Migration & Development: Trends & Policy Options

Peter Haden / CC BY 2.0
On November 15, 2013 the Inter-American Dialogue organized a meeting on migration and development in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, co-sponsored by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) and the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH). The meeting was part of a larger Dialogue initiative on Security and Migration in Central America and Mexico that seeks to foster a network of leading policy centers and independent analysts to examine the security and migration challenges facing the region and to develop a series of practical policy proposals for private and public sector leaders. It also sets out to assess the impact of US policy on Central America and Mexico and to examine the state of regional integration so as to enhance international cooperation in areas of common interest. The event was launched with a welcoming reception hosted by the University of Honduras (UNAH) at their Center for Art and Culture on Thursday evening, November 14. The discussions began the following morning at the headquarters of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) in Tegucigalpa, where a talented, diverse group of participants from Central America, Mexico, and the United States gathered to discuss the state of migration and development in the Central American region. Participants included civil servants, academics, researchers, diaspora activists, and private sector leaders. The meeting featured five sessions focused on different aspects of the migration-development nexus. The first session, led by Manuel Orozco, director of the Dialogue’s Program on Migration, Remittances, and Development, explored the policies and perceptions of migration and development in the region. It was followed by a session on the role of international cooperation in migration and development projects that featured a panel of guests representing international organizations, development banks, and diaspora organizations. Next, Leticia Salomon of UNAH led a discussion of current events in Central America and their impact on migration. Following lunch, participants reconvened for a discussion of US immigration reform. The day ended with a panel focused on migration within Central America and the unique case of Costa Rica.

Migration and Development in Central America: Perceptions, Policies, and Further Opportunities

During the first panel, Manuel Orozco presented his new report, “Migration and Development in Central America: Perceptions, Policies, and Further Opportunities.” Rodolfo García Zamora of the Center for Development Studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas commented on Orozco’s research with insights from the Mexican context. Approximately 60,000 Central Americans emigrate each year, Orozco explained, the majority of whom go to the United States. In most cases, they emigrate without legal documents or enter the country with only a tourist visa that will soon expire. In the United States, many face difficult legal and economic situations. Despite this, a large percentage of Central American migrants send remittances home or engage in other cross-border economic activities, such as purchasing nostalgic goods or making investments in their home communities.

“Migration is a complex topic affecting Central America. We have to find new ways of deepening our understanding of the issue.”

Alejandro Rodriguez CABEI

Despite the economic importance of migration, Central American governments have lacked integral policies to leverage migration for development, Orozco argued. In order to develop more effective policies, Orozco recommended focusing on the intersection that exists between migration and development at each stage of the migration cycle. He stressed the economic importance that remittances have assumed over the last decade and their potential for further advancing social and economic development in the region. Rodolfo Garcia Zamora confirmed many of Orozco’s findings, agreeing that Central America and Mexico lack policies that effectively integrate migration and development. Governments in the region have made a number of mistakes, according to García. They were complacent during the period of economic growth in the United States and accepted out-migration as an escape valve to absorb the impact of economic policy reforms and the civil wars raging in the region at the time. They were content to consider remittances as a substitute for a development policy, failing to understand that these are private flows that belong to families. Or they considered remittances as a “magic bullet” that can replace solid social and economic development policies designed to generate jobs and income, García continued. However, Mexico is now for the first time trying to design an integral policy on migration and development. The government recognizes that remittances are not a palliative for poverty and that policy makers need to address the root causes of migration. It will be important to include diaspora and migrant groups in this process, García concluded. Garcia also called on governments to design public policies that enhance the positive impacts of migration and diminish the negative. The region is exporting its most valuable resource, people. Mexico has spent far more on education and health care than it has received back in remittances. He also called on lawmakers to insert a human rights focus in the new migration law. Alejandra Gordillo, executive secretary of the National Council of Migrant Attention of Guatemala (CONAMIGUA) highlighted the violence endured by child migrants and women and the need to have a youth and gender perspective integrated into state policy and basic services. She decried a lack of a budgetary commitment, international cooperation accords, and a long-term, holistic vision for protecting migrants’ human rights.

