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How to make the Biden-Harris ‘root causes’ strategy work

Published in: The Dallas Morning News
A migrant family crosses the border into El Paso, Texas, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. © Christian Chavez/AP Photo

The Biden-Harris administration has announced that on May 23, it plans to end the Trump-era policy that has kept the southern U.S. border effectively closed to asylum seekers for more than two years. The policy, which misused a public health statute known as Title 42, has allowed immigration agents to expel asylum seekers 1.7 million times, without hearing their claims, often returning them to places where they face serious abuses.  

Lifting Title 42 is a step toward a rights-respecting border policy. But the administration should not stop there. Biden and Harris should instead prioritize humane and dignified treatment in the U.S. while effectively addressing the reasons people feel compelled to leave their homes. U.S. officials need to make clear that defending human rights and the rule of law in Mexico and Central America is at the heart of their immigration policy. 

In February 2021, the administration announced a “root causes strategy” to address the violence, organized crime, corruption, and poverty that drive many to emigrate from Central America. The hope is that accountable, rights-respecting governments can offer people security and economic opportunity, so they no longer need to flee.

Human Rights Watch research on Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has revealed that officials there have dismantled democracy and the rule of law and undermined basic rights guarantees, contributing to emigration. 

In Guatemala, where nearly half the population is poor, corrupt officials have been accused of pilfering money from the healthcare system, allowing criminal groups to steal land from poor rural farmers, and protecting drug cartels linked to horrific violence. Officials have dismantled democratic institutions and undermined the justice system. In 2019, then-President Jimmy Morales kicked out the UN-backed anti-corruption commission. Congress has packed the courts and ousted independent judges. And the attorney general has shut down corruption investigations, pressed bogus criminal chargesagainst anti-corruption prosecutors and journalists who attempt to investigate or expose abuses, and tried to intimidate independent judges

In El Salvador, long one of the most dangerous countries in the world, weak, overextended justice institutions have been largely ineffective in protecting Salvadorans from the gangs that control parts of the country. Endemic corruption has compounded the problem. President Nayib Bukele has undermined the justice system and dismantled the anti-corruption apparatus,  summarily firing the attorney general, packing the Supreme Court, and promoting laws to remove hundreds of judges and prosecutors. He recently pushed the legislature to temporarily suspend freedom of expression and assembly and allow police to detain anyone without charge for up to two weeks. He also pushed through “anti-gang” legislation that could be used to criminally prosecute journalists and civil society groups, impose harsh prison sentences on children as young as 12, or detain accused gang members for years without trial. 

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most violent in the world. Gangs control parts of the country, where they kill, extort, and forcibly recruit residents andhigh-level officials have been accused of protecting organized crime groups. While half the country lives in poverty, corrupt elites have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from healthcare and social programs. When an internationally backed anti-corruption probe got too close to powerful politicians, Congress passed laws to undermine prosecutions. In January 2020, then-president Juan Orlando Hernández, who is being extradited to the US on drug trafficking charges, kicked out the anti-corruption commission and the pending investigations stalled.

Biden and Harris have denounced  attacks on democratic institutions in these countries, created a Justice Department Anticorruption Task Force, imposed targeted sanctions on corrupt officials, and announced they would sanction private sector actors who benefit from the graft. 

For the “root causes strategy” to be effective, the Biden-Harris would ideally count on supportive counterparts in the Northern Triangle countries. The new Honduran president, Xiomara Castro, has promised to promote human rights and is proposing a new UN-backed anti-corruption commission. But in Guatemala and El Salvador, leaders have continued to flout democratic principles.

Yet this should not stop Biden and Harris. They should stop outsourcing border enforcement to southern neighbors, whose police and militaries have committed countless abuses. They should work with allies to push for—and financially back—the return of international anti-corruption commissions to support local prosecutors. They should step up their support for local civil society groups, prosecutors, and journalists, as well as for mechanisms to protect them, to help ensure they do not need to flee. And they should expand sanctions against leaders and businesspeople who attack the rule of law and benefit from corruption.

Improving conditions that are forcing people to flee is a long-term project, and leaders need to be patient and persistent if a root causes strategy is to succeed, as the needed solutions are not fast, cheap, or easy. If Biden and Harris are serious about pursuing a “humane” approach to migration, they have no time to lose.

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