Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in the Western Hemisphere

Monday, June 26, 2023

Donald G. Herzberg Professor of International Migration and Former Director, Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University; CFR Member

President, El Colegio de México , A.C.

Director, Migration, Remittances and Development Program, Inter-American Dialogue


Managing Partner, McLarty Associates; CFR Member

Panelists discuss the social, economic, and political factors that contribute to the mass migration of people from Central and South America toward the United States and Mexico and potential U.S. policy responses.

The Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy was established in 2019 through a generous gift from Alan M. Silberstein and the Silberstein family. The lecture provides CFR with an annual forum to explore emerging challenges in refugee and migration policy in the United States and around the world.


HOCK: I’d like to welcome you today to the Council on Foreign Relations Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy. The title of this year’s lecture is “Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in the Western Hemisphere.” I’m Kellie Meiman Hock. I’m managing partner and run the trade practice at McLarty Associates, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

This endowed annual lecture was established in 2019 through a generous gift from Alan M. Silberstein and the Silberstein family. I understand they’re here with us today and we want to thank them very personally. Thank you. This lecture provides CFR with an annual forum to explore emerging challenges in refugee and migration policy in the United States and around the world.

We are delighted to have, I understand, not just the Silbersteins, as well as their grandchildren, Andrew and Mia. Thank you for joining us today to hear our lecture—or, our conversation, I should say.

Unfortunately, due to some travel issues Minister Axworthy was unable to be with us today. You might have heard about some of the air traffic control issues yesterday here in Washington. But we are grateful and excited to host Professor Silvia Giorguli in his place.

So, very quickly, I won’t waste much time on introductions. You have the bios there. But we do have the president of Colegio México, Silvia Giorguli, here with us today; Katharine Donato from Georgetown University; and Manuel Orozco from the Inter-American Dialogue.

As we’re trying to address these issues, I’ll just maybe set the scene very quickly. There’s really two sides of the coin as we are looking at the root causes of migration. We’ve got the socioeconomic realities of Mexico and Central America in an environment of increasing violence, and we’ve got on our side the U.S. failure to enact a coherent immigration reform to try to permit more regular flows despite our having a labor shortage, despite the efforts of the Biden administration to try to enact some more regularity through the regional processing centers and other efforts. It’s still difficult, and an election in 2024 will not make it more easy.

So upon that backdrop, Silvia, I was wondering if you could—I understand you were the co-chair of the World Refugee and Migration Council Task Force on North and Central America, issued a report last year right before the Summit of the Americas with some recommendations.

GIORGULI: Yes, yes.

HOCK: I’m wondering if you could just highlight, perhaps, what some of the key drivers of migration are today. And what’s changed in the last year, if anything? Would love to hear from you. Thank you.

GIORGULI: Yeah, OK. Well, thank you. I’m pleased to be here and I am pleased to be able to share some of the discussion that we have had within the North and Central American Migration Task Force. I’m very sorry that Lloyd Axworthy is not here. He was the one, along with Madeliene Albright, who (convened us ?). And it was a very fruitful discussion because we had people from all the countries in North and Central America except from Nicaragua. So I think we learned a lot about this—within this comprehensive approach, no? So I would just like to mention a few of the—of the main recommendations that came out from the work of this—of this task force, and I think that they are still valid in terms of what we are living today, no?

First is this idea that we do need a comprehensive and regional approach to the management of migration more than unilateral or bilateral agreements to look at more in a—in an open perspective. Of course, one of the acts of the centers of the management of migration goes to addressing the drivers of migration, no—economic drivers; environmental drivers; and now in Central America—well, in North and Central America, and in Mexico also, violence-driven migration.

One of the main conclusions of the—of the group was the idea of increasing the legal pathways to migration, no, both in terms of labor opportunities but also in terms of humanitarian protection. And another lesson learned from what we have seen in the region is the importance of civil society and the work that they have done, that in many cases they have been more effective than certain states to respond to the urgent needs and the humanitarian needs of population on the move.

When you—when we finish this work up to date, I would just like to stress, like, two new things.

One is that when we started the task force we were concentrated in North and Central America. Well, something that we have learned has to do with the heterogeneous flows, is that we probably need to look even more downward and consider it a continental strategy when we talk about regional migration—and we have Colombian migration, Venezuelan migration—and a lot to learn from regional experiences in South America.

And the second thing that I think is new, and it’s a current challenge, is that at least in two of the countries—Mexico and the U.S.—elections are coming soon. And one idea that we push a lot in the task force is the need to change the narrative around migration, no, and try to reinforce the positive aspects of migration, and try to separate this idea of the migration crisis and turn it into the humanitarian protection and the labor opportunities for the whole region. And in election times, that’s going to be hard given that migration becomes centered in election times.

