On July 21, the White House released its new U.S Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America (Root-Causes-Strategy.pdf (whitehouse.gov). As Vice President Harris emphasized in her cover message, “the root causes of migration run deep—and migration from the region has a direct impact on the United States. For that reason, our nation must consistently engage with the region to address the hardships that cause people to leave Central America and come to our border ( Vice President’s Cover Letter: U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America | The White House.)” The strategy’s desired end state is defined as a “democratic, prosperous, and safe Central America, where people advance economically, live, work, and learn in safety and dignity, contribute to and benefit from the democratic process, have confidence in public institutions, and enjoy opportunities to create futures for themselves and their families at home.”
These are laudable goals, which the strategy seeks to achieve through five “pillars:” (1) Addressing economic insecurity and inequality; (2) Combating corruption, strengthening democratic governance, and advancing the rule of law ; (3) Promoting respect for human rights, labor rights, and a free press; (4) Countering and preventing violence, extortion, and other crimes perpetrated by criminal gangs, trafficking networks, and other organized criminal organizations; and (5) Combating sexual, gender-based, and domestic violence. Each of these pillars is supported by various lines of effort, many of which advance progress in multiple pillars.
In the purely technical sense, the strategy appears to be a sound document and is comparable to what one would expect to see from the National Security Council planning staff. There are several issues, however, that might give one pause in considering the Biden Administration’s intentions concerning its implementation.
First, there is no mention of strengthening U.S. border security during a period in which the Border Patrol has reported a staggering number of undocumented migrants at the southern border.
On its face, the strategy appears to offer a great many incentives to Central American leaders whose governments and societies are mired in corruption, without proposing an immediate deterrent. A clue for this might be found in Vice President Harris’s cover letter, in which she ties the new strategy to “our Administration’s vision to reform our immigration system by creating a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented migrants in our country.” While the administration wishes to address the root causes of migration from Central America, it does not make clear – but certainly suggests – how it plans to deal with 11 million people who are already in the country illegally: simply by letting them stay.
Second, the strategy is devoid of metrics. How does one measure success in implementing the five pillars and their accompanying lines of effort? Without measures of effectiveness, it is difficult – actually, impossible – to assess strategic performance and assign accountability for results. This is where the administration appears to be giving itself an out. As Vice President Harris commented, “We will build on what works, and we will pivot away from what does not work…It will not be easy, and progress will not be instantaneous, but we are committed to getting it right.” But how do we know if they have gotten it right if the strategy’s authors do not define what “right” looks like?
For the Biden Administration, there is also a key political consideration at play. The strategy is largely associated with Vice President Harris in her role as the administration’s immigration “czar” (more technically “czarina”). Any lack of success is likely to accrue to her, not to the Oval Office. On the other hand, success, no matter how defined, is likely to be claimed by an administration of which she is only one part. Is the strategy intended for the long haul? It certainly appears to be intended for the next four years.
Maybe it’s too early to be so critical. After all, the strategy just hit the street and government agencies are undoubtedly still working on their implementation plans. A first look at this document, however, suggests a long-term, open-ended, and expensive commitment working with some questionable partners and lacking meaningful, measurable goals and standards for effectiveness and accountability with no clear end in sight.
The author is a retired U.S. Army officer and a retired senior civilian employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. He is a regular contributor to The Prickly Pear on national security issues.
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