Washington, D.C.—On his first day, Biden issued a series of executive orders and introduced an immigraton bill to Congress that provides new pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain qualifications. The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 also addresses the root causes of migration by proposing a $4 billion, four-year plan to help Central American governments and civil society reduce violence, corruption and absolute poverty. WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán highlights in a new op-ed for Responsible Statecraft that Biden’s renewed attention on Central America, with a particular focus on the push factors of irregular migration, is welcome.
Well-targeted foreign assistance to improve economic, social, and security conditions can help provide an alternative to migration for Central Americans. However, in order to achieve sustained results, the U.S. government must make improving governance and tackling systemic corruption the center of its policy towards the region. Corruption permeates nearly all of the region’s government institutions, allowing corrupt networks to use public funds to maintain their economic status, maintain impunity, and fund political parties and candidates. The most marginalized and impoverished in Central America are those who have suffered the most as a result of entrenched networks of corruption that have undermined economic opportunities and drained resources away from critical public needs like health, education, and infrastructure. An estimated $13 billion is lost to corruption every year— a situation made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
In order for the Biden administration to see its anti-corruption agenda through, it must center aid around the support of civil society, journalists, and government actors who have been leading anti-corruption efforts; the strengthening of judicial and prosecutorial systems; improving transparency and government oversight; and conditioning assistance on clear and concrete actions to further anti-corruption efforts. However, aid alone is not enough. Assistance must be accompanied by public and private diplomacy that make clear that corruption will not be tolerated. As Beltrán notes, “Central America is at a pivotal moment. The region does not lack capable and committed reformers within and outside the government. By standing firmly with them, the Biden administration can give Central America’s anti-corruption efforts an urgently needed second wind.”