So that would be my initial—

HOCK: Thank you, Silvia. I appreciate that.

Katharine, you also participated in the task force. I was hoping that you might help us to put some of these root causes of migration a bit in the historical context. What have the root causes been? How has that changed over time? And what lessons can we learn as governments both in the region and here in the United States try to address these root causes?

DONATO: Yeah. I mean, the historical context is complex. It is an area of the world where there was a lot of civil war and civil strife in the 1980s in El Salvador, in a variety of countries in Central America. There was not only a lot of violence then, but there was a lot of displacement. And that started a pattern of, you know, fairly significant internal displacement, which then translated into movement through Mexico and coming up to the U.S. border.

And even thought that kind of violence began to dissipate in the 1990s, it’s an area of the world that has continued to—since the mid-1990s that continues to not be totally on stable ground with respect to democracy, democratic processes, with respect to the belief in the legitimacy of the state to take care of me if I’m—something happens. And it’s also an area of the world where there’s been a fair amount of environmental events, big natural disasters—so Hurricane Mitch in 1998, I believe; Hurricane Stan in, I think, 2003 or (200)4; very big storms coming through. And actually, in 1998 when that happened, the U.S. implemented temporary protected status for hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Hondurans who were in the U.S. and could not return.

So the thing is, is that none of these drivers—the initial drivers—operate by themselves. They all interact. But they’ve created enough of a push so that many, many people have left. And I think about 4 million—not counting the recent years of entry, I think 4 million persons born in northern Central American nations live in the United States, and that’s not counting the last few years.

And so the population has grown in the U.S. It’s grown because not only of these drivers, but then all of the family networks. You know, someone gets to the U.S. They get TPS, temporary protected status, which has to

be renewed on a yearly or, you know, every-two-year basis. But then those families who then have a foothold here then can help bring others here.

So this has been a process that’s been going on now for decades. It’s going to be fairly hard to stop even if life, let’s say, in Guatemala and Honduras became less violent and more predictable with respect to climate and therefore food supplies. Even if those structural problems lessen, it still will take quite some time because now family connections are cross-border. And you know, if I haven’t been able to cross and my family’s been in the U.S. for fifteen years, odds are very, very high that I’m going to come.

HOCK: Thank you, Katharine.

Manuel, given these drivers; the fact that, as Katharine’s saying, they are so intertwined; and that, frankly, a lot of them involve the socioeconomic situation in Central America, for example, things that the United States cannot easily impact or control; I was hoping that you might comment on how the U.S. might try to better marry our immigration policy with our foreign policy, with our economic policy going forward. And perhaps you might comment a bit on some of the newer immigration policies enacted by the Biden administration and where we might go from here.

OROZCO: Thanks. I think the way to repair it is to take a higher political risk on the conditions in Central America. I think Katharine pointed out precisely that there has been a pattern of migration since the 1980s, predominantly, that has evolved over time and has established transnational ties. But at the same time, there are cyclical patterns that explain higher-complexity dynamics of migration, of determining migration.

One common thread is the informal economy. The other one is the presence of transnational organized crime networks. The other one is a reluctance by political and economic elites to adopt and bet on democratic rule of law. And the fourth one, which is not new but it has intensified, is the continuity of natural disasters that over time wear you out and have an effect of displacing people internally and eventually externally.

The administration has tried to address these issues not just by building a wall, but by creating the so-called root strategies of migration. It has introduced also some parallel components to it. Academically it’s a nice approach, but the strategy is lacking the political tooth to really address a lot of the problems that are predominantly political.

So you have, for example, a country like Nicaragua with a large migration wave and a dictatorship that is Taliban-style-like, and we don’t have the proportional response to that problem. And with that—with that lack of proportional response, you have in 2022 5 percent of the population migrating that same year.

Then you have another country like Honduras that has been going through one migration wave after another since Hurricane Mitch affected the country in 1998-1999. Since that point migration has been increasing, but the political problems have also increased. And we have a government right now that exuded all of the populist tendencies of establishing a non-democratic rule, and we don’t have the same proportional response.

So we need to have, basically, a Cold Warrior in the foreign policy field in the present today to address these non-cooperative players in the age of complex cooperation. So I think this is—this is one of the main issues.

So you have new immigration procedures, for example the CNV, which is, you know, a cute euphemism from bureaucracy. But CNV, what it’s doing—the Cuba/Nicaragua/Venezuela policy of giving parole to—providing thirty thousand visas—it sounds cute, but it—actually, it’s rewarding those who could migrate but penalizing those who are escaping repression and cannot migrate. So if you want to apply for asylum from Nicaragua, you have to download an app and then say, you know: I’m about to get killed. Please give me asylum. Get me an appointment to get asylum. By the time I get that letter of notification, I might get killed.

