This past week Mexico and the US restarted high level economic talks. This is good; as this kind of diplomatic engagement was dismantled under the Trump Administration. Central American migration was on the agenda. That’s good too, but both countries need to start displaying a sense of urgency to address the causes of migration.
Granted, high level diplomatic dialogues are not detail laden affairs. These are meetings of “the principals–” cabinet secretaries — and in this case Vice President Harris. They are designed to build the participants trust and facilitate problem solving, laudable goals. But this meeting reminded me of how much talk there is about addressing the “root causes” of migration and how little substance I see.
The presidents of both countries inherited dysfunctional migration systems from their predecessors, but both have also been in office long enough to own the policies that they execute. Neither country’s rhetoric aligns with what people in Central America experience.
The US talks about a US $4 billion investment in the Northern Triangle. But US economic aid is the slow boat to China (or in this case, Central America). It generally takes years from the moment that spending is announced, for it to be approved by Congress, contracted out and then implemented. To someone desperate for change in their immediate future, what could happen in two years means nothing.
Vice President Harris is also encouraging businesses to invest in Central America, but the US is not playing diplomatic hardball with fundamentally corrupt and undemocratic governments, and economic and political elites. If the US wants more investment in the region then their anti-corruption policies need to be more than tough tweeting.
Then there is Mexico, which professes to offer hope by announcing the expansion to Guatemala of Sembrando Vida, an employment generation/tree planting program; accompanying this announcement was an appeal to the US to provide temporary work visas for those who participate. Let’s take that apart. The provision of large numbers of temporary work visas to Central Americans could be an important part of a legitimate response to the outflow of people from the region and something that could give people immediate hope. But linking Sembrando Vida to a US visa, is a political gimmick. Few people will throw stones at a tree planting program, but Guatemalans aren’t going to stop leaving home because they got temporary work planting trees. The tree program is about Mexico looking like it is responding to a migration crisis without actually doing much. The US needs to provide serious numbers of work visas to Central America, and Mexico should push them to do it.
When both countries want to move fast to address a problem, they can. Just look at the US response to the Afghani refugees, or how fast the Mexican National Guard was brought in to stop migrants at Mexico’s southern border. When there is a sense of immediacy, and when a crisis does not involve our borders, both nations spring into action. But when the desperate people are your neighbors, it’s a different story.
The politicians are talking a good game about the root causes of migration in Central America, but the talk is miles ahead of action. Instead of giving people hope that things will change, all this talk is feeding cynicism. Only actions that are concrete and have some immediate component will provide a thread of hope to would be migrants. Both governments feel political urgency when it comes to migrants and refugees crossing our borders. Let’s see some urgency in addressing the root causes of migration.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson