, but also ensuring that they’re complying with U.S. laws. I mean, these folks, a lot of them have presence in the United States, they travel to the United States, so we can do more to make sure that they are—they’re complying with all the laws that are relevant here and that they’re not doing something abroad that violates U.S. laws. And that’s where we can encourage more Justice Department and Treasury Department activity in that regard.

ALDEN: Thank you both very much.

Operator, do we have another question?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question will come from John Sullivan with George Mason University.

Q: Thank you very much.

I’m sorry I got cut off when I was asked to comment before, but maybe it was good because a lot of the material you’ve covered, especially in the last two minutes, has really been central to this idea of creating an enabling environment for economic growth and development in Central America.

And I would just like to ask—you all are making really good points. And as you look at the Doing Business indicators from the World Bank, the Economic Freedom Index, the Intellectual Property Index, any number of these, Central America ranks really very low. I have the Doing Business open here and it’s, I mean, it’s clear why, you know, there isn’t more economic growth and investments in the region, job opportunity.

So have any of you ever thought of—and I suspect, Roger, you may have, maybe our other commentators as well—have you ever thought of doing something through the Council like has been done for other regions of getting a group together to really hone down on creating something? And we have the Kissinger plan which, as far as I can tell, didn’t have a long-term effect. But creating an effort to reach out to the World Bank, the IMF, the U.S. government and others to do what it is that you’re talking about and to get these basic enabling environments for Central America in some kind of decent shape.

ALDEN: Roger, do you want to take that?

NORIEGA: Sure. I would say that at the American Enterprise Institute we are going to launch in the next two months an initiative to work with Central America, the private sector folks in particular, to address the stubborn obstacles to growth.

As a—as a—you know, we have in the last, you know, ten years created, for example, the Millennium Challenge Corporation that would invest in countries to address their fundamental obstacles to growth, but based on their meeting certain criteria. And frankly, it’s sort of a flagging effort. I mean, there’s still people working on this, but you’ve seen in the case of Central America countries actually lose ground. And in the last six or eight years, El Salvador has lost ground on competitiveness. Nicaragua lost its Millennium Challenge Corporation because of corruption and democracy indicators, I believe.

So you’re right, I think we do—we do need an urgent review of the—of the circumstances and come up with more innovative approaches to break this cycle where we’re actually seeing decline in competitiveness right here in our neighborhood and particularly in Central America. And that is an initiative that we’re going to take up at AEI.

REYNOSO: I would—I would also urge the Council on Foreign Relations to look at—you mentioned—the caller mentioned to do more around the states and these issues. And, I mean, we can’t get more critical than the interface of our domestic policy and our domestic migration and, essentially, our domestic political drama with our foreign policy drama than this—than this question of Central America and the migrants that are—that it seems like every week or whatever, for at least the first—I remember, since the Donald Trump election, we’ve been hearing some version of this story, so I think we need to definitely pay more attention to it and do more, you know, from the foreign policy establishment.

ALDEN: Thank you for the question.

Operator, do we have a final question? I think it will have to be the last one, unless it’s a—it’s a very short one.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question will come from Christina Bain with Babson College.

Q: Thank you so much for your comments today and for speaking to us. My question is actually around human trafficking.

And as we are right now releasing the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report at the State Department, I’m really looking forward to hearing about more what’s going on at the border as it relates to human trafficking. And I was just interested in your opinions on, when we’re talking about human trafficking versus smuggling, I’ve seen in the media a lot of conflation between the two. And they’re related crimes, but separate crimes. So I was interested in your thoughts about how much that’s happening on the U.S. border right now, from particularly the countries that you study, is actually smuggling and/or trafficking and then how much is strictly trafficking. Because I think right now in the media there’s a concept there’s a lot of trafficking going on, but how much of it is really trafficking and how much of it is smuggling?

Thank you so much.

ALDEN: Which of you would like to start on this?

REYNOSO: I’m happy to—I’m happy to address it. They have been—you know, it’s hard to tell. These countries do not keep track, at least domestically. They all have trafficking, antitrafficking laws in place. There are—there are folks in their ministries that pursue these issues. There is little enforcement, frankly, so it’s very difficult to fully grasp the difference in terms of numbers of folks who are either trafficked and/or being smuggled. It’s just—we just don’t—I don’t think anyone has really—has real clear data.

NORIEGA: I would suspect that the people, our U.S. authorities at the border, should have the best data if they’ve ever sort of integrated it into a report. I think they should because they need desperately to make the case that in some cases you have minors that are not family members and they’re not—they’re actually being smuggled. And that is a concern. And I’ve talked to officials and expressed that in the past that they have to be careful that they’re not finishing the final link of a trafficking case by pushing someone onto a guardian that actually isn’t a guardian. So, I mean, I think it should be the U.S. government that should assimilate that kind of data and sort of share it.

I should before I close that the idea of in-country processing is something that’s being touted by some members of Congress that are introducing legislation on this subject. And there was in-country processing starting in 2014, you remember that crisis at that point, but it was suspended in early this year, January of 2018. So there apparently is not an ongoing in-country processing program at this point. And the reason it’s suspended may very well be that it wasn’t very efficient.

ALDEN: And I think that may be a good note to end on here.

I’d like to thank both of our speakers, Roger Noriega and Julissa Reynoso, for a very rich conversation. Obviously, some extraordinary challenges here. And it’s good to get behind what’s been in the headlines for the last several weeks and get a much deeper sense of what’s driving some of the challenges at the border.

So a reminder again that this call was on the record.

And I thank the members for joining us this afternoon. This concludes our call. Thank you.

REYNOSO: Thank you.

NORIEGA: Thank you.


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