So there is a disproportionate response between migration policy and foreign policy, and a disproportionate approach to foreign policy issues in the age of complex cooperation. So that would be my take on it right now.

HOCK: Thank you, Manuel.

And, Silvia, I’d like to ask you a little bit more on asylum. I mean, with the regional processing centers and some of the other steps that the Biden team has taken, you know, are we seeing at least a tilting towards a more regional approach? And you know, obviously, you know, we’re also seeing, you know, regional migration flows where the U.S. isn’t even involved. I mean, look at the number of Venezuelans in Colombia, for example, and you know, sprinkled throughout the region at this point. Are we—are we kind of moving closer to a more regional approach, and—or is there still a long way to go?

GIORGULI: Yeah. Well, I think there’s still a long way to go. So we do have, like, different signals on one side and also related to what Manuel has already referred to in terms of the rule of law and the strength of institutions in the different countries within the continent. It makes it very difficult to move towards a more coordinated, strategic management of all the asylum and refugee applications in general. But on the other side, just not to give, like, a very negative side, just to bring up some positive experiences, we do have very positive experiences in other countries, no?

You were talking about Venezuelans. So we know that the exodus of Venezuelans in the last eight years is about 7 million. Most of them—more than six—around 6 million—have stayed in South America. And we have very good examples of the management of these flows with legal pathways in Colombia, in Ecuador, in Chile, in Brazil. So I think that it’s interesting also to look at those experiences.

I do think—and I want just, like, to follow a little bit on what Manuel has already mentioned—that addressing the drivers of migration, keeping the strategy of cooperation for development in order to attend the causes of migration, is still a very important and one of the main strategic lines to follow when you talk about the regional management of migration. But there are two things that we have learned from the Mexico-U.S. experience for more than one hundred years.

First, that it will take time to have results on one side. And secondly—and that’s new—that, usefully, I think that in a certain way we are—still think a lot of this lever, economic migration, and that’s why it has been so difficult to move to a different way of managing Central American migration in Mexico and in the U.S., no? So, like, trying to change that chip and trying to emphasize more these challenges, such as the rule of law, and strengthening the local institutions, no?

For example, in the case of Mexico, of course there has been a change in terms of refugee and asylum because the way the applications have increased in the last three years. There has been a lot of work with UNHCR—with ACNUR in Spanish, UNHCR in English—but still the institution that is responsible for processing and receiving all the applications in very weak in terms of financial resources and human resources, no? So that would be, like, very close to the U.S. case, where the strengthening of the institutions can be one way to build this more comprehensive management.

HOCK: Great. Thank you.

I’m wondering if, Katharine, we could move from asylum to legal pathways. I know one of the things that you highlighted is having, you know, the opportunity to, you know, in a more regular fashion go and come in order to pursue work opportunities. I know in the work that I do, I mean, the Biden administration and the U.S. government is investing so much right now through the Inflation Reduction Act, through the CHIPS Act, I mean, this real focus on growing U.S. manufacturing. We need workers for that. And I do just personally wonder if a way to take some of the demonization of immigration out of the picture would be to take a more pragmatic economic approach, but I think that’s a little Pollyanna. But perhaps you could just tell us a bit about

the legal pathways that exist today and how, in your opinion, I mean, if just one or two things could be done to tweak those, to make them more effective, what would you do?

DONATO: Yeah. So let’s start by saying in the United States any significant change to legal pathways has to come from U.S. Congress, and we are stuck, right? Congress, not we. (Laughter.) Congress is stuck and unable to develop out legal pathways. So, as a result, the legal visa system that we have in place currently comes from an act of Congress that took place in 1990. And I don’t know one employer in the world that wouldn’t have changed their hiring procedures over the course of three or four decades. So we are talking about an antiquated system.

That said, what the Biden administration—there have been some changes, small, some recommendations from the task force that sync with what the Biden administration has done in the U.S. The regional processing centers, it’s going to take a while to figure out if they’re going to work. But the idea is that perhaps we should have a place where people can go that’s more accessible than coming all the way from Venezuela up through the Darien, up through—all the way up through Mexico, and all the risks that are associated with that kind of movement. Is there—you know, can we develop a place—and the U.S. government is working on this now with two other partners, Canada and Spain.

And not all of every country of these three countries’ visa preferences and visa options will be offered in these regional processing centers, but many will be. And many will be related to work. So the seasonal—the seasonal agricultural visas of the three countries, you can go—it’s a little complicated in the U.S. because the U.S. employers get to apply for those visas, so it’s not clear to me exactly how the federal government’s going to get around this. But there will be an opportunity, we’ve been told, to apply—if you’re, let’s say, from Guatemala and you want to be an agricultural worker in Canada or in the United States, there will be an opportunity to apply for that kind of visa there.

