As the 2022 U.S. midterm elections draw near, cries of an “invasion” and an “open border” policy at the southern border—designed to stoke fear and play on racist anxiety—continue to gain traction with some voters.1 Such inflammatory rhetoric is not only misleading, harmful, and counterproductive; it’s also false.2 In fact, many forcibly displaced people in the Western Hemisphere are fleeing to neighboring South American and Central American countries, not just to the United States. In addition, this false rhetoric promotes a simplistic, narrow-minded view of the border, which leads to proposals for similarly simplistic solutions that are doomed to fail. Without understanding and addressing the key drivers of migration in the region—complex dynamics that demand a sophisticated understanding of events that occur far from the border—the U.S. goal of a safe, secure, humane immigration operation at the border will remain elusive.3
Without understanding and addressing the key drivers of migration in the region … the U.S. goal of a safe, secure, humane immigration operation at the border will remain elusive.
Amid this rhetoric of xenophobia and fear, the Biden administration has made both managing the border and addressing the root causes of migration a top priority. For its fiscal year 2023 budget, it requested from Congress $97.3 billion for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a $6.5 billion increase from last year that would include billions of dollars to enhance border security.4 However, these efforts do not stop at the border. The administration has also taken the initiative to coordinate with other countries in the region to address the root causes of migration, recognizing the importance of supporting those countries currently hosting hundreds of thousands of displaced people.5
All of this is occurring alongside a dramatic increase in irregular migration not only to the United States but throughout the entire region. In response, individual countries have implemented strategies designed to ensure fair, orderly, and humane systems for managing migration. Yet these strategies require long-term investment to stabilize countries in the region and deserve greater support from Congress to make them sustainable.
This issue brief sheds light on the policies and practices that the United States and other countries in the region have initiated to manage migration and respond to the many humanitarian crises of the region. Moreover, it urges Congress to support the administration’s efforts to help countries in the region implement effective programs to manage migration, extend humanitarian relief, and address the causes of forced migration.
New drivers of migration in the Western Hemisphere require innovative strategies
Violence, political instability, food insecurity, extreme weather, and severe economic hardships related to COVID-19 have changed the landscape of migration in the Western Hemisphere. Data from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show that many countries in the Americas—not only the United States—are seeing a rise in the number of people seeking asylum, with countries that have not seen many asylum-seekers in the past becoming hosts to large numbers of people seeking protection.6
For example, in these past few years, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Ecuador, and Chile—which have historically received modest numbers of vulnerable people—have hosted hundreds of thousands more people, mostly displaced Venezuelans. From 2018 to 2021, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Peru have received higher numbers of asylum applications than in the past, with increases ranging from 133 percent to 914 percent.7
Moreover, countries with much smaller populations than the United States are assuming responsibility for large numbers of forcibly displaced people. For example, in 2021, Costa Rica and Peru received nearly 300 and 160 asylum applications, respectively, for every 10,000 people in their country, compared with only 39 asylum applications per 10,000 people in the United States.8
Families and individuals in the region are leaving their home countries for a number of reasons, including rampant violence, political instability, extreme weather, and severe economic hardships related to COVID-19.9 Regarding the displacement of Central Americans in particular, the Congressional Research Service found, “Although motives vary by individual, difficult socioeconomic and security conditions—exacerbated by natural disasters and poor governance—appear to be the most important drivers of this mixed flow of economic migrants and asylum-seekers.”10 In another prominent example, the crisis in Venezuela has given rise to one of the two largest mass displacements in the world right now: An estimated 6.8 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years, mostly to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, due to continued violence, lack of basic necessities and essential services, and insecurity—and there is no sign that this will abate.11
The Biden-Harris administration announces new policies for Venezuelans
On October 12, 2022, the Biden-Harris administration announced the creation of a new legal pathway for up to 24,000 displaced Venezuelans to enter the United States as long as they meet several eligibility criteria.12 Modeled after the Uniting for Ukraine program, the policy aims to create an orderly and safe entry process for Venezuelans, and the administration stated that this program may be expanded in the future.
