Although economic development in countries in Latin America is often viewed as a strategy for reducing immigration to the United States, research shows that foreign investments are not necessarily the most effective strategy for reducing migration. In fact, economic investment may even fuel migration. Instead, the US should increase opportunities for legal labor migration by increasing and diversifying the labor visas available each year. Doing so could help address labor shortages, while also ensuring the safety of migrants who may otherwise take dangerous routes into the country.
Recent research from the Center on Global Development shows that most migrants benefit from international development programs—even cash transfer programs—just before deciding to migrate. In a recent talk, immigration economist Michael Clemens shared a state-by-state analysis of Guatemala that reveals that most migrants to the US come from the wealthiest states in Guatemala. Clemens argued that most of these people chose to migrate following an increase in wealth in the state where they lived. Further, Clemens claimed it takes privileged resources, like personal connections to people in other countries and access to technology, to migrate successfully–resources that are more available to Guatemala’s wealthier residents, not the poorest. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to close, it was those who could afford to who migrated, leading to record number of encounters at the US’ southern border.
It costs money to migrate. The costs for smugglers, bribes, food, and shelter quickly add up during the 3,000-mile trek through Mexico to the United States. A 2021 study estimated that migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador spend $2.2 billion annually to migrate to the US. Yet one of the most common strategies proposed by both Democrats and Republicans alike is to invest in migrants’ home countries through multi-million dollar development programs allegeldy aimed at reducing the economic incentives to migrate. Every president since Bill Clinton has praised international development as a panacea to illegal immigration. If there were more opportunities, less crime, and better education, or so the logic goes, fewer people would want to leave their homes to come to the US. In fact, Vice President Kamala Harris is currently leading an initiative to employ public-private partnerships throughout Latin America in the hopes of increasing opportunity and disincentivizing migration.
If the goal of the development approach is increasing opportunity and GDP, some would say this strategy is working. The GDP of Guatemala, a country of origin for a large percent of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border, has increased ten-fold since 1990. Collectively, Latin American countries have steadily increased their GDP from $782 billion in 1980 to over $5 trillion in 2021. US Companies like Ford and Mattel are investing in these countries as they “nearshore” their manufacturing facilities to the region. Governments throughout Latin America are expanding education opportunities, healthcare, and security programs and experiencing an increased quality of life.
However, if the goal of development assistance is stopping migration, this strategy does not seem to be working. Immigration to the US from Latin America has increased year-over-year for decades. Between 2009 and 2019, Mexico, a shining star of what we could call the “development fix,” saw declining numbers of emigrants to the US. International development advocates took credit for this decline, using these figures as proof positive of their model. Yet after COVID ravaged the country, the number of Mexicans fleeing to the US increased by 50 percent from 2019 to 2020. The pandemic reversed the positive trends in Mexico’s GDP and quality of life, leaving around 44 percent of Mexicans destitute and in search of opportunities elsewhere. Events like these, once considered rare, are expected to increase in frequency, casting doubt on any future progress development investment might offer.
Former President Trump’s draconian immigration policies, like Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Protocols (also known as Remain in Mexico), only compounded the issue by closing off the border to asylum-seekers. Instead of turning back, most remained in unsafe conditions near the border. The bottleneck of nearly 1.6 million migrants awaiting their chance to plead for asylum or cross again quickly overwhelmed our immigration infrastructure. As a result, the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, reports “a sharp increase in migrants dying in the U.S.-Mexican border.” Each day migrants wait in these conditions requires millions of dollars spent by non-governmental organizations (mainly from US donors) to house, feed, and care for these people.
Instead of direct economic development or closing the border, one alternative solution is to increase opportunities for labor migration. In another recent study, Clemens argued that refugees and migrants add billions a year to the US economy and fill millions of what would be vacant jobs. Circular labor migration visas allowing migrants to go home and come back to the US to work would benefit the US by filling these labor shortages and increasing remittances (money sent to home countries). The World Bank estimates that remittances make up around 20 percent of the GDPs of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. A more fluid set of immigration policies that allows migrants to enter and exit to work might be a more effective and efficient method of international investment than foreign aid. These visas would normalize the legal process, alleviating the pressure on our backlogged immigration courts and save the lives of migrants with legitimate asylum claims. Immigration officials could track approved visa-holders, renew their eligibility based on set criteria, and pave the way for legal pathways to citizenship while still allowing migrants to access the good jobs they seek and that the United States needs.
Investing in the well-being of our neighboring countries is an important—even imperative—endeavor for many reasons, but it will not stop migration. Migration is–and has always been–part of human societies. In fact, circular labor migration was the law of the land until relatively recently and this type of migration brought economic benefits to the US and other countries. Migration is a fact of life. We must stop thinking about how to prevent migration into the US and instead focus on formalizing it to mutually benefit both home and destination countries.
Feature image by Leon Overweel on Unsplash.