In addition, the Biden administration has actually—because of one of the problems in this antiquated system is that even if you can—you have everything—you have a visa application, you have everything in check to get a visa, let’s say as a relative of your parents—or maybe if your parent’s in the U.S., maybe whatever, but as a relative—there are very, very long wait lines now that can take anywhere between ten years up to twenty-two years currently for many of the visa categories in the U.S. So one of the innovations is—being proposed is that those family reunification visas, if people have everything in place, there is some discretion now that will be given to the actual people who process those requests in the regional processing centers such that, if everything’s in place and everything seems good, you can be paroled immediately in the U.S. and not have to wait those years. So that, to me, is also a pretty substantial shift.

And the final thing I’ll say is with the—sorry, the CNHB—

OROZCO: Oh, sorry. (Laughter.)

DONATO: He forgot about the Haitians.

OROZCO: No, I didn’t.

DONATO: New processing for those from Cuba, for those from Haiti, for those from Venezuela, and then for those from Nicaragua. Now, I’m saying those countries because there are some countries that are left out, right? And the thirty—and so there will be the possibility, should you be able to apply from your home country, should you be able to have a sponsor in the U.S., should you have—there are many rules. But if you meet those criteria, you can come into the U.S. paroled into the U.S. and apply for work authorization. But as Manuel said, that doesn’t cover many of the people who have been displaced repeatedly often and who have faced a lot of, you know, other challenges, so.

But that is an innovation, and you know, it’s an interesting idea to put—to put a regional center in place—they’re in Colombia, I believe, Guatemala maybe—to have regional centers so that people, if they really are needing—if they feel like they need protection, they need to come to the U.S. because they have family in the U.S., that they not try to risk their lives and move through various countries to do so.

HOCK: Absolutely. Thank you, Katharine.

Well, Manuel, as a trade guy I can’t do a panel on this without asking a question on CAFTA, near and dear to my heart. You know, there have been conversations on ways to maybe tweak CAFTA on the margins to make textile and apparel manufacturing easier in the region, through short supply agreements, stressing that, et cetera. About 50 percent of Central American exports to the U.S. roughly are textiles and apparel. The other 50 percent are ag.

What would you say might be a way that we could improve upon CAFTA? I wouldn’t necessarily recommend we try to reopen CAFTA, because reopening a trade agreement is a can of worms and, quite frankly, with just the geopolitical situation in the region I’d be more concerned that some in Congress might want to try to just kick out Nicaragua, or something of that nature, or others that are having challenges. Which certainly doesn’t help economic stability in the region at all, right? So there’s a double-edged sword a bit. But just would love your views on CAFTA, the role it plays, the role it could play with perhaps some improvements in implementation.

OROZCO: Well, I think—look, there is a fundamental problem that emerged out of CAFTA, but it’s not because of CAFTA. And that is that oligopolistic activities strengthen rather than weakened. Competition did not increase out of CAFTA, but actually decreased. There are less than five hundred businesses operating in free trade zones in Latin America—well, a bit more than that, but less than a thousand. But they control the $40 billion industry of exports to the United States.

And in the meantime, you have an increase and continued informal economy. So we need to leverage CAFTA in order to increase competitiveness by reducing the informal economy. How do you use CAFTA for that purpose? It’s basically by increasing certain competitiveness on the value chain of local producers, local manufacturers that could provide or supply more products to businesses in the free trade zones. That’s one thing.

The other thing is you definitely need to be more vigilant of business practices within the sector operating under CAFTA. You have labor rights violations in several places within the free trade zone, or outside it in the mining area, for example. Or you have environmental rights violations taking place. So we have Chapter 16 and Chapter 17 that is underutilized or not utilized at all. For example, Chapter 17, the use of public forums for discussions of environmental trends hasn’t been used since 2019.

So these are ways to deal with the problem of migration, but also the problem of development. Why the problem of migration? Because the common thread explaining migration is working in the informal economy. So the more likely you are to migrate—the likelihood of being in the informal economy increase the propensity to migrate. And if oligopolistic activities have an effect in continuing or excluding businesses from joining the formal sector, then we have to use CAFTA, for example, as a way to mitigate the informalization. But also, enabling the instruments that exist.

I don’t think we need to renegotiate CAFTA. I mean, there are businesses that are freaked out because, you know, their quotas were ended, like the poultry industry. They’re afraid that Central America will become a net importer of chicken from the U.S. I mean, the disaster that would cause to a lot of producers and employees will be significant. But there are ways to leverage it. And we haven’t been that successful at it.

HOCK: More to do.

OROZCO: More to do.

HOCK: More to do. I’m going to ask one last question for any of you to answer before we turn to our members. Just pulling out your crystal ball for a second, what factors do you think will be driving migration going forward as you look around the corner? And are we ready for that? Is it something we can prepare for better? For anyone that would like to respond.

