Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy: Crisis at the Southern Border

Monday, April 19, 2021
HERIKA MARTINEZ / AFP via Getty Images

Vice President, Deputy Director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; @shannonkoneil

Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, National Security Council (2009–2012)

Senior International Policy Advisor, Arnold & Porter; Former Undersecretary for Political Affairs, U.S. Department of State (2016–2018); Former Counselor, U.S. Department of State (2013–2016); Former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil (2010–2013)


Senior Vice President, Royal Caribbean Group; Former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil (2002–2004), Venezuela (2000–2002), Bolivia (1998–2000), and the Dominican Republic (1994–1997); CFR Member

Panelists discuss the immigration crisis developing at the U.S.-Mexico border due to a surge of individual migrants, families, and unaccompanied children seeking entry to the United States, and the challenges of formulating a government response.

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.

HRINAK: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy. The title of this year's lecture is "Crisis at the Southern Border." I'm Donna Hrinak, 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. The lecture provides with CFR with an annual forum to discuss emerging challenges in refugee and migration policy in the United States and around the world. We have more than 450 members registered for this virtual meeting, and we'll do our best to get to as many questions as possible during the Q&A period.


So before we start our discussion, I'd like to present our three panelists, although I think they do not need any introduction for you. First of all, Dr. Shannon O'Neil. Shannon is vice president, deputy director of studies and Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin American Studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And by here I mean Zoomland as well. Daniel Restrepo—Dan is the senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. From 2009 to 2012, he served as special assistant to the president and senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. And Ambassador Tom Shannon. Tom is senior international policy adviser at Arnold & Porter. He spent most of his career as the career Foreign Service officer serving once as U.S. ambassador to Brazil and ending his career as under secretary of state for political affairs during which period he also served both as secretary of state and deputy secretary of state. Welcome all of you. I have to say we have all known each other for several years, and I can tell you this is a very knowledgeable and entertaining panel. So I look forward to the discussion. And Shannon, why don't we open with you, please. So this lecture is called "Crisis at the Southern Border." These are the headlines we see apply to the discussion of the southern border overall: crisis, chaos, and surge. Can you tell us what is happening at our southern border and maybe place it in some historical context?


O'NEIL: Sure. Well, thank you, Donna. It's a pleasure to be with all of you, and we'll do our best to be knowledgeable and entertaining. So we'll see if we can live up to that. I mean, it is a crisis in some ways where you see a huge number of people coming to the border. Some of them are single adults. Many of them are families with children. Some of them are children by themselves. These numbers have been increasing for well over a year and have now reached a high point. But I would say it's a crisis, yes—but, and the “but” there I would say is that we have for decades had significant numbers of people come to the U.S. southern border entering for economic reasons, for all kinds of reasons. They're entering illegally to come here and work without papers and other ways by applying for asylum, which is a big part of who's coming today. So when we look at this in perspective, it's a crisis today, yes—but. So we have seen numbers like the ones that we're facing today back in the late 1990s, early 2000s. At that time it was mostly Mexicans not Central Americans who were coming to the U.S. border. Many of them fleeing economic crises, fleeing some political problems in Mexico, particularly in the '90s where they didn't find a space for themselves there. We have seen over the last, basically, decade since 2012 or so, we have seen an increasing number of Central Americans coming to the U.S. southern border. So there was a spike or a surge that happened around 2014-2015. We saw another one happen in 2019. And here we are in 2021 and we're seeing it again. So yes, I would say that there's a huge amount of people coming and people seeking refuge, people coming trying to get into the United States. But it is not the first time and it is not out of character, I would say, with those other peaks that we have seen in the past.


And let me just talk a little bit about why. So why in the late 1990s, in 2014, in 2019, and now in 2021 we're seeing this? And there are differences each time, but I would say there's some underlying factors that have been there for many years and will continue to be there that will drive some of these people. So one of them as we all know are economic issues. And so when the economies are not doing well in Central America and Mexico, you see more people leave. So whether there are economic crises in the past, today it's COVID-inspired recessions, you see people leave, searching for opportunities, searching for a way to support themselves and their families by coming to the United States. Another issue that is a big issue, particularly in the last decade or so, has been violence and insecurity. So whether that's from Mexico where you see lots of people leaving Mexico because of insecurity in their towns or in their communities, you see that from Central America. People are leaving because of gang violence or domestic violence in many cases. So violence is something that draws people to leave, sort of, their communities, their homelands in search of somewhere that is actually safe for themselves and in many cases for their families.


And then I think more recently, and I would add this was less the case probably in the 1990s or late 2000s, but increasingly the case is there are climate change reasons why these people are leaving. And so we have seen in Central America, in particular, we've seen, you know, two incredibly, you know, significant hurricanes hit. These are, sort of, once-in-a-century hurricanes. Two of them hit within two weeks of each other. And then we've also seen a record drought through much of the Northern Triangle for northern Central America. That, too, has driven people off of their land as disease and pestilence and in crops changing. So I think there's a lot of reasons why they're being pushed. So those things, many of those will continue and we'll see ebbs and flows in those things.


And the last thing I would say is there are pull factors. And that, too, I think is leading to why 2021 is a year when people are coming here. One is a pull factor that's been there for many years, which is that these people have families, contacts or networks here in the United States. So when you look to leave your nation, you're always trying to find somewhere where you can go and often there are ties here in the United States. And the other is economic opportunity. And as we come out of this, sort of, COVID hiatus, we are starting to see the U.S. economy pick up and grow and so people go where there are jobs. And there aren't jobs in Central America or Mexico right now or fewer of them than there were, and there are many more here in the United States and the prospects for more to come.


