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To Address Root Causes Of Migration, Central America Expert Says Longterm Plan Needed

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

So many unaccompanied migrant teens and children are now in U.S. custody along the southern border that the Biden administration is rushing to open new facilities to house them. The latest opened Friday in Eagle Pass, Texas. Most of the migrants are from three countries in Central America - Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. So to deal with the increased arrivals at the border, President Biden has made it a priority to address the root causes of migration from the region, such as violent crime, poverty and corruption, and he's put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of that effort.

It's not a new idea. In fact, Biden headed a similar effort when he was vice president. We wanted to understand how the current plan compares to the strategies used by previous administrations and what lessons officials might take from past U.S. attempts to slow migration from Central America, so we called Adriana Beltran. She's with the Washington Office on Latin America, where she works on violence prevention and police and judicial reform in Central America. Adriana Beltran, welcome.

ADRIANA BELTRAN: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: How does the Biden plan compare to the strategies of other presidents who tried to slow or stop migration from Central America through similar diplomatic efforts?

BELTRAN: Well, I would say, you know, they haven't ruled out the strategies, so we haven't yet seen the details. That said, you know, during the campaign and thus far, the Biden administration has said that strengthening the rule of law, improving democratic governance and tackling corruption will be at the heart of U.S. policy toward the region. And thus far, you know, members of the administration have continued to make this point.

I think there are many important lessons that can be learned from previous strategies. One, I would say, is that if we are going to help Central Americans build a more just and secure region, it will require long-term and sustainable policies. Otherwise, you're only promoting Band-Aid, short-term solutions. I think second - and this is, you know, where I hope the administration continues moving down this path - is to prioritize the need to improve governance, to address the endemic corruption and the weak rule of law, which have been the main impediments to development in the region and to improving security conditions.

FADEL: What happened to these previous similar efforts? I mean, to put it bluntly, billions have been spent, and yet here we are talking about more people - a surge of more people being driven away from their countries. Why?

BELTRAN: You know, unfortunately, during the past administration, aid was cut, significant amounts of aid that were just starting to reach the region. And that led to programs being cut or severely limited to address many of these factors. Second, you know, we had seen important progress in tackling corruption. The U.S. - both the Obama administration, the Bush administration - has supported very successful mechanisms to tackle endemic corruption in Guatemala and in Honduras. And we were seeing results not just in terms of the investigations that they were moving forward, but the strengthening of local capacity in how to address these very complex issues.

You know, what you saw was a backlash from very powerful sectors within these countries that don't want to be held accountable. And during the past administration, during the Trump administration, instead of supporting those that were advancing reforms, the administration looked the other way. And that bolstered these corrupt networks that have been able to regain control and co-opt the state institutions.

FADEL: I mean, as you've said, addressing the root causes of migration is something that will take a long time - I mean, potentially decades. Do you think it's even possible for one president to make significant progress in four or eight years?

BELTRAN: So I think there are, you know, immediate steps that they that they can take, you know, to address what have been worsening conditions in the region because of their pandemic and because of the impact of recent natural disasters - so assistance, you know, to those that have been impacted, helping them have access to COVID vaccines and different short-term measures. And I do think, you know, with issues that will require a longer-term strategy, you can help create an environment to pave the way for much-needed reforms. We cannot turn our backs on Central Americans that, you know, want to build more accountable and just institutions that, you know, want our support to be able to do this. Otherwise, you know, these countries with fall to the control of criminal and corrupt networks.

FADEL: The U.S. has a long history of meddling or interfering in the politics and wars of the region, and you could argue it helped create some of the conditions that exist today. Is there support in Central America for U.S. diplomatic efforts?

BELTRAN: Yes. You know, you still have many brave prosecutors and judges, civil society that continue to lead the good fight but are under severe threat. And they, you know, need and want the support of the U.S. and acknowledge that the U.S. can through not just aid, but diplomatic efforts, help them and support them in trying to advance much-needed reforms.

FADEL: That was Adriana Beltran from the Washington Office on Latin America. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

BELTRAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.