DONATO: Well, let me say that, you know, there certainly has been in the last few years a lot of discussion about climate migration and movement related to climate change in some way—whether it’s direct effects of climate change, or indirect effects of climate change. Let’s say on limiting or creating food insecurity for communities that didn’t have that in the past because of drought, or because of natural disasters.

Now, what I don’t know is if that’s always existed, but we just never emphasized and look at it until, you know, the last ten years, let’s say fifty years ago. But that had to be a driver. But now that we are opening up a conversation here, I do think—and, you know, of course, we are living in the moment of climate, change, whether we live in Mexico City, as we were talking about earlier, where heat is much higher and temperatures are much higher this year than in the past, or we’re living here in Washington, D.C., where we didn’t get to summer until last weekend and it was unusually cool.

So as these changes occur in climate, it will—these changes will have impacts on people’s livelihoods around the world, and I don’t think we’re prepared for that. If there is one-third of a country to the south of us or to the north—Canada—where all of a sudden you cannot produce the kind of agricultural yield that you’ve been able to produce in the past, all it takes is a few years of that kind of insecurity that will move people up and around. So I just wanted to mention that.

HOCK: Silvia?

GIORGULI: Yeah, so it’s—migration is very difficult to anticipate, you know, because migration flows change so rapidly from one year to the other; I mean, it’s a response to unexpected events such as environmental events that Katharine has already mentioned.

But I always like to bring into the discussion the demographic factors because that’s a little bit more certain. We know a little bit more about the demographic factors. Now for example, we know that while Canada and U.S. will continue to be aging, there will be this increasing demand for care workers and other workers. So that we know—that in a way that this need for labor will be increasing in Canada, the U.S.

Mexico is also starting this process of aging. El Salvador is starting the process of aging, no? In fact, the fertility rate in El Salvador is lower than the fertility rate in the U.S., and I like always to give that figure because people—somebody sometimes don’t think about it. And Guatemala and Honduras will eventually get there. Fertility is also going down. So I think when we look at it in a regional perspective and probably a regional frame of mobility, that’s something we also need to take into account.

Aside from the environmental aspects that Katharine already think and regarding the drivers of migration, when I started studying migration in ’90s, the main issue was economic migration. And now the main issue has to do with violence-driven migration. That mixes with economic causes. So I think that the most uncertain factor in the medium term is how the region of Central America and Mexico reorganize institutionally to face the social insecurity and the violent environment.

HOCK: Thank you.

Manuel, any last words from your part?

OROZCO: Well, I think—look, I don’t think violence is the driver of migration. It was ten years ago. Right now, the main driver has been economic and political. There is a political aspirational issue that things are not going to get any better, and therefore you just vote with your feet.

And I think, at least for the next five years, I see the two main drivers of migration will be transnational ties and the continued aspirational issues that you don’t see that, you know—if you look at government like that in El Salvador, Bukele will continue to stay, he will decline in popularity, he will not produce economic growth. You see the populist rhetoric in Honduras is going to deepen the polarization, and continue the violence. Even though it has declined, there is still violence, but more importantly, he has alienated elites. So there is the unified elites in a country that needs at this point a cohesive force.

And in Guatemala, you also see that there is an emerging Mayan elite that it’s been counteracted over and over by the political establishment. And the elections from yesterday gives you a testament that people want change, regardless of how hard the establishment tried to prevent the more popular people to win an election. And so aspirational issues will be a key driver.

You know, it’s not hope; it’s just your expectation that things are going to be the same way there today, so why will I stay if I have relatives or someone I know. So I think those will be drivers.

Climate change, I think it does, to some extent. I mean, there has been a recurrence of events. The data, for example, the northwest dry corridor of Honduras, departments close to El Salvador, are not that populated. In 2012, where we’ve been collecting data at the municipal level shows that, at that time only, 16 percent of the total population migrating was coming from that part. Ten years later, it’s more than 20 percent, and it’s—is it connected, or is it related to the continuity of the drought? Yes. Is it a driver? It just adds one more thing to it. So you are living with that reality.

HOCK: Multiple causes. Well, thank you very much.

At this time, I’d like to invite our members—those here in the room and the over 100 that are participating right now by Zoom, to join the conversation with your questions.

As a reminder, today is on the record. We’ll start with a question from our in-person audience, and if I could remind—if you could introduce yourself and also your affiliation.


Q: Manuel, I want to follow you up on aspiration and take it to education. Many of those answering the survey say I want to go to the United States for an education. Now this is an area where the countries of Central America can themselves—maybe with World Bank help—but improve the quality of education in the country. The Colegio de México stands as an international organization of education. Georgetown has its contacts and its affiliates in the area. But the area that needs it most is middle and high school (in need ?), that these young men and women can find the talents and education to be able to stay in their country and maybe persuade their relatives to return home. Thank you.