HRINAK: So Shannon, would you say that one thing that distinguishes this current crisis from what we've seen in the past is the large number of unaccompanied minors who are attempting to cross the border?


O'NEIL: It definitely distinguishes it from the 1990s or early 2000s when it was mostly adult Mexicans who were coming. We have seen moments in the past, particularly 2014-2015, when there were unaccompanied minors. That was under the Obama administration in trying to deal with the children that were coming or young people, sometimes with families, sometimes on their own. We're back at that. I think what's accentuating the challenge today, one is COVID, is that, you know, the places where often these minors were processed or other, you know, migrants, but particularly minors are processed, you can't put as many people in these places as you used to. So while we may have facilities that can only take 30-40 percent of what they would in terms of processing, that's one of the challenges that we're seeing.


And then I would say the other challenge with these unaccompanied minors is that there's a backlog from the proceeding administration. And so one thing we saw under the Trump administration is what was often tagged the "Remain in Mexico" policy. This was a policy for families and others to wait in Mexico for their asylum cases to be adjudicated. And the Biden administration when they came in decided that they would begin processing these people. So you have sort of this backlog of tens of thousands of families, some unaccompanied minors, but often families with kids that are now being brought to the United States to be processed even as we're seeing an increase in, sort of, new applicants coming from Central America and some from Mexico as well. So I think it's a bit of both. So it's new in the level of unaccompanied minors, but we have seen the growth of families and children coming before.


HRINAK: So Dan, if we can turn to you. We see what's happening at the border. How is the U.S. government responding to this, certainly in terms of the way that the migrants are being treated, processed? And maybe you could talk a little bit about what does it mean to ask for asylum? What are the government's obligations with regard to asylum petitions?


RESTREPO: Certainly, and again, it's a pleasure to be here. And hopefully we'll meet the bar you set for us, Ambassador, in terms of being knowledgeable and entertaining. Asylum is not a topic that is easy to be entertaining about. In terms of kind of what the administration is trying to do, it's trying to do two things at once. Those are establishing a safe, orderly, and humane manner to process folks who are arriving at the U.S. border consistent both with U.S. law and international law, something that the previous administration abrogated almost in its entirety. They crippled the U.S.—well, it was already a kind of deeply flawed U.S. asylum system and was shuttered in its entirety, certainly from the moment that pandemic was declared. No one was entering the United States and no one could under the rules that were established by the Trump administration to enter the United States and make an asylum claim at our southern border from any country other than Mexico itself.


And so the starting point here is a challenging one because, again, even the system that existed before the actions that were taken to cripple the system, you had an overwhelmed asylum system, in part because as Shannon just described, there are mixed flows from this part of the world, right? People are coming for a whole host of reasons but the U.S. immigration system, despite living in the midst of a migratory system, right, that traditionally and historically, certainly, if we go back before the late 1990s, had had a fair amount of circularity built into it. The U.S. system had essentially become a “one door, one place” system of legal entry from either Mexico or the countries of northern Central America meaning people had to come physically to the U.S.-Mexico border and to claim asylum. That was the one door that was available as a legal mechanism to enter the United States. And, quite frankly, more people were claiming asylum than merited it under existing U.S. law, again, even prior to the Trump administration, because the definitions of asylum are actually quite narrow under U.S. law and particularly as applied to the circumstances that cause folks to flee the countries of northern Central America, the kind of gang-derived violence, which is most of the violence. Very little of violence is state-sponsored violence. State-sponsored violence is a much easier bar to make an asylum claim, to have a colorable asylum claim when you arrive in the United States and however you arrive. But when you're fleeing something other than state violence, it is far more complicated under existing U.S. law and under existing U.S. immigration court interpretations of whether folks who are fleeing these kinds of gender-based violence and violence perpetrated by gangs are even eligible to claim asylum in the U.S. system. And we have, quite frankly, a quite arduous process through the immigration courts. Immigration courts where you have more than a million cases now backed up of asylum claims.


So we have a “one door, one place” problem. That one door is not a particularly applicable door to the vast majority of migrants who are coming from northern Central America and Mexico, even those who are fleeing violence. And what the administration is trying to do is kind of fix all of that at once during a pandemic. And what do I mean by fixing that all at once? So, meeting our obligations to provide territorial access to the United States under international law for people to present asylum claims is kind of the first step in that process. The administration is only doing that in part. So with unaccompanied minors, it is now fulfilling that obligation. It is it is allowing minors encountered between ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border to remain in the United States and to have their cases processed under existing U.S. law. That has created the, kind of, housing challenge and the processing challenge that Shannon spoke of earlier and that we all are reading about. The numbers of unaccompanied minors are at historic highs at the moment. And you have a system, again, in the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the department of HHS that is overwhelmed that in the best of times wasn't really up to this task. These are not the best of times for the reasons Shannon has stated and, again, because of kind of the crippling actions of the prior administration.


