On April 21, 2021, the Inter-American Dialogue, Creative Associates International, and the International Organization on Migration hosted the online event “Addressing the Root Causes of Migration from Central America” to discuss trends in Central American migration alongside practical solutions for managing these flows and addressing the factors pressuring people to leave their homes.
Michael Shifter, Dialogue president, gave opening remarks and moderated the discussion. Panelists included Manuel Orozco, director of the Center for Migration and Economic Stabilization at Creative Associates International and non-resident senior fellow at the Dialogue, Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, Maria Eugenia Brizuela, INCAE board member and former minister of foreign affairs for El Salvador, and Paola Zepeda, regional project coordinator for the International Organization for Migration. The event concluded with comments from Pablo Maldonado, chief operating officer at Creative Associates International, and a Q&A session.
Dimensions of recent Central American migrations
When discussing the dimensions of recent Central American migrations, panelists reiterated that regional outflows are not new and have been occurring for over a decade. Orozco indicated that 450,000 people have tried to leave Central America annually since 2009 and estimated that this number may increase to at least 600,000 people each year.
Selee further clarified that the current border surge is not a crisis, but part of a larger issue dating back more than a decade. Surges have also occurred in 2014, 2016, 2019, and 2021, which suggests that “this is not lightning striking in the same place.”
Root causes of Central American migrations
The factors driving people from Central America are complex and often intersect in ways that exacerbate the impact of other determinants.
The region’s underperforming economy and unemployment were cited as being among the primary drivers, and Orozco emphasized that this situation stems from the informal structures on which the economy operates. For example, he noted the role that the informal nature of financial stocks in the region plays in driving migration as these do not allow for increasing investment in home countries.
Panelists further concurred that the pandemic and recent hurricanes are accelerating the effects of these economic push factors. Zepeda highlighted that women’s loss of employment during the pandemic is increasing pressures to migrate due to reduced incomes. She also noted that gender influences factors that determine which household member migrates and what social networks they have to do so.
In addition to economics, victimization, weak rule of law, corruption, transnational ties, and climate events were cited as critical reasons why people are migrating out of the region.
Strategies for addressing regional migration
Panelists agreed that proposals to manage these flows and address their structural and climate drivers should be implemented in tandem.
Migration management solutions must create legal migration pathways that, as Selee explained, are safer and cheaper than migrating irregularly and only use enforcement as an incentive to encourage people to use legal alternatives. Zepeda emphasized that policies for managing regional outflows must be paired with policies on gender and seek to protect women’s rights due to the conditions under which they migrate.
Several practical and innovative solutions were discussed. Brizuela affirmed that creating common, regional markets that allow for the free movement of labor and capital are fundamental to economic integration strategies. Strengthening existing legal alternatives for entering the US, such as H-2A and H-2B visas, was mentioned as a good first step for US-bound migration, and Orozco proposed instituting a lottery program with competitive odds.
Selee recommended a regional visa legislated by the US Congress and also outlined the need for protection pathways for those fleeing violence. These should seek to help people as close to home as possible and include supporting internal displacement laws within the region, refugee systems, and bolstering international effort to distribute the weight of the protection burden in asylum systems.
Panelists concurred that long-term strategies to tackle development challenges must be multi-dimensional and focus on human capital. Governments, civil society, the private sector, and regional elites share the responsibility for addressing these root causes, explained Brizuela. She further noted that a regionally integrated approach is required because challenges such as security and climate change adaptation are deeply intertwined.
Orozco highlighted investment in human capital as key to addressing the informal conditions in which migration occurs and pointed to opportunities for leveraging remittances towards higher formal saving ratios in the region and mobilizing capital into investments. Because women are the primary remittance recipients, Zepeda added that financial inclusion opportunities targeting women offer important benefits for economic growth.
Maldonado closed the session by observing the immense convergence in thinking among panelists and noting that, in the words of Albert Einstein, if we have one hour to solve a problem, our fifty-nine minutes for defining the problem are up and our one minute for action has come.