U.S. Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zúñiga. Photo by: Lenin Nolly / Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

U.S. government officials urged patience from members of Congress during a Wednesday hearing on how quickly the Biden administration might improve conditions in Central America with foreign assistance and decrease migration to the southern U.S. border.

U.S. Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zúñiga said the current rate of migration — with 172,331 border encounters by the end of March — is caused by push factors such as insecurity, lack of opportunity, and “despair” that people’s lives will not improve.

He said the administration is focused on security, prosperity promotion, and governance in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

“Our very difficult job as a government, working in consultation with Congress … is to find a way forward. First of all, to enforce our laws, enforce our borders, but to demonstrate that there are other legal pathways that can be used by those seeking legal migration to the United States. And most of all, generating hope in Central America that they might have a better day and a reason to stay,” Zúñiga told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, Migration and International Economic Policy.

“People seeking safety, people seeking prosperity, people seeking justice, have a right to have all of those things in their countries.”

“Our work is to help generate the enabling conditions that make that possible. That is difficult work … that will take many years to accomplish,” Zúñiga continued. “But we have to begin somewhere, and we have to build on what’s already been accomplished.”

President Joe Biden’s discretionary budget request released last week, the first part of a $4 billion planned over four years, included $861 million “to drive systemic reform while addressing the root causes of irregular migration from Central America to the United States.”

He has tasked Vice President Kamala Harris as the point person on the southern border and appointed Zúñiga, who traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala last week, as special envoy.

“The message I’m sharing is that the United States is committed to working with governments and all those who share a common vision of a prosperous, secure, and democratic Central America,” Zúñiga said of his conversations in the region. “We do so while enforcing U.S. immigration laws and promoting safe, orderly, and humane migration and improving access and protection for those who need it.”

The envoy called current migration levels “part of a recurring pattern,” while several members of Congress repeatedly referred to the situation on the border as a “crisis.”

“We’re committed to supporting countries in their efforts at becoming stronger, safer, and more prosperous so citizens can remain at home and create a better future for themselves and their families.”

— Peter Natiello, deputy assistant administrator, Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean

Republicans admonished the Biden administration for terminating Trump administration policies that kept Central American asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico until their U.S. court dates, or sought to force them to apply for asylum in a country they transited on their journey to the southern border. Former President Donald Trump also cut off U.S. foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle in retaliation for continued migration of those countries’ citizens to the U.S.

Zúñiga said Guatemala was the only country that had begun implementing its Migration Cooperation Agreement signed under Trump, which led to the removal of 1,000 people. The low number, he said, was proof that the Biden administration’s policy reversal did not cause the current swell at the border.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Senior Republican Michael McCaul, from Texas, who does not sit on the subcommittee but joined members to question the Biden administration officials at the hearing, called the situation on the border “the worst I have seen.”

“I think we can still solve this problem. And we have to. We cannot allow this to go on,” McCaul said. “We also need to address the root cause. I can talk all about border security all day long, but until we address the root cause, it’s going to continue to happen.”

Peter Natiello, U.S. Agency for International Development deputy assistant administrator for the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the agency is “aggressively ramping up” programs that help address root causes of migration.

This week, USAID announced it will focus on providing opportunities to people most likely to migrate by providing humanitarian assistance, promoting private sector engagement, reducing the economic impact of natural disasters, supporting returned migrants, and encouraging legal pathways of migration.

“There’s no doubt that the conditions on the ground are difficult. COVID-19 plus the damage wrought by Hurricanes Eta and Iota have only further complicated the situation,” said Natiello, who previously served as USAID mission director for El Salvador.

“As USAID scales up efforts to address the root causes of migration, we also recognize that assistance alone will not be enough. Our success in the region depends on a long-term commitment by governments, the private sector, and civil society to combat corruption and improve governance.”

USAID also announced deployment of a Disaster Assistance Response Team to the region for the second time last week, following the two hurricanes that hit in the fall. The DART will focus on “rapidly scaling up emergency food assistance” as well as supporting programs to help people earn an income and protect the most vulnerable, USAID said.

Natiello also assured members of Congress — many of which expressed concern over the rates of corruption in the Northern Triangle — that very little money spent by USAID goes directly to governments. He said just 1.6%, or $5.8 million, of appropriated funds for the fiscal year 2020 went to governments.

McCaul urged the Biden administration to use the Development Finance Corporation to increase foreign investment in the Northern Triangle while deterring Chinese involvement there. Subcommittee Senior Republican Member Mark Green, from Tennessee, urged the Biden administration to create incentives for businesses to relocate their supply chains to the Western Hemisphere, a strategy that the Inter-American Development Bank has also championed.

“While fostering improved economic opportunities is key, these efforts will not be successful if security challenges are not addressed,” Natiello said. “We’re committed to supporting countries in their efforts at becoming stronger, safer, and more prosperous so citizens can remain at home and create a better future for themselves and their families.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.