To stem irregular flows, the administration is also collaborating with Mexico to return Venezuelans who attempt to cross the southern border back to Mexico under Title 42 public health authority.13 As a result of this order, which was first invoked by the Trump administration and which continues to be in effect while litigation to block the Biden administration’s attempt to end it continues, more than 2 million expulsions of people have been carried out at the border since 2020, without their being able to claim asylum in the United States.
Meanwhile, extreme weather-related disasters such as hurricanes and tropical storms have devasted many countries in the region, including Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador, leading to mass displacement.14 Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the regional economy of Latin America and the Caribbean, inducing a contraction of 7 percent—a much higher decline than that of the global economy—and straining already overburdened countries in the region.15
This complex mix of factors is pushing people to flee their homes and take dangerous journeys—for example, through the treacherous Darién Gap between South America and Central America—to find safety and stability elsewhere.16
The Biden-Harris administration’s comprehensive plan to manage regional migration is a stark departure from the previous administration’s approach
The Biden-Harris administration has proved committed to managing regional migration by tackling its root causes. Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to develop a comprehensive regional framework to address the root causes of migration, manage migration in the region, and strengthen the asylum system at the border.17 A few months later, in July 2021, the administration followed up on this order with a collaborative migration management strategy that focused on improving regional collaboration.18 The administration has also released a blueprint to address the root causes of irregular migration, with strategies to tackle insecurity, corruption, and violence in an effort to promote human rights in Central America.19
And earlier this year, the administration published an update to its plan to address the root causes of migration.20 A few highlights are outlined below:
- The vice president’s office has collaborated with a range of companies in the private sector to secure commitments for private sector investments in the region to create jobs and opportunities. For example, Microsoft is on track to help to connect 4 million people in the region to broadband by 2024.
- The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) supported private sector companies in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to help them create more than 70,000 jobs, providing small and microbusinesses access to loans.
- The United States, in partnership with COVAX, has delivered more than 15 million COVID-19 free-of-cost vaccine doses to countries in northern Central America and provided additional support to fight COVID-19.
Notably, much of the Biden-Harris administration’s work on these issues has required rebuilding and repairing the damage done by the policies and practices of the Trump administration, which pursued a “reactive, punitive, and shortsighted approach to migration.”21 At the border, for instance, the Trump administration’s cruel and cynical zero tolerance family separation policy forcibly separated vulnerable children from their families in an effort to deter migration; years later, the Biden-Harris administration is still working to reunite these children with their families.22 The Trump administration’s actions south of the border were similarly shortsighted and disastrous. For example, it delayed the disbursal of congressionally approved funding to Central America and repeatedly proposed to cut billions of dollars in foreign aid.23
While Congress rejected many of these Trump-era proposals, overall foreign aid for the Central American strategy declined by 33 percent from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2021.24 Furthermore, the Trump administration unilaterally suspended vital foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras after thousands of people from those countries sought asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. This led to the cancellation of many aid programs seeking to alleviate some of the causes of irregular migration.25
In an effort to reverse course, the Biden-Harris administration requested $2.1 billion in fiscal year 2022 funding for Latin America and the Caribbean region, including $860.6 million to tackle root causes—the first installment of the administration’s $4 billion four-year commitment to address this issue.26 While the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 does not specify the total foreign assistance for the region, it does include funding directives for some of the U.S.-led initiatives in the region. In addition, for fiscal year 2023, the Biden-Harris administration has requested $987 million to implement its Root Causes Strategy and its Collaborative Migration Management Strategy.27
If policymakers are serious about achieving substantive change in the region to help mitigate irregular migration, they should support these proposals and funding requests that directly tackle the root causes of migration. While the full impact of these strategies may not be felt until further down the road, policymakers should understand the importance of investing in tackling the root causes of migration now in order to promote long-term stability and security in the region.