So the administration is trying to ramp up the processing capacity for that group of people. It is also now kind of unevenly, quite frankly, addressing cases where families are presenting asylum claims. Some are being returned to Mexico under a CDC order on public health that was issued under the Trump administration and has been maintained by the Biden administration—Title 42. We'll probably mention it along the way. That's what people are talking about when they mentioned Title 42. And then single adults are being—our system actually is relatively adept at handling the immigration claims of single adults, particularly from Mexico because there's a very low incidence of asylum claims. And there's a pretty expeditious system of removal back to Mexico for folks who are encountered between ports of entry and who are unauthorized to be in the United States. So the administration is trying to ramp up the processing capacity. Also I think in the coming days and weeks we will see an effort to create a functional asylum system. One perhaps that puts more adjudication in the hands of asylum officers versus the courts in the hopes of making it, while still addressing kind of due process concerns, a much quicker turnaround process for people who are making asylum claims so that those who should have access to asylum in the United States get that access quickly and those who don't, don't, and get returned more quickly in part to send a message to folks who are coming, again, to that one door without really a colorable claim at that one door.


And finally the administration is also trying to address the various reasons why folks are coming, both kind of the acute causes. Shannon mentioned the storms and COVID. You've seen a ramp up of humanitarian assistance largely on food security issues, again, in northern Central America. There's been a push initially to provide more vaccines to Mexico. My hope is that the next step in that process, as the United States has surplus supplies, is to push it further down the migratory chain. But finally also to start opening doors or creating lines that folks can get an alternative pathway as kind of the shorthand to provide means either protection mechanisms much closer to home for those who need protection, but also to open family reunification processes. So folks who have a legitimate claim to reunify with their families in the United States can do that from their home country rather than having to come to the border in the way they do now. And finally, labor pathways. There are temporary labor needs in the U.S. market. There is a supply of labor in the region, and restoring the circularity of that labor movement, actually, I think is a fundamental piece of addressing, again, we live in a migratory system, we need a systematic response to that to order it so that we don't have people all trying to come to one door at one place on the U.S.-Mexico border.


HRINAK: So if we didn't understand this as a multi-faceted issue before we began, I think we really understand that now. Tom, so we've talked about the source countries, the Northern Triangle countries, and Dan has explained some of what the U.S. government is trying to do. What are those governments trying to do—Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras—and do you see a difference in the way those governments are responding?


SHANNON: Thank you very much for the question, Donna. What a pleasure to be on this panel with Shannon O'Neil and Dan Restrepo. I think they've both done a great job in laying out the causes, the pathologies that lie behind the challenge that we're facing right now, but also the way in which the Biden administration is trying to address the challenge along our southwest border. I guess I would just note that, for me at least, crises come and go. I think what we're seeing along our frontier is a chronic condition. And it is something that reflects problems that radiate out of Central America at this point in time, but also reflect the very real challenges that our law enforcement structures and our laws and regulations and administrative justice structures have to manage this. As we look towards the countries of Central America, especially the countries of the Northern Triangle countries, they have been caught in a back and forth of U.S. policy that has left them a little bit exhausted and more than a little confused. I had the pleasure and the honor of working with then Vice President Biden when he led the U.S. effort to address the southwest border crisis in 2014-2015. He pulled together the interagency not only to ensure that domestic agencies had the resources necessary to prevent our structures along our southwest border from being overwhelmed, but also that we began the engagement with the countries of Central America, especially the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, to begin to attack the smuggling organizations, to strengthen their border security, and then to go after the underlying causes of this migration, which I think Shannon and Dan did a great job in laying out.


And what we learned from that, first of all, is that you can reduce to a certain extent the pressure along the border by trying to interdict movements of peoples through Central America and through Mexico. You can reduce the pressure somewhat along the border by going after the smuggling operations and especially in the source countries that are recruiting people to move north into the United States or towards the United States. And you can begin to think about how you change U.S. law and regulation to make our handling of people along our southwest border more able and more reflective of the contemporary nature of the people who are moving. But the reality is until you begin to address the problems that are driving people out of Central America, we're always going to be in a reactive mode. We're always going to be at risk of being overrun along our southwest border. And what was done in the creation, first of the U.S. strategy for Central America and then the Alliance for Prosperity, which was created with the three Northern Triangle countries, was a well-financed, well thought-out effort that brought together not just the resources of the U.S. government and of multilateral development banks, like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, but also the resources of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which were significant, in order to go after or address the problems in the communities where migrants were leaving from. That meant in Guatemala, the Western Highlands, the mostly indigenous communities where people were fleeing drought, malnutrition, lack of educational opportunities, and lack of job opportunities or in Honduras and El Salvador with either the natural disasters and extreme weather events that Shannon noted or gang violence and general insecurity.


But what was striking at that time is that we were able to use analytical tools that we have developed, oddly enough, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, to clearly identify where migrants were coming from. In other words, we knew where the communities that people were vulnerable and were at risk. We knew what was happening in those communities, and we knew how to begin to do interventions in those communities working with host governments. Regrettably, all those efforts were shut down during the Trump administration. The Trump administration initially bought into this process. In fact, Vice President Pence even went to Florida at one point to meet with the leaders of the Northern Triangle countries. But shortly afterwards the decision was made that this was going to be treated as a southwest border issue, it was going to be treated as a law enforcement issue, and therefore the larger effort to attempt to address the underlying causes of migration was going to be stepped aside. And, in fact, the aid that was being used for that purpose was turned into a weapon of sorts in order to gain leverage on these countries and require them to make agreements with the U.S. government that, in the minds of the Trump administration, would slow down the movement of people through Central America and through Mexico.