HOCK: Manuel?

OROZCO: Look, yes, we’re dealing with a region that has a second-grade education and, you know, corruption aside, the resources that the Guatemalan government have on education are terribly remedial. You know, we have projects in Guatemala, after-education projects in several parts of San Marcos, and the institute—it’s a warehouse with no electricity which schoolteachers, they’ll go there twice a week. So you do need to invest—increase the investment, increase the amount of time.

The challenge is how do you shorten—let’s say, in three years—an eleven-year education gap? I mean, I’ve only seen that happening in some countries like Chile in a short-term gap—five years, not eleven. In the age of the digital economy, it’s a big challenge. And I have to tell you that the investment in education and human capital is not only in primary and elementary, it’s also in colleges. Look, we’re graduating—in Central America we are graduating—two-thirds of the people who are being graduated are not—no, more than three-fourths of people are not in STEM. They’re graduating lawyers, sociologists, et cetera, but no number crunchers. And so, you know, how do you want to be competitive when transformation depends on investing in the knowledge economy?

So we need to work across the board: a political commitment to invest in education. Reducing the size of the informal economy matters because that increases taxes. Only 20 percent of the population actually contributes to taxes. We have to change the model, but that involves political risk.

HOCK: Diana mentioned Colegio de México. Silvia?

GIORGULI: Yeah, I would like to add something. I totally agree with Diana that education should be one of the central issues when we talk about the future of migration and the future of the region. And there are two things—well, first, COVID made more evident the inequalities and increased the gaps—when we talk about technological gaps—and what we have of math tests and reading tests in the region, we know that, as in the rest of the world, it worsened in the COVID years.

But on the other side, I remember in the ’90s there were a lot of programs supporting students from Central America to come, for example, to Mexico to study, to conduct their college or graduate studies, and all those programs have disappeared. We don’t have any more of those resources. So I think that’s a—and it was important in Mexico because English was not a barrier for Central American students in order for them to come to Mexico to finish their college or graduate studies. So that’s something where there can be more investment in the future. And I totally agree that the central population is students in middle and high—in middle-high education; not necessarily at university, but on those middle years.

And the other thing that I wanted to say—and Diana talked about return migration, no? It’s a region with a lot of mobility, a lot of coming back and forth. I was reading a report by the MPI this morning saying there were more than one million return migrants from Central America in the past five, six years. So in a way we have also to think of the region in that way—a region that moves a lot.

Of course, many of the return migration is forced return migration—deportations—but there is also a part of return migration that has to do with family issues, or that has to do with a voluntary return migration. So that’s something also to take into account and consider.

DONATO: And let me just add quickly that that return migration, around the world—when this happens, return migration could actually be part of a good story because when people return after being somewhere else, they’ve learned a lot. Their human capital, what they bring home, is sometimes and often, you know, more than one language, and knowledge of an economy that is quite different from their own economy. So there is opportunity there should countries want to either resolve or take on the politics and the political leadership to actually—you know, you could imagine training people who come back, you could imagine very specific, targeted programs to improve the prospects of return migrants, even if they are deported back to the region.

OROZCO: Well, yeah, I have to say I’m skeptical. My research, my data, my observations show that migrants are staying longer rather than returning. I mean, if I were Honduran or Salvadoran—(laughs)—why do I want to go back there? And—

DONATO: They’re only being—I mean, not voluntarily.

OROZCO: Yeah, well, deportations is one thing; returns is another thing. The number of deported is not higher than seventy thousand people against two hundred thousand people return who arrive at the border. And there are programs dealing with those who are returned. They haven’t been successful.

I think we do need some policy reforms that involve political risk, but to the diaspora or the migrants in the United States, we can motivate their relatives to invest more in education, and we do have evidence and data that shows that investing in education actually reduces the intention to migrate.

So when we have—we have about four million transactions of remittances a month. You know, we are talking about $42 billion in remittances; 18 (billion dollars), 20 billion (dollars) to Guatemala alone. That’s 2.2 million transactions every month to two million households in Guatemala, a country of five million households at most.

So El Salvador has—you know, nearly everyone is getting remittances; like, of one-and-a half, two million households, 1.2 million receive remittances. But in any case, they build savings, and motivating them to formalize their savings, but also to invest in their kids’ education has payoffs. And migrants here want to do that.

What there is not available is a marketplace on investing in education. That marketplace can offer, for example, tutoring services to children, including children of migrants, but also other children—low-cost tutoring services, ten hours a month. It’s revenue-generating, and it reduces—increases the school performance. And now we have the economies of scale—you know, four million transactions, that’s four million households with a kid in every house.

HOCK: Thank you. I think we’ve got a question from one of our virtual members.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Susan Martin.