The Role of International Cooperation in Migration and Development Projects

The second panel, which was moderated by Edith Zavala of the Central America and Mexico Migration Alliance (CAMMINA), turned the discussion toward the role of international organizations in migration and development projects. International development aid to Latin America is not primarily focused on migration, noted Carolina Jimenez of the Open Society Foundations. The majority of financial resources go to governability, followed by arts and culture and then development. Even when aid is directed towards migration, there are difficulties coordinating among institutions working on migration and development that could create more integrated approaches and strategies. CAMMINA, a collaboration among the Open Society Foundations, the Ford Foundation, and Avina is the only alliance in Central America that brings together institutions working on development and migration. As such, it is trying to make progress by sharing expertise and facilitating the communication between international organizations and governments. “Building trust is difficult but so important,” Jimenez attested.

“Migration is not a phenomenon that occurs on the margin of public policies. Rather, it is the product of public policies that ignore social inclusion."

Miguel Gutiérrez Saxe Estado de la Nación

Diaspora groups also play an important role in funding development projects. José Francisco Ávila, president of the New Horizon Investment Club of New York, has been involved in many such projects. Avila said that, for migration and development projects to succeed, he believes that they must be research-driven and accountable to the communities in which they operate. “The knowledge must stay in the community,” he argued. “You need to train people in the communities involved, for the project to continue after you leave.” International organizations should see migration not just as a development issue, but as an opportunity to reach certain populations, according to Rebecca Rouse of the Multilateral Investment Fund at the Inter-American Development Bank. They “see a great opportunity to increase financial access through remittances.” To that end, the MIF has carried out more than 43 projects on remittances, mainly focused on increasing transparency and access to information, designing financial products that meet migrants’ needs, and promoting financial access and formal savings.

State of the Region: Implications for Migration

The third panel, which was led by Leticia Salomón of UNAH, focused on the state of the region and implications for migration. Panelists discussed the social and economic impacts of remittances, and noted that more research needs to be done to fully understand the complex linkages between migration, violence, and development. Central American emigration occurs in the context of high levels of poverty and inequality and “an almost complete absence of the state,” according to Miguel Gutiérrez Saxe of Estado de la Nación. In Honduras, the percentage of the population living in poverty has reached more than 75 percent, and the state is unable to provide basic services such as healthcare and education. In some cases, criminal groups step in to fill the vacuum. In this context, migration and remittances “provide macroeconomic stability,” Saxe argued. It is essential to see migration “not as a phenomenon that occurs on the margin of public policies” but as “the product of public policies that ignore social inclusion,” he concluded.

"We see a great opportunity to increase financial access through remittances.”

Rebecca Rouse IADB

Pablo Flores of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration took a more skeptical approach. Governments in the region need better research on the direct and indirect impacts of remittances, he argued. Remittances undoubtedly provide an important source of income, but countries in the region also need to address potential negative impacts of migration on the labor market, human capital (“brain drain”) and security. Having further studied these effects, governments in the region need to take steps to design appropriate policies addressing the migration-development nexus. Following the panel, the discussion turned to the relationship between governments in the region and the diaspora. Many participants felt that relation faced a number of difficulties and contradictions. According to Guillaume Michel Blin of the Institute for Mexicans in the Exterior, “there is a contradiction in that the Mexican government supports Mexicans in the United States and pushes for their right to legal status, while at the same time, we need these people and their skills back in Mexico.” In Honduras, the relationship between the diaspora and the government is much weaker, or, according to José Francisco Avila of New Horizon Investment Club, “nearly non-existent.” Throughout the discussion, a consensus seemed to emerge that more could be done to strengthen the connections between diaspora groups abroad and governments at home.

