U.S.-Mexico Development Cooperation
By Rachel Schmidtke, Wilson Center, Mexico Institute
The topic of development in the Northern Triangle has been contentious in recent months. To be sure, the link between development and migration is not a linear one; in fact, development can often spur migration in the short term. Yet in the long term, when people are able to live prosperous and safe lives in their home countries, they are less likely to migrate out of desperation. Mexico and the U.S., the two principle host countries for Central American migrants, have embarked upon diverging views concerning development funding.
Mexico is undergoing significant reforms to its domestic and international policy agenda, and at least until recently, have been less inclined to participate in hard-liner enforcement actions, stating their migration policy will be one based in human rights. The Mexican President has gone so far state he may reject Merida Initiative funding in its current form, stating, “The way out of the crisis of migration is through cooperation for development, not military cooperation, not cooperation for the use of force. This has more to do with creating jobs than having military aircraft or helicopter gunships. ”
While rejecting Merida Initiative funding may be counterproductive, as these funds go far beyond military equipment and actually help combat transnational criminal organizations (TCO), and build strong and resilient communities, both countries have an opportunity to redefine priorities. Cooperation on enforcement, particularly with threats from the U.S. president and claims Mexico is not “doing enough” not only prove counterproductive to migration management, but also damage the strength of the bi-lateral relationship. One area, however, where Mexico has expressed significant willingness to cooperate with the United States is on development.
Under the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico is embarking for the first time on a regional development program with the Northern Triangle governments as one of the core tenants of their migration management strategy. This regional development plan focuses on addressing the four stages of the migration cycle: the origin, or structural causes of migration, and the transit, destination, and return of the migrant population. Mexico has pledged USD$30 billion to the regional development plan, distributed over the next five years. The finalized plan is set to be released sometime this month.
The United States is a long-time donor to development funding in the Northern Triangle, providing over $USD 2 billion in assistance since FY 2016. Yet on March 29, 2019, President Trump stated he would cut roughly USD $450 million in assistance to Central America as a punishment to the governments in the region for not doing more to curb flows.
Although these two countries seem to be diverging, there is opportunity to coalesce around this plan. Mexico would first need to define their own development agenda and through this agenda identify projects that fit U.S. interests. In December of 2018, the U.S. Government indicated they would commit USD $5.8 billion through public and private investment, mostly through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), with Mexico in the regional development program. Mexico should reassume talks with the U.S. on this topic, with a clear agenda in mind for U.S. cooperation. OPIC could invest and mobilize up to $2.5 billion more in this region if commercially viable projects are identified.
Cooperating on development exerts a soft power strategy the U.S. has lately been less inclined to employ. If Mexico and the U.S. could work together to define mutual goals on development funding, perhaps both countries could find other points of collaboration on border enforcement, security, strengthening Mexico’s migration institutions based on mutual interests and respect.
Finding projects to cooperate on is just the first hurdle to success. The current leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are embroiled in corruption allegations and practices that erode democracy. It is difficult to bolster these leaders without serious accountability mechanisms in place. Therefore, investment should remain conditional and with long-term electoral reform and transparency initiatives in mind. In addition, a focus should be to improve domestic resource mobilization that strengthens institutional capacities; this not only generates more economic growth, but also encourages investment in social programs such as health and education. Finally, if Mexico is serious about engaging Northern Triangle governments, they should work with the U.S. to forge a regional, ten-year agreement with Northern Triangle stakeholders—from government, private sector, and civil society—to guarantee that the social programs created under one government through this regional development program last into the next.
Development in the region will not be successful in reducing migration if the pull factors remain stronger than the push factors. Remittances remain an important source of money for countries in the Northern Triangle and will remain so. Therefore, development must be complemented with immigration laws that allow for more cyclical, temporary migration for Northern Triangle economic migrants, so that migration can aid development.
The U.S. and Mexico could continue increase temporary work visas, like the H-2A and H-2B in the U.S. or the creation of temporary work visas in Mexican states where there are more jobs. Employers should be incentivized to participate in these temporary guest worker programs and provide living wages and minimum benefits such as worker compensation. Conversely, there should be consequences on the employer if they continue to profit from hiring undocumented workers. Not only does this provide income flow from Mexico and the U.S. back into the Northern Triangle, but also has myriad social benefits, including maintaining stronger family units that provide support to boys who might otherwise join gangs.
Deterrence been an ineffective way to curb migratory flows, yet the U.S. spends 34% more on immigration enforcement than any other federal criminal law enforcement agency. Rather than continuing to commit money to stricter deterrence policies, a partnership with Mexico could create a multi-dimensional, multi-level, long-term strategy that would make the Northern Triangle more prosperous and safer for good. It is in the region’s best interest.