Q: Thank you. Susan Martin, I’m at Georgetown University. I’m also a steering committee member of the World Council on Refugees and Migrants. And I’d like to thank you for all of the comments that have been made.

The task force particularly emphasized the need for greater protection of women, children, indigenous populations, and internally displaced persons. I think it would be interesting to hear more about what the recommendations are in that area, and how it—I think how we can do more to raise the visibility, but also to provide concrete steps to increase protection.

HOCK: Silvia, as co-chair, shall we turn to you or—

GIORGULI: Yeah, or to—or do you want to answer it? (Inaudible.)

HOCK: You can start.

GIORGULI: OK. (Laughs.) No, hi, Susan. Thank you for bringing out it—in fact, yeah, that was—that is one of the key recommendations of the task force of the group that has to do with the protection of children, women, indigenous population, and internally displaced population.

And first—well, as I was saying before, that I think that many of the ways that we have thought on the management of migration for the last four decade has to do with labor migration. I think it also has to do with adult-centered management of migration. And what is clear now is that the flows are more heterogeneous, no, and that the migratory regimes are not suited to deal, for example, with families with children and residing in the U.S. a few years ago. So now that’s a big challenge. How do you adjust the regulations around migration to

these flows that are new but that—are not new, but now are more visible than before. And I think that’s a big challenge, in terms especially of family units, and in terms of children either traveling alone or traveling with their families, no?

And in terms of internally displaced population—so I think we have now more information than we used to have about internally displaced migration, and therefore, environmental causes are due to violence. And that’s another part of the whole human mobility within the region that we need to take into account. I don’t know if you want to—

DONATO: Well, many, many parents, because of all of the challenges that we’ve discussed, make decisions around either moving parts of their families with young kids, or actually moving young kids alone as unaccompanied kids with what they believe are protections from smugglers and, you know, other family members, et cetera. And one of the things I would like to see, which I don’t really see much movement on, is a regional approach about unaccompanied children.

HOCK: Yeah.

DONATO: There is—you know, there is so much that happens in this—in a migration management system that is regional; that is focused on adult migrants who are largely seeking work. And as a result, the unaccompanied children—first of all, there is no regional approach. There’s really no conversation about a regional approach, and what happens is—because people, families let’s say, to the south of the Mexico-U.S. border, are waiting to try to get a—this is the current situation—they’re waiting to try to get in on the app, to get an appointment so that they could be interviewed to see if they have—they might meet asylum criteria and be able to stay in the U.S. to actually file in an immigration court for asylum with some other form of legal protection—families get desperate. And we saw that during COVID. We saw that at various moments in the last five years where families will take children as young as four, and five, and six, with their siblings, and walk them to the bridge—one of the bridges in El Paso, for example, and with the—you know, the older brother, the older sister, the kids go up the bridge and present themselves to Customs and Border Protection officials. And that’s because the family cannot live in Mexico. They don’t have, you know, any right to work. They are often living in areas that are insecure, even if they are technically in shelters on the Mexican side, let’s say in Juarez.

So families have been making very difficult decisions over the last decade. This has ebbed and flowed, but I would really—I mean, if we cannot politically agree on migration, either in the sending countries and how to manage it, or the receiving countries, could we at least think about the unaccompanied children and sort of come together in that sense.

OROZCO: I think—I think it’s a great idea. But again, it’s a moral hassle.

DONATO: It is a moral hassle.

OROZCO: Look at DACA. One in twenty migrants is an unaccompanied minor since 2019 to the present. Half of them are Guatemalan kids, so one in forty are Guatemalan minors.

DONATO: Well, and each year it shifts a little bit.

OROZCO: But that’s the trend.

DONATO: But it’s—yeah.

OROZCO: And the fact is that, when you talk about protection, we need to be more precise about the protection to get there—

DONATO: Or the protection—

OROZCO:—and to get here. And you are dealing to two different issues, and we are not addressing either, either, because of the adult approach.

But, I mean, DACA is a mess because it’s likely that it will be rescinded, and—

DONATO: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which is DACA, right, which is in the U.S. and—

OROZCO: That’s—and right now it’s only protecting five hundred thousand kids, which are all now adults.

GIORGULI: No longer kids; they are adults now.

OROZCO: But we have—the administration wants to extend DACA to this crowd of kids, and we’re talking about five hundred thousand people now. You know, between 2019 and 2022, five million people tried to come to this country. I mean, five million is a lot—it’s a country moved to the U.S. border. Maybe half made it, or two million made it. The other ones were returned, and billions of dollars spent on that is a big hassle that we haven’t even talked about, all because there is a broken system. But DACA—I mean, it’s like talk about compassionate conservativism. We should have—

HOCK: I’d like to take a question from a member in the room, please.