While it might have had a short-term impact, it did not address the fundamental problems that are driving this. And unfortunately, we've lost more than three years in this process. And so now we have to reengage. But as we reengage, we're going to be reengaging with a very different Central America, in a very different Northern Triangle because of changes in government and because of real uncertainty about what the U.S. wants at this point in time and how best to engage. And so I would argue that while the countries themselves are attempting to address the border problems and the smuggling problems, they are addressing individually some of the issues that are driving this. Of the three, El Salvador has probably been the most successful in addressing security issues. But even El Salvador faces really significant problems at this point in time. Honduras and Guatemala are attempting to deal with drought, with significant malnutrition in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, and with the results of extreme weather conditions where they just don't have the capability and the resources necessary to do the interventions that are required. But the international community does and this is really where I think the United States, as we begin to engage with our Central American partners, this is what we have to focus on.


And let me just close my initial comments by drawing on something that both Shannon and Dan talked about, which is the pull factor. Not everything is a push. There is a pull factor. And we, I think, are going to have to come to terms with a fact, which is that the countries in the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—the populations of these countries, the societies of these countries have become transnational. Fully one-fourth of these countries lives in the United States. And this creates a movement and a back and forth, which is always going to attract people, even those who are not an extremist. For many young Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans, this is almost a rite of passage, to go to the United States to show you can do this, to get a job, and then to return. And we really need to find a way to understand the transnational nature of this and to promote what Shannon and Dan called circularity. In other words, convincing people that you can come for a short period of time and then return to your home country either having gotten the education or the resources from a job or whatever it is that that you went in search of. Many do not come here with the intention of living in the United States forever. They are deeply rooted in their cultures. They are deeply rooted in their communities. But once they get across our frontier, we've been good enough at strengthening that frontier. It's like a one-way filter. You get through it, but you can't come back. We need to rethink that.


HRINAK: Okay, again, a lot of other issues. And thank you for bringing in the multilateral dimension, which I also think is really important. So I'm going to try to squeeze in one lightning round of questions and answers before we turn the Q&A over to our members. So, Shannon, one minute, please, on Mexico's role in all of this and how this is affecting the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship.


O'NEIL: Mexico has been a wall against the flows of Central Americans coming up. That didn't start just in the last few years. There has been a militarization of the southern Mexican-U.S. border with Central America that was begun much earlier. But the AMLO [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] administration really played a significant role there. They have created a new National Guard. A big part of the role of that new National Guard has not been just internal Mexico security, but stopping migrants coming up from Central America. When AMLO came into office, he had sort of this idea that he's going to be very open and invite immigrants in, and then after about two weeks when many immigrants came in he stopped that. And there are a lot of domestic reasons for AMLO to want to keep Central Americans in Central America. So there, I think, there is some, you know, some cooperation that's easy because it's in the interest of both countries to slow the movement, particularly of Central Americans out of Central America through Mexico. The one thing I will say is AMLO has taken a bit more of a—abrasive is probably too strong a term—but a little bit more of a prickly approach to the Biden administration than he did to the previous administration in part wanting more in return for stopping Central Americans.


And the last thing I would say, I'm probably over my minute, is that as I look forward, I think one of the biggest things to watch is more Mexicans coming to the United States. We've already seen that over this last year is the number of Mexicans coming from the States has grown. We used to have sort of a flat or net negative or more Mexicans were leaving than coming. Now we're seeing more Mexicans come and a lot of the issues, a lot of things AMLO has done in terms of the domestic economy, in terms of security issues, and the like, I think we'll see more Mexicans looking for opportunity north for the very reasons Tom and Dan were saying where they have contacts here and the like. And also AMLO can't stop Mexicans from leaving the country. They have a constitutional right to emigrate if they so choose. And you don't have all those, you know, many hundreds of miles between Mexicans and the U.S. border. So as I look forward, Mexico has been helpful, they will continue to be helpful in terms of Central Americans, but looking forward, I think we will see more Mexicans looking to migrate to the U.S.


HRINAK: Okay, Dan, here's a one-minute challenge. How does this all play into U.S. domestic politics?


RESTREPO: Nervously, I think, certainly for the Biden administration. I think we saw, although it's an adjacent issue, the handling or the mishandling of the refugee cap issue this past Friday. I think it underscores that the Biden administration is nervous about the politics of this issue. If you look at the approval numbers that the President has at the moment by issue, really the only issue that he's below 50 percent, and he's above sixty on some, is on immigration and it's at forty-one. I think you're seeing Republicans in Washington want to spend a lot of time focused on the border, quite frankly, in a rather cynical manner given their complaints of the lack of humanitarian treatment of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border after four years of silence on that front. But there is an undeniable domestic and political dynamic here. One last thought this has not been a particularly effective electoral issue for Republicans when Donald Trump himself has not been on the ballot. And the real—


HRINAK: I think we've lost you there. Are you back?


RESTREPO: Electorally this has not resonated as a particularly effective issue for Republicans when Donald Trump himself has not been on the ballot. And I think the true electoral politics of this will depend an enormous amount on what the border looks like in the summer of 2022, rather than what the border looks like today.


HRINAK: So Tom, your one minute. Can you talk a little bit about how Washington is looking at the three countries, in particular, of the Northern Triangle and where you see allies toward a real multilateral solution or a much more holistic solution to the issue in Washington?