State of US Immigration Efforts

Following lunch at CABEI, participants returned to the table to discuss US immigration reform. Oscar Chacón of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC) offered opening remarks. His presentation was followed by commentary from Manuel Orozco of the Inter-American Dialogue and Danilo Rivera of INCEDES. Chacón began by providing some political and economic context for the immigration reform debate in the United States. The United States has a long history of “consistently mistreating new immigrants,” Chacón explained, before immigrants gradually gain rights and integrate into American society. Today’s political polarization, however, makes this process particularly difficult. “There are two Americas,” Chacón argued, an urban, coastal America that is progressive, diverse and tolerant, and a more rural America that is older, more homogenous, and more politically conservative. US Representatives from the latter America have generally been less willing to consider national immigration reform policies. “All politics is local,” Chacón explained. Not only is the United States divided, Chacón continued, but US immigrant advocates are also divided between pragmatic solutions “within the existing framework” and ideal solutions that require more comprehensive political changes. It is unlikely that an immigration reform bill will pass the House of Representatives this year, Chacón concluded. But what about next year? “Perhaps, if there is a significant change of strategy.” Failures to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 should “force us to think differently, more creatively.” Orozco concurred with much of Chacón’s arguments, adding that “there are more myths than realities within the politics of immigration reform.” Citing a political mapping of the US House of Representatives undertaken by the Inter-American Dialogue earlier this year, Orozco argued that while many Republican Representatives oppose immigration reform because of concerns over native-born unemployment, these same Republican districts actually have lower unemployment rates than their counterparts. Danilo Rivera of INCEDES highlighted the importance of harmonizing immigration laws within the region. In particular, it was important to consider ways to include diasporas in the political process, to protect the rights of migrants and vulnerable populations, and to advance policies that are evidence based, Rivera explained.

The US Perspective on Migration and Development in Central America

Lisa Kubiske, the US ambassador to Honduras, joined the group for a discussion on the role of the United States in Central American migration and development issues. Ambassador Kubiske enumerated some of the “tremendous benefits” that migration has brought to the United States, including cultural diversity, skilled labor, and innovation and entrepreneurship. She also mentioned the benefits that emigration can have for Central American countries through remittances, which can help improve living conditions. However, migration also poses a number of risks that must be acknowledged and addressed, Ambassador Kubiske continued. In particular, she cited humanitarian concerns over undocumented migration and human trafficking. It is important to address some of the root causes of undocumented migration, such as violence and lack of opportunities, in order to ensure that “emigration is not the only option.”

Migration within Central America: The Case of Costa Rica

The final session, which was led by Cynthia Mora Izaguirre of the Dirección General de Migración y Desarrollo of Costa Rica, turned the discussion toward migration within Central America, and in particular, to the case of Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica. According to Mora Izaguirre, there are over 300,000 migrants living in Costa Rica, many of whom are refugees. Others are labor migrants who are responding to Costa Rican demand for domestic and agricultural labor.

"Costa Rica’s public policies – or the lack thereof – make migrants in Costa Rica highly vulnerable.”

Beatriz Slooten Perspectiva Consultores

Costa Rica’s public policies – or lack thereof – leave migrants in a “highly vulnerable” position, according to Beatriz Slooten of Perspectiva Consultores. In particular, migrant domestic workers and private security guards face a number of vulnerabilities. Migrant domestic workers tend to work in private homes, making it difficult to monitor working conditions. “In many cases, their labor rights are violated,” Slooten attested. Private security workers are in high demand in Costa Rica, as violence and organized crime spreads through Central America. However, like migrant domestic workers, they endure difficult working conditions. Because there is greater demand for labor than there are visas, many come to work without permits. There is also an issue with migrant security workers carrying unregistered weapons, which is a serious crime in Costa Rica. Martha Cranshaw of Nicasmigrante agreed with many of Slooten’s findings and highlighted the need for greater coordination between and among the many institutions involved in labor migration issues. “There are two great challenges for migrant workers,” Cranshaw stated. The first is how to go about the complicated process of applying for a visa in the first place, and the second is the lack of communication between the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan governments. “There is no dialogue,” she said. “The NGOs can talk about it all day long, but if there is no government cooperation, they are not going to solve anything.” Cranshaw stressed the importance of searching for positive solutions and building trust between governments and among civil society groups. Nevertheless, we are beginning to see positive discussions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua on labor migration issues, noted Cynthia Mora Izaguirre. For example, there are plans to simplify the visa process for migrants to Costa Rica. However, she agreed that there is room for further communication and trust between the two governments when it comes to finding positive solutions to migration issues.


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