Q: Hi. Thank you, everyone. Paul Angelo from the Perry Center at the National Defense University.

I just wanted to inquire with our panelists today about the administration of subsidies to prevent people from migrating. I think probably the most famous of these kinds of interventions is the Sembrando Vida program or initiative that was put forward by President López Obrador in Mexico—tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of families in Mexico, later expanded to the countries of the northern part of Central America, encouraging farmers to plant trees in exchange for subsidies that would keep them in place for a period of time, forestall their decision to migrate, if that was indeed on the table. Are there any pluses or minuses to these types of programs? Did Sembrando Vida actually contribute to a reduction in migration from the communities where it was in operation? And is it something that the United States or other countries regionally should be looking to? Thanks.

HOCK: Talk about subsidization to try to keep folks at home.

GIORGULI: Yeah, so first it’s too soon to know whether Sembrando Vida will have had an impact in keeping people in their places of origin, no? I think that one of the things that we will need to do soon is assess the impact of Sembrando Vida and also the way the whole program operated—not because, again, we have this overlap between the social programs and the institutional strength, or the rule of law, or the possibility of some corruption in the management of the program, but we need to take into account.

Secondly, as I already mentioned, I do think that cooperation for development, and creating opportunities in the countries—in the communities of origin is a way to go. But what we know from prior experiences is that it’s something that also takes time to consolidate and to actually present alternatives.

And finally, I would say that something that I learned from working with the task force, and especially from the colleagues from Central America, is that it has to do not only with economic opportunities, but working side by side with the rule of law, with the construction of institutions in the countries and communities of origin, no? So I do agree with Manuel that economics is probably one of the strongest and most continuous drivers of migration, but I also think, from the field work that we have been conducting and from the experiences that we

heard within the task force, that if you don’t have this other part, it’s just economic investment, or creating job opportunities in the communities of origin by themselves will not be enough.

OROZCO: The Sembrando Arbolitos program was a populist foreign policy approach. I don’t want—I’m not being cynical here. It was a complete joke. First of all, three-quarters of migration—no, 80 percent, 90 percent of migration is urban. So it’s like, investing in agriculture, I mean, the whole thing was really an embarrassing approach by AMLO. And it only focused on El Salvador; not even the president of El Salvador took it seriously.

And I think, you know, when you talk about narrative, I agree with you. We need to take migration seriously. I mean, it’s not a narrative issue. Narrative is a stylistic approach of how to describe something. We need to take a different policy approach to a serious political problem—


OROZCO: —and we need to take migration seriously. We haven’t taken it for 20 years, and there is more to it than—sorry. (Laughter.)

HOCK: Thank you. I think we’ve got time for one—no questions online—one last very quick question from the audience. Right here, please.

Q: Hi. I’m Allert Brown-Gort. I’m with the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. Thank you for this opportunity.

I’d like to go back to something that Manuel said. Very specifically he talked moral hazard—moral hazard in migration, taking migration seriously. Silvia talked about UNHCR giving money to COMAR in Mexico to help with refugees, and so on—not enough money, not enough.

But I would say the same thing happens in the United States. The United States invests, creates a whole new bureaucracy when they create the Department of Homeland Security, and starts giving money almost specifically, almost exclusively to ICE and to CBP. USCIS is lost out there somewhere, right? And the problem with enforcement, with thinking that you are going to stop water from flowing, is that it’s self-perpetuating. The more you invest in that, the more you have to invest. The more walls you build, the more you trap people behind those walls, and it gives you exactly what you say you don’t want.

HOCK: We’re about at time, so if I could maybe just get—

Q: Sorry, one last thing.


Q: So in Mexico, for example, one of the things that President López Obrador has learned is that if he does what the United States wants Mexico to do on immigration, they will let him slide on all sorts of other things, and I don’t think it’s the only country that’s doing that.

So how do we change? We don’t change narratives, we change policies?

HOCK: Very fast last word.

OROZCO: We just need political tooth. I mean, we don’t have the—we haven’t invested the political risk to bang the table on countries.

I disagree with you. I don’t think Mexico does what the U.S. tells them to on migration. It’s just I think they dodge the ball and go around in circles.

But we have not been politically decisive on the issues relating to the rule of law and democracy in the region. We don’t have a foreign policy on Latin America. And, you know, the root causes strategy on migration, it’s wonderful. I mean, I really think it works. H-2B visas, for example. But we are not investing on it. So we need the political tooth to really take the problem more seriously, and bang the table, and then you’ll see results, I promise you.

HOCK: Thank you, Manuel. Thank you to our other panelists. Thank you to our members in the room as well as on Zoom. And most importantly, thank you to the Silberstein family for your support of this conversation today.

I would just note that the video and the transcript of this lecture will be posted on CFR’s webpage, and thanks to all of you. (Applause.)


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