Read more on migration in the Americas
Regional coordination is key to changing migratory patterns
The Biden-Harris administration has shown that, unlike its predecessor, it understands the importance of regional cooperation to migration management.28 Indeed, even without the active involvement of destination countries such as the United States and Canada, Latin American and Caribbean countries have long cooperated around migration and protection by: creating regional bodies and policies to coordinate migration policy; signing mobility agreements such as Mercosur; and having coordinated responses to regional displacement crises, such as the Quito Process.29 Furthermore, through a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements—including the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, which broadened the definition of a refugee—Latin American and Caribbean countries have worked to provide strong protections for migrants and asylum-seekers in the region.30
In comparison, the United States has generally been reluctant to lead a regional approach on migration management and policies. Yet the Biden-Harris administration, for its part, has demonstrated a willingness to engage with other countries in the region to design long-term, durable solutions to an enormous regional challenge.
The LA Declaration: A big step in the right direction
In large part due to the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to address migration flows in the region and successfully work with regional countries to secure long-term commitments, 21 countries from the Western Hemisphere signed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection (LA Declaration) at the Ninth Summit of the Americas in June 2022.31 This was the first agreement to include so many countries from the Western Hemisphere and, most importantly, to directly involve the United States and Canada.32 Signatory countries committed to “expand legal migration pathways, support immigrant integration, invest in migration management, and coordinate responses to mass migration movements.”33
The LA Declaration has four key pillars:34
- Stability and assistance for communities
- Expansion of legal pathways for protection
- Humane border management policies
- Coordinated emergency response
The administration has acted quickly to operationalize the LA Declaration in practice. The United States announced $314 million in funding through USAID and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration for humanitarian and development assistance for refugees and migrants in the region, including support for Venezuelans in 17 countries.35 Furthermore, in an effort to expand legal pathways for migration, the United States committed to resettle 20,000 refugees from the region between fiscal years 2023 and 2024.36 And as part of the humane border management pillar, the United States announced a multilateral “Sting Operation” to disrupt human smuggling networks and to increase security and cooperation across the region.37
A few months later, on September 26, 2022, representatives from signatory countries met at the White House to launch the implementation process of the LA Declaration.38 They reiterated their shared commitment to managing migration and outlined the progress the United States and other signatory countries—such as Mexico, Ecuador, and Canada—have already made to fulfill their commitments under the declaration. For instance, the United States has doubled the number of seasonal labor visas for northern Central America and relaunched the Cuban Reunification Parole program, among other measures.39 Other signatory countries have, likewise, taken steps to deliver on their commitments: Ecuador launched a regularization program for Venezuelans in the country; Guatemala dismantled a transnational human smuggling organization; Belize launched a regularization program for Central American and Caribbean migrants and refugees in the country; and Canada announced three new projects to bolster support for displaced people and their host countries.
The LA Declaration promises targeted funding to support efforts in other countries; however, it is up to Congress to make these promises a reality by ensuring that these programs are fully funded.
The LA Declaration promises targeted funding to support efforts in other countries; however, it is up to Congress to make these promises a reality by ensuring that these programs are fully funded.40 The administration has requested $987 million to address the root causes of migration in Central America for the fiscal year 2023 and an additional $817 million under the LA Declaration.41 Congress should support the administration’s efforts to work with other countries in the region to manage migration in a humane and orderly way.
It is also important to keep in mind that while foreign assistance in these countries can contribute to reducing emigration, studies have found that the effects of foreign assistance on migration can be limited without other necessary proactive measures.42 Traditional foreign aid to migrant-sending countries alone will not solve the migration crisis in the region. Hence, other aspects of the LA Declaration—such as providing legal pathways to migration and providing programmatic assistance to host countries with a large number of refugees in the region—are crucial.