SHANNON: Washington continues to focus on the Northern Triangle countries as the source countries and continues to focus on Mexico as the transit country. This is good. I would argue, though, that Central America really needs to be understood in a larger way because the Central American problem, while it radiates right now are the three countries, it actually involves Colombia, and the other countries, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua before you get to Mexico. And so I would argue for a larger approach because bringing in the countries of Costa Rica and Panama, in particular, could be helpful and involving the Colombians and Mexicans in this regard could also be helpful. But we're looking at, as I mentioned, three countries in the region that are distinct and different with different styles of political leadership, and it's going to require real engagement and serious engagement by the Biden administration in Central America if they're going to build the kind of cohesiveness that will be necessary to address this problem.


HRINAK: And is Ricardo Zúñiga's appointment a step in that direction?


SHANNON: It's certainly a step in that direction. There's probably nobody who knows the region better than Ricardo and someone who is known within the region and he has a great level of respect and confidence. But it's going to require engagement from the highest levels of the Biden administration.


HRINAK: So at this time I'd like to invite our members to join the conversation with their questions. Let me just remind everyone that this meaning is on the record, and Kayla will remind you of how to join the question queue. Kayla?


STAFF: We'll take the first question from Kezia McKeague.


Q: Good morning. Thanks so much for the very interesting discussion today. I'm Kezia McKeague with the Latin America team at McLarty Associates. You've talked a lot, of course, about the root causes of migration from Central America. And while there's a good deal of a very appropriate focus on issues like rule of law, good governance and security, I think access to jobs is also a huge piece of this. Would you have any thoughts on how to look for low-hanging fruit within CAFTA [Central America Free Trade Agreement], which is now approaching its fifteenth anniversary this year, to make it a better vehicle for job creation, particularly in the Northern Triangle countries? Thank you so much.


HRINAK: I'm going to direct that question toward Tom first, as someone who was in the U.S. government when CAFTA was approved, and then of course, Shannon and Dan, feel free to jump in as well. But, Tom, what's your response to that? Do you see opportunities?


SHANNON: I do and I would mention a couple. First, we have to respect CAFTA as an agreement between the United States and the parties. CAFTA was used in the previous administration as a tool and its long-term validity was actually called into question by the way in which the Trump administration was prepared to use access to U.S. markets as a way to pressure Central American countries. The extent to which you use a free-trade agreement like that to promote very specific policy goals, you undermine the confidence of investors. So I think a kind of return to normal procedures or regular order in CAFTA is important. That's number one. Number two, you know, CAFTA is now showing some age and is not necessarily structured in a way that reflects the twenty-first century economy. And so it's worthwhile taking a look at aspects of CAFTA in order to see how we can enhance CAFTA's attractiveness, especially in regard to investment because jobs coming out of Central American are going to require investment. And then let me make one other point, which is not directly related to CAFTA, but when you think about NAFTA and CAFTA, one of the dreams of those of us working on Central America has been to find a way to connect both the electrical grid and the oil and gas grids, especially natural gas grids coming from Mexico and Central America. It's been hard to do because of the different regulatory structures of the Central American countries and the way in which some countries like Guatemala attempt to, kind of, trap revenues as they come through into Central America. But I think that the United States and Mexico could do a lot to generate economic growth and development in Central America if it could provide energy at a reasonable price.


O'NEIL: All that is—I totally agree with that. I think there's one other opportunity right now for Central America and somewhat for Mexico but particularly for Central America, which is that, you know, these are the buzzwords of today but in the COVID era, we're rethinking global supply chains and where people put things. And I do think there's some fluidity in some of these sectors that there hasn't, frankly, been before. And you know one of those for Central America that's quite important is the apparel industry. And for a different research project I'm working on I've been interviewing some people in North Carolina and parts of the United States but then also some people in Central America. And there's an opportunity right now to bring some of these apparel industries and apparel making back from Asia given, sort of, changing U.S. consumers and sort of e-commerce where, you know, it taking eight weeks to get over on a boat versus two to three weeks from Central America makes a big difference. And Central America historically has been more willing to do kind of smaller batches where you make, you know, just a sort of fast fashion where you just make a few of things rather than, you know, huge, huge orders that come in from Asia. So I do think there's a space here as we're seeing a rejiggering of where people are putting stuff or at least rethinking of it in boardrooms. And there, I think, the U.S. government could help with some of the, you know, Export-Import Bank or some of the financing to, kind of, get some of these, you know, some of these pilots back to Central American as were thinking about it. And these provide real jobs for people. It's a place that’s sort of an entry level that isn't the high-tech entry level, the Intel's and the like, who tend to go to Costa Rica. It's sort of in that middle or even lower skill set that's been quite useful. So I think there's some targeted places using CAFTA as the umbrella for the U.S. to help.


HRINAK: I think both your comments reflect something that we too often overlook, which is the role of private sector. We talk about what our government is doing, but not what the private sector can do to create jobs. So great. Dan, any thoughts along these lines? Or shall we move on?


RESTREPO: One real quick thought and that is we can't ignore corruption here. The private sector, particularly U.S. multinationals as they look where to invest, have to be cognizant of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. And these countries have real issues with corruption at the highest levels. And so, yes, private investment is fundamental, but the conditions for that private investment, CAFTA, is part of that. But the local rules of the game and how the game is actually played locally matters tremendously. I think that's an area of focus for the Biden administration, as well it should be.


HRINAK: Absolutely right. Okay. Thank you, Kezia. And Kayla, could we have the next question, please?


STAFF: We'll take the next question from Jenna Ben-Yehuda.


Q: Hi, everybody, Jenna Ben-Yehuda, Truman National Security Project. It's so great to see you all up on the screen. I wish we were all in-person. You know, as I think about the engine revving up again on assistance, and assuming an appropriation goes through at a meaningful level, we turn quickly to the question of political will. And I'd love your comments on to what extent you believe the receiving governments in the region are in a position to do the kind of deep meaningful work to make measurable change in this moment. As Tom noted, a lot has happened in the last three years when some of these initial conversations were happening. What do you sense as you take the temperature around willingness to Dan's point on anticorruption, I think it’s really important, of these host governments to do the work that's required to really move the ball forward? Thanks.


HRINAK: So Dan, maybe we could start with you at the beginning of Jenna's question about the possibilities of an important amount of appropriation being directed toward the issues.


RESTREPO: So first, I think U.S. assistance dollars are more important on the acute causes of migration than on the root causes of migration. So in terms of food assistance, cash for work, rebuilding communities, those sorts of things, I think U.S. assistance can and needs to help move the needle. I'd put vaccines in that bucket as well. In terms of root causes, I actually think U.S. political influence is far more important than the dollars and cents that the United States government will put to this task. This fundamentally is a question of disrupting the corrupt power structures that have created the conditions in the societies that make them unsustainable for a vast majority of people who live in these societies. And that's not a problem you solve with U.S. assistance dollars. U.S. assistance dollars, I think, will and should be funneled as much as possible through civil society organizations and community-based organizations that are actually on the ground in the communities that, as Tom pointed out, we know the communities most in need and most sending and to focus our efforts there. But I think the governments here are very much necessary, but I actually view them as very much limited partners. And particularly to the extent that they are beholden to these corrupt power structures, I think the U.S. needs to use its full weight and force to go after those corrupt power structures and deny those folks access to the United States both physical and financial and perhaps even commercial. I think that the elites that have built this problem, the thing they most fear is having to live, work, and do business exclusively in their own countries. And I think the U.S. shouldn't be shy about using that leverage.


HRINAK: So Tom, would you like to disrupt the corrupt power structures?


SHANNON: Yes, obviously. But at the same time, it's important to understand that if we're going to tackle this problem in the long term, as Dan noted, we have to do it politically. And we have to do it in a way in which the different factors of power in these countries feel they have something to be gained by it over time. And that means protecting themselves from predatory politics and predatory corruption, which does not just come out of an enriched class, it also comes out from gang structures from cartels, from a whole kind of transnational world of criminal criminality, which is very difficult and problematic. And therefore, I really do think that we're going to have to prioritize and stage. In other words, prioritize assistance to address acute problems, understand the politically rooted nature of some of the behavior we see in Central America that is the cause of some of the challenges we're facing today. But we then also recognize that in order to change that we're going to have to be working closely with the societies and communities in the three countries that we're dealing with and identify those political leaders who can have an impact, who know how to get things done, who are prepared to work with us, and realize that this is really what our diplomacy is going to consist of. It's going to consist of working deeply in the institutions in these societies and then in the communities themselves. We've done it before. I mean, during the 1980s and early 1990s when we were fighting insurgencies in the region and then trying to build peace processes that worked out of it, we had this kind of very engaged approach and I think we need something similar.


HRINAK: Shannon, you've written a lot about violence in Mexico, gang violence and drug violence. If you just say a few words commenting on what Tom just said regarding the structure of violence in the Northern Triangle.


O'NEIL: Yes, I mean that is a huge challenge for migration. And partly, I mean, one of the big challenges in the Northern Triangle is gang violence, right, and it's sort of the lack of a rule of law and this alternative power structure that's within communities and who controls different communities and the extortion. I mean, the various rackets that go along. And so much of it in Mexico is cartel oriented and has been drug related, but increasingly in Mexico, but especially in Central America, it is local gangs that, you know, extort local businesses or threaten families and the like and cause people to flee. You know, the other serious challenge, particularly in Guatemala but in Central America, in general, is gender-based violence. And that is a real reason particularly that families flee, right? It's the mother and kids who are fleeing gender-based violence. And so those kinds of interventions that need to happen are much earlier. They involve all kinds of educational initiatives and violence prevention programs in schools. It's a different set of challenges and potential interventions and programs that might make a difference. And then the last thing I would just reiterate what both Tom and Dan were saying, and Dan has actually written about this for Foreign Affairs, but if you're going to address the root causes of the problems in Central America, corruption is one of the main ones, right? It's not just climate change. It's not just violence. Part of the violence that happens is because corruption is so rampant and so you have to get at that to make society safer, more fair, equitable, and provide job opportunities.


HRINAK: Okay, thank you, Jenna. And Kayla, could we have the next question, please?


STAFF: We'll take the next question from Earl Anthony Wayne.


Q: Hey, everybody, thank you for your good comments. So clearly this is going to take a while, a concerted effort. So in the near term, what do you think we should start doing about the idea of having a temporary or seasonal rotational worker problem? What steps should we take to get that in place? Because there's a need in the United States, and it doesn't take a lot of skill. You can start providing jobs. Secondly, what do you think about the idea about cash-for-work programs in the very near term and doing infrastructure and other public service goods if we really want to try to take some steps that can slow this flow down in a more humanitarian and supportive way? Thank you very much.


