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Biden Aims To Tackle Root Cause Of Migrants Massing At U.S. Border


What can the United States really do about Central American asylum-seekers heading north? Listen carefully to a single sentence in the news, and you get a clue how hard it might be. The oft-repeated sentence is, numbers of migrants have climbed to their highest monthly levels since 2019 - highest since 2019. To critics of President Biden, that means his policies are attracting people. But when we say the highest since 2019, that means there was a similar surge during the Trump administration, despite its separation of children from their families and turning away asylum-seekers at the border, among other things. The new administration hopes to focus instead on solving the problems that cause people to migrate. So let's talk about that with Carrie Kahn, NPR's correspondent in Mexico City, and Franco Ordoñez, NPR's White House correspondent. Good morning to you both.


CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Carrie, the president is telling people to stay where they are for now. How realistic is it that migrants are going to listen to that?

KAHN: Sure. That's a tough ask. Look, migrants are listening to human smugglers who are making all kinds of promises of getting them into the U.S. They're listening to relatives that are already in the U.S. who can tell them about whether they can get jobs. And mostly, they're listening to their daily reality. Remember, in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, you're already dealing with high levels of violence, gangs, grinding poverty. Then two hurricanes hit the region, and then now, this year of the pandemic. I talked to Jose Aquino, who works for the U.S. charity Mercy Corps in Guatemala, and he was telling me about families devastated by the hurricanes - crops flooded, livestock dead, you know, savings - any savings they had, wiped out. Then the pandemic hit, and people lost jobs. And during these long lockdowns, he said, everyone knows it's a huge risk to try and get to the U.S.

JOSE AQUINO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But he says the economic pressures people are facing are just so great that in the case of Guatemala, people are willing to risk it, especially to send their children to what they hope will be a better future.

INSKEEP: Well, Franco, what is the president proposing to do over time?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he's trying to resurrect a strategy that he tried near the end of the Obama administration. At that time, they earmarked a billion dollars for police training, judicial reforms and other projects to these three Northern Triangle countries. The Trump administration cut a lot of that aid, though spending did increase later on. Now, Biden is seeking $4 billion in aid from Congress for these countries. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas talked about it yesterday, actually.


ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Imagine loving parents willing to allow their young child under the age of 18 to leave home, traverse Mexico alone to reach our southern border. That speaks of the level of desperation, and we must address the root causes that lead a loving parent to do that.

ORDOÑEZ: But there is a change, Steve. Biden says the money won't go to the government leaders because of the problems with corruption. Instead, it's going to go to communities and international organizations.

INSKEEP: Carrie, why does the administration think they can't trust Central American governments?

KAHN: It's basically because corruption is rampant and endemic in these countries. You know, we're talking about collusion with drug traffickers and organized crime gangs, especially in, like, the case of Honduras, where the president is facing allegations in the U.S. of taking bribes from drug-runners. No, but there's a lot of embezzlement, personal enrichment by politicians, outright theft and misuse. And the checks and balances on power in these countries is very weakened. Biden knows Central America well and the players there, and he says he's not going to deal with corrupt officials anymore. His top Latin American adviser just gave an interview to an independent news outlet in El Salvador, and he repeated that several times. A leader unready to go after corruption will not be a U.S. ally.

INSKEEP: But they are going to find a way to spend the money, Franco. Why would this work out any better than it has in the past?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it's a big question. As, you know, Carrie just notes, corruption is so rampant, and that's what makes executing this plan so difficult. As one expert told me, corruption has a way of undermining even the best-designed foreign aid efforts. Eddy Acevedo, who served as national security adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Trump administration - he says he supports these kinds of initiatives. He even fought for them when he was a Hill staffer. But he says it's also important to acknowledge that they can only do so much.

EDDY ACEVEDO: It's not in a whole new way. President Obama did the same thing, and we still saw the spikes at the border.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, he noted that the United States has already sent billions to Central America to address many of these similar things - poverty, weak governance and insecurity. Now, granted, former President Donald Trump did not help matters. He basically looked the other way as, you know, those anti-corruption efforts were shelved that Carrie mentioned. But Acevedo says ultimately, the United States can't want these changes more than the leaders of the countries themselves. They need more buy-in from the region.

KAHN: Well, all of that's definitely true, and development aid is - you know, it's a long-term solution. And so that's the problem. It just takes a lot of time. But check out this view from Kurt Alan Ver Beek. He's worked in Honduras for decades. He works with this group called Association for a More Just Society. It's the local chapter of Transparency International, which advocates for good governance. And I wanted to see what he thought, if anything, could be done differently. And he said, look; if the U.S. really targets this aid in Central America and creates a scorecard that would truly evaluate whether the governments are improving - are they really lowering violence? Are they really improving the economy, making education better? - he said that U.S. scorecard could then be used by citizens of these countries to grade their own politicians.

KURT ALAN VER BEEK: It becomes a scorecard for these governments, and they'll start directing how people vote and what people think about the country. And if that happens, that, I think, could be an amazing pressure for good.

KAHN: But again, he says, these are long-term ideas and plans, and he warned that the next five to 10 years in Central America are going to be very difficult.

INSKEEP: Franco, is it possible the administration could limit overland migration by becoming the latest administration to encourage people to apply for asylum from their home countries?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, that's part of the effort that they're trying to do. What they want to do is set up these processing centers in the region so that people can apply for asylum closer to home. And then if it's granted, then they can come to the United States. But it's really complicated. It's debatable how much this will actually curb the numbers. The reality remains that the majority of people are coming for economic reasons, and most of those who apply for asylum are denied. So the question for the Biden administration is, how open should the United States really be for who some describe as economic refugees?

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and NPR's correspondent in Mexico City, Carrie Kahn. Thanks to you both, as always.

KAHN: You're welcome.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.