Latin America Advisor

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How Will Recent Disasters Change Migration Flows?

People are pictured last month at a Guatemalan migration office in Valle Nuevo, near the Salvadoran border. File Photo: Guatemalan Migration Institute.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei’s government has officially requested that the United States grant Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to Guatemalan migrants already in the North American country, as the devastation wrought in Central America by Hurricanes Eta and Iota is expected to force many victims to flee their home countries. How will the recent natural disasters influence migration flows in Central America, and to what extent is this trend expected to continue in coming years? Is TPS likely to be extended to Guatemalans and other Central Americans any time soon? What else should the United States do to address an expected influx of migrants from the region in light of the natural disasters?

Tiziano Breda, analyst for Central America at the International Crisis Group: “Preliminary reports indicate that the floods and landslides caused by Hurricanes Eta and Iota affected at least four million people, damaged hundreds of roads and bridges and destroyed thousands of hectares of crops in Central America. The regional catastrophe recalls Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which took the lives of around 10,000 people, triggered a surge in migration northward and prompted the Clinton administration to afford TPS to Nicaraguans and Hondurans, a status that the United States had previously granted to Salvadorans fleeing from the country’s civil war. Giammattei’s bid to convince the United States to extend TPS to Guatemalans appeals to the same logic, but for now is likely to fall on deaf ears. The outgoing Trump administration is already trying to end TPS, although it has been stymied by litigation. The odds that it would extend this status to another country are remote. With relief efforts faltering, as most donors are distracted by Covid-19 and a deep economic contraction, conditions are ripe for a surge in Central American migration northward. Migration has already picked up, in part because countries have begun opening their borders after months of pandemic-related closures, and partly because of a worsening economic, humanitarian and security crisis. Guatemala, which is facing political turmoil, and the rest of Central America need more help. Washington should extend TPS to Guatemala and postpone efforts to terminate it for other countries in the region. Failing that, it should at least temporarily halt deportations (there have already been at least 60,000 this year, to northern Central American countries alone), which the region cannot responsibly absorb. To stem drivers of migration over both the short and long terms, Washington should partner with foreign donors and multilateral lenders to step up funding for humanitarian aid, infrastructure reconstruction, the local production of food and other goods and the reactivation of small and medium-sized businesses. Financing must be paired with strict controls to avoid embezzlement and political misuse in countries with upcoming elections.”

Manuel Orozco, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and director of the Center for Migration and Economic Stabilization: “Migration from Central America is confronted by different realities that do not overlap or coexist with each other. Efforts to align them are urgent. First, factors shaping the decision to migrate have mostly been economic, though triggered by punctuated dynamics, such as a global recession, a natural disaster or political crisis. For example, in 2020, 1 percent of Guatemalans tried to leave amid the pandemic. Receiving less income through remittances was a major determinant. The natural disaster adds in the long term to the intention to migrate; migration in the dry corridor increased from 2012 to 2020, 41 percent to 47 percent of all migration. Second, U.S. immigration policies are affected by an overburdened bureaucracy, a politicized policymaking process and a fluid world shaped by labor mobility, not only trade. Adding more hurdles to the bureaucracy causes more disruptions and anti-immigrant sentiments. Third, governments continue to focus their energies in obsolete economic approaches, while dealing with political polarization, elite disunity and weak rule of law. In turn, they are responsible for a vicious migration cycle. Giammattei’s claim is short of a solution and comes across more as a convenient excuse to a much larger problem. The role of U.S. policy is to triangulate these factors by first investing in a modern and innovative development strategy that adapts the region to the post-Covid-19 world and integrates them globally through the digital economy. Specifically, robust investment in modernizing informal economies, microentrepreneurs in particular, increasing credit in high migration areas and focusing on human capital rather than only on agriculture can increase wealth and make migration less likely. Second, because TPS has not meant temporary relief, U.S. policy can address the status of those already in the United States and leverage migrant resources invested in the homeland by formalizing and mobilizing more than $4 billion in savings resulting from inflows of remittances, as well as promoting migrant capital investments in their communities and in innovative investment funds supported by U.S. entities such as the Development Finance Corporation.”

Ursula Roldán, coordinator of the migration department at the research and administration institute of Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City: “In its recent history, Guatemala has had ‘rain where it’s already wet’—not only literally, but also because in less than three decades, it has experienced an earthquake as well as Hurricanes Mitch, Stan, Eta and Iota, which have left human losses and destroyed thousands of families’ assets, especially of those who are most impoverished. To this, add the policy of an almost failed state, co-opted by practices of licit and illicit economic and political networks, as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) described in 2015. This makes it impossible to rebuild the economy as well as social and economic infrastructure. And, on top of it all, we were seriously affected, as all societies, by the Covid-19 pandemic. Faced with this situation, communities see only one way out—their journey north, which of course means risking their lives and/or experiencing a series of humiliations on an increasingly dangerous route whose final destination is uncertain due to the toughened policies in Mexico and the United States. Migrants can also be trapped with no alternative in asylum and refugee processes that stall at the borders. There is no way out—either Central America works on a regional plan to re-establish its democracies, for justice and radical changes in its economic and social structure, or forced migration will come as tsunami-like waves to the north, which has been quite co-responsible for the uncertain future that we have.”

Todd Bensman, senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies: “TPS is one of the most unnecessary American immigration policies on the books. It has allowed some 400,000 foreign nationals subject to deportation to stay, ostensibly for a finite time, after their homelands suffered natural catastrophes or warfare. But almost none ever actually return. That’s because TPS alters the status of its beneficiaries from illegally present and deportable to de-facto perpetually legal, incredulously lasting for decades. The chief problem with TPS is that it simply is not what its advocates always sell it as. Decades of TPS reveal it to be the rankest of intellectual frauds in that it so cynically exploits the innate humanitarian impulses that define American culture. For that reason alone, it should not be invoked again. It is no surprise that anti-border advocates would want Guatemalans to receive the perpetual legal residency of TPS, because they made up the largest percentage of the 2019 mass migration crisis that saw nearly one million Central Americans cross the southern U.S. border on asylum claims for which the vast majority are proving ineligible. So long as TPS operates under the false guise that it is only temporary and not perpetual, it should not be used as a fig leaf to now reward those hundreds of thousands with permanent legalization, lest doing so inspire hundreds of thousands more to come next. TPS is entirely unnecessary since, in any real emergency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement may simply pause deportations until a home-country catastrophe has passed. TPS is an intellectually dishonest cover that robs U.S. citizens of their right to debate the true merits of granting perpetual residency to hundreds of thousands of people who are illegally present. Instead, America opens the gates, believing the false pretext that refuge is short-term. TPS advocates and beneficiaries well know they will exploit the inevitable time when American memories of the initial representation fade. While TPS should be discarded as an obvious ruse, the United States should use its power to suspend deportations for a while when circumstances require in line with its innate humanitarian values.”

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