Countries in the Western Hemisphere have implemented bold measures, but they need help to sustain those efforts
Countries across the region have taken innovative steps to protect asylum-seekers and improve their capacity to respond to the unprecedented number of vulnerable migrants at their borders. In particular, the following countries have expanded protections, provided temporary permits, increased access to medical benefits, and increased access to job opportunities.43
Since 2015, Colombia has welcomed an estimated 5.5 million people who fled neighboring Venezuela.44 Despite lacking an established infrastructure to support vulnerable migrants and asylum-seekers, Colombia’s response to the Venezuelan crisis has been commendable. It has instituted humane and holistic solutions: issuing permits for work, transit, and stay; opening access to health care, education, and other social services; and implementing programs to help both host and migrant communities. In early 2021, Colombia regularized the status of 1.7 million Venezuelans, providing access to the job markets and social services.45 This will go a long way toward improving their long-term prospects and benefit all Colombians.
Even so, reports suggest that more than 2.5 million Venezuelans have settled in Colombia, and major challenges remain to advance protection for them as well as for newcomers.46 Indeed, despite the support from Colombia, a recent Brookings Institution study called the Venezuelan crisis “the most underfunded in modern history” and identified massive gaps in funding when compared with other countries facing similar crises.47
As the United States seeks to strengthen its own humanitarian system, it can both support and learn from other host countries striving to build sustainable institutions.
Another example is Costa Rica—a nation that is traditionally a top immigrant destination in Latin America.48 In recent decades, the profiles of migrants arriving in Costa Rica have diversified and changed: Some are fleeing their home countries and seeking asylum, some are looking to invest, some intend to settle there permanently, and others are either seasonal or transiting up north.
Costa Rica has one of the most robust and established institutional and legal frameworks in the region, with agencies tasked with clear responsibilities to manage and support migrants and asylum-seekers.49 For example, even though Costa Rican law has not incorporated the Cartagena Declaration, which protects a wider category of people beyond the UNHCR definition of a “refugee,” the country’s Administrative Tribunal of Immigration decided that it should be considered while providing protection for vulnerable migrants.50 Notably, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Costa Rica kept its borders open for those seeking protection, but the recent increases in asylum-seekers—largely from Nicaragua—have strained this generosity.51 In an effort to increase access to the health care system and job market, Costa Rica announced its plans to regularize more than 200,000 migrants and has sought international support.52
Even in the face of welcoming policies, immigrants in Costa Rica, especially Nicaraguans, have increasingly experienced discrimination and exclusion.53
Peru, Chile, and Uruguay
Other countries in the region have also implemented longer-term measures and effective programs to improve the integration of migrants and asylum-seekers in their host communities.54 For instance, Peru has received more than 1 million Venezuelans and introduced a temporary protection permit that made the regularization of foreigners possible.55 A local municipality in Chile announced a policy to integrate migrants and refugees to increase access to basic services.56 Similarly, Uruguay passed legislation to grant migrants and their family members access to the same rights and benefits as nationals—work, social security, access to health care, and education.57
As the United States seeks to strengthen its own humanitarian system, it can both support and learn from other host countries striving to build sustainable institutions, helping guide their individual responses through the collaborative set of guidelines laid out in the LA Declaration and ensuring that all countries in the region are accountable to their commitments and contributing to a shared solution.
Read more on addressing the causes of migration
As anti-immigrant rhetoric continues to dominate headlines in the lead-up to the midterm elections, the Biden-Harris administration has taken significant steps to humanely manage migration flows in the region, marking a stark policy shift from the previous administration’s unsuccessful deterrence-only Band-Aid approach. Indeed, within its first two years in office, the administration has crafted a strategy to address the root causes compelling people to leave their home countries to make the treacherous journey northward to the United States’ southwestern border. Specifically, by prioritizing the LA Declaration, the United States has recognized that a hemispheric approach to migration management, beyond bilateral or unilateral actions, is necessary. Now, Congress should support the administration in its efforts to work with other countries in the region to humanely manage migration, address root causes of migration in sending countries, and dismantle human smuggling networks.
The authors are grateful to Debu Gandhi, Nicole Prchal Svajlenka, Nicole Lee Ndumele, Elisa Massimino, Joel Martinez, Laura Kilbury, Erin Simpson, and Adam Conner for their expertise.