HRINAK: Thank you, Earl Anthony. It's good to have you on the call. Shannon, maybe you'd like to—you mentioned the possibility of work programs.


O'NEIL: So we saw on day one the Biden administration proposed a broad immigration bill. And I think we all knew that that wasn't going to pass and in some ways it was a signal to a change in approach on these issues. And now I think the real question is can any parts of that bill get passed? And so the one that people talk most about is the Dreamers, you know, the people who came here as young children, letting them stay and giving them some path to a regularization of their status. I think the other one that we're going to hear a lot more about, particularly as the second half of the United States' economy takes off and is growing six, seven, whatever percent it's going to be growing, is we're going to see a labor shortage, particularly services industries and other places as you see this ramp back up. I think there is maybe some political space, though, it's tough times. But there may be some political space to at least have a real discussion about some kind of guest worker program. Guest worker programs, you know, at the high end, we are talking about that but particularly across the skill set and the kinds of skills that Central Americans and Mexicans have. But that's what needs to be done, right? Dan, you've alluded to this, but we need to have a path so people can actually come here in a legal manner and work for a while and then go back. And, you know, we have had those paths in the past. The politics of the United States didn't look quite like they do today when we had those kinds of paths. But in terms of demand that we're going to see in the United States, we're already seeing, but we're going to see in the United States in terms of supply, obviously, what we're seeing, in finding a way to make this legal and to ease these paths would solve a lot of the problems that we're talking about today.


HRINAK: Dan, I see you nodding as Shannon is speaking.


RESTREPO: And so 100 percent. The politics are complicated, but not impossible. There's not a solution set here in terms of creating a system to mitigate and manage migration over time, but rather than to try to deter and prevent it, which is what we've been trying to do for the last thirty years and it hasn't worked. That doesn't include more expansive access to temporary low-skilled labor, and again, particularly from northern Central America both in the agricultural sector under H-2A's, but also non-agricultural under H-2B. One thing is creating the slots, right, creating the visas, creating the capacity to accept. But that's actually only half of the challenge. Maybe not even, it's probably a quarter of the challenge. The other thing that the administration, and working in partnership with growers and other employers, is going to have to be very deliberate about is outreach efforts into communities in northern Central America. We have a pretty set-up system as Ambassador Wayne knows. In Mexico, that works pretty efficiently and effectively. We don't have that infrastructure in the countries of northern Central America. We need to be very intentional about building that infrastructure to actually have the effect on that you would want to have in the sending communities. And very important, these systems are flawed as they exist today in terms of the protections that are afforded to these workers. That needs to be fixed, whether you're going to extend it to northern Central America or not. We need greater labor protections in the United States for these temporary workers when they are here, and I think that's part of the possible, if you will, that the politics are complicated, but not impossible. This may also be an opportunity to improve working conditions for temporary workers so that there is less political resistance here in the United States.


HRINAK: Okay, thank you for your question, Tony. And Kayla, could we have the next question, please?


STAFF: We'll take the next question from Carlos Pascual.


Q: You have successive ambassadors [inaudible]. Thanks to all of you for laying out the agenda. And you've really very powerfully laid out the longer-term and mid-term agenda of things that need to be done and the fundamental issues that need to be addressed. And, you know, I keep going back and thinking about all we've been dealing with over decades, over gang violence and extortion and corruption and they're not short-term issues. In the meantime, there's a massive, acute short-term political problem. And as all three of you have indicated in different ways, it's an issue that needs fundamental political attention. We all know that there are no magic bullets on this, but if you were to redirect in the near-term political effort and emphasis in a direction where it could have an impact on mitigating the acuteness of an agenda of an issue that could really derail the Biden administration for many other things that are its top priorities, where would you go?


HRINAK: So, Tom, this sounds like the kind of question you must deal with every day in your current role.


SHANNON: All right. Well, first of all, Carlos, thank you for being here. And Tony, also, it's wonderful to have you and it's a great group of people watching this and asking questions. So thank you very much. I think in the short term I would put significant resources into the Western Highlands of Guatemala in addressing drought issues. I'd also put significant resources into northern Honduras and elsewhere, the areas that have been ravaged by tropical storms and hurricanes. Because if you go to the border now and you start talking to especially Hondurans and Guatemalans that are coming across the frontier, that's why they're coming. It's because their communities have been destroyed or because they can't eat. And there's a way we can intervene in the short term to at least buy some breathing space. And then, you know, working on the security side and trying to see to what extent we can stabilize some of the larger communities that have become sources of migrants. In Honduras, for instance, San Pedro Sula, a whole area around San Pedro Sula. And then try to learn from El Salvador as El Salvador, you know, begins to show some significant success in taking on gang violence and trying to reduce the impact of gang violence on Salvador. So I do think there are a couple areas where you could address things immediately, but always with the recognition, as you said, that this is a long haul that we're going to have to work on.


HRINAK: So we're coming near the end of our hour. Thank you for your question, Carlos. And Kayla, I think we do have time for one more question.


STAFF: We'll take our next question from Martha Doggett.


Q: Yes, thank you. I think it's, of course, not surprising that migration in the southern border have become such hot-button issues so quickly in the new administration. And it's also admirable that the administration is tackling both developing a just and humane orderly system for processing the migrants as well as addressing the root causes. But as those of you who have worked in previous administrations, attempts at addressing root causes in the past have been made with limited success. And an emphasis has been placed today on corruption as an issue. But there are two other contributing factors that I wondered if you could address and one of them is the drug usage in the United States and then the flow of weaponry from the United States to the south to these countries. Because I'm convinced that without tackling both of them, you're not going to be able to make a certain dent in migration over the long term if you don't address those domestically. So to what extent is the administration including these factors in its planning for addressing the root causes of migration? Thank you.


HRINAK: Dan, I'm sure you dealt with these issues where you were at the NSC. Can you talk about them from today's perspective?


RESTREPO: Certainly. Shannon and I served on a commission that looked at Western Hemisphere drug policy for the U.S. Congress recently. I'll let her comment on those and stick to the weapons for a second. Look, there's—absolutely. Martha is 100 percent correct that a significant, at the very least, exacerbating the dynamic here is the flow of weapons from the United States to Mexico and to the countries of northern Central America. It is not a geographical accident that the highest levels of homicide by firearm in the world is in the immediate near abroad of the United States. We need to address that. Obviously, the politics of anything related to sensible gun regulations is very difficult, and quite frankly, makes the politics of immigration look simple and straightforward, unfortunately, and doable. But over the long haul, the United States has to disrupt the criminal enterprises that traffic in legally purchased weapons in the United States in some instances, but oftentimes illegally purchased weapons. It is a tough enforcement challenge, but it absolutely has to be part of the solution set here. But again, the politics of gun regulations is exceedingly difficult as everybody on this call knows, and as I certainly lament and lamented when in government and continue to do so. I don't know if Shannon wanted to comment on the counter-narcotics aspect of all of this.


O'NEIL: I mean, as we all know, this has been a huge challenge for governments as we're the biggest consumer of Latin American drugs. While we, you know, take them, imbibe in them, and use them here, the downstream effects of the growing and the transiting have, you know, huge devastating consequences on the communities that touch them. And that hasn't changed even as U.S. drug use has changed, as we've moved away from some plant-based, you know, away from cocaine and others towards fentanyl or some of these other synthetics. It's some of the reasons and the ways that happens changes, but not the devastation on communities. As I look at U.S. policies towards Latin America and as Dan was saying, we did this for a congressional commission over the last eighteen-plus months, you know, when the United States government has focused on citizen security as the goal rather than just interdicting drugs or stopping the drugs that are coming to the United States, that seemed to have a better effect all around. And that seemed to be much more important. I think, frankly, as we think about violence or insecurity as pushing migration, it's not just that drug gangs are moving illegal substances north. It is that, but it's also that they branch into all sorts of other activities. It's when Mexicans or Central Americans become prey to these drug cartels because they're extorting or they're kidnapping or they're harassing or these other things where I think those tend to have the more life and death decisions where people decide to leave then, you know, tons of cocaine or other things moving through. They both matter. The money that comes from the drugs matter a lot. But this idea of citizen security and feeling safe in your home, I think, is really the thing that influences decisions to get up and leave. And so as the U.S. government thinks about drugs, and drug supply and drug demand, I think that obviously should be part of this conversation. But if you can create a safer place in these communities in Latin America, then I think fewer people—because it all comes down to individual decisions or family decisions to leave. And I think if it's a safer place and as you calculate the costs and benefits and you think about leaving, you can change that calculation at least for some of these people. And that in the end is the goal that people have a choice or feel they have a choice to stay in the communities where they are today, and that they don't feel that the only way that they will protect themselves or their children or their extended family is to leave.


HRINAK: So, Tom, you've looked at these issues for a number of years, not to date either one of us, from very different perspectives, some final thoughts on corruption and drugs and weapons? How receptive are those governments to deal with these issues?


SHANNON: I think they'd be very receptive if we were to engage them in a way that gave them some confidence that we had a clear vision of what we want to accomplish and that we were going to be consistent over time that there was going to be continuity of policy. But also, I think, as we look at some of the fundamental challenges facing these countries in these societies, I think it's worth making a couple points. First, the United States needs to approach these issues with a certain amount of self-awareness. humility, and irony because we're part of the problem. And so we have to be part of the solution. And we have to acknowledge that we're part of the problem. So that's point number one. Point number two is that in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan drew a line in Central America and said that this is where we were going to fight Soviet and Cuban communism, the countries of the region, the societies and peoples of these regions made a commitment to the United States. They made a grand bargain in a larger Cold War, and they paid a very high price for that in terms of the destruction that took place in those societies. They emerged from those conflicts and the United States made a series of commitments to it beginning with development assistance, beginning with CAFTA, beginning with how we manage migration, especially in temporary protective status.


And although these have been bits and pieces and they've never been written down in paper, there's always been this unspoken component of the grand bargain that the United States and Central America were joined at an important moment in U.S. history and in global history and that we need to understand and respect it. And, therefore, as we look to Central America and we try to understand what the long-term relationship is between the United States and Central American countries, we need to understand that the Central American countries were prepared to stand with us at a crucial moment in the battle against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. We need to be prepared to stand with them in a crucial battle against the kind of violence that they're facing in their society today.


HRINAK: Great summary. Thank you so much. Thank you, Shannon. Thank you, Dan. Thank you, Tom. And thanks to all the members who participated in this meeting today. Let me remind you that the audio and the transcript of today's discussion will be available on CFR's website Thank you, Kayla, for managing and everyone have a great day.



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