Jobs are key to reducing migration, says Biden's Northern Triangle envoy

Ricardo Zúñiga, U.S. special envoy to the Northern Triangle. Photo by: US Embassy San Salvador

The United States will not be able to reduce migration from Central America without help from the private sector, according to Ricardo Zúñiga, the U.S. special envoy to the Northern Triangle.

The current rate at which people are leaving Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala is not “an episode” happening only right now, he said, but rather part of a “fundamental dynamic” in the region that has caused migration for years.

“Here’s the bottom line: There is absolutely no chance that we are going to be able to address this dynamic, …  long-standing problem unless we create jobs in Central America,” Zúñiga said Monday at a virtual event. “We completely agree on the need for legal pathways and to enhance circular migration certainly where there are opportunities available, but those are on the margins compared to what needs to happen in Central America.”

Zúñiga — who is tasked with engaging governments, private sector, and civil society in the Northern Triangle amid record-high levels of migration — said the region must improve trade with Mexico, simplify customs procedures, decrease bottlenecks at ports, and have a more even distribution of labor flows. 

President Joe Biden plans to allocate $4 billion over four years for development in Central America and to address root causes of migration. His first budget request, released earlier this month, included $861 million of that total.

That money isn’t just for the Northern Triangle, Zúñiga said, but for all of Central America, including Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. He said U.S. assistance shouldn’t be fragmented but used in an integrated way.

“Integration is central to the long-term vision in the region, and so that is obviously complicated when we’re talking about ensuring that countries are able to enforce their borders,” Zúñiga said. “There is no way that you can talk about Central America without thinking about integration, and there’s also no way that you can talk about addressing our specific security and migration-related concerns without addressing this in an integrated way, either.”

“We need to have a road map on having these regional conversations: how to create jobs, but how to create jobs in the context of the regionalization of the value chains.”

— Martha Barcena, former Mexican Ambassador to the U.S.

He said that increasing employment this year will require more vaccination access in the Northern Triangle — where none of the three countries have received enough doses to inoculate more than 2% of their populations.

Former Honduran President Ricardo Maduro said that to make economic growth in the region lasting and sustainable, longstanding issues such as corruption and rule of law must be addressed. But he said he’s never seen motivation from the private sector to invest like he’s seeing now.

“I think it’s going to produce results which are lasting,” Maduro said at the event. “I see them totally committed to it.”

The Northern Triangle must better integrate not only with Mexico but the rest of North America, said former Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Martha Barcena. She said the increased demand for products such as pharmaceuticals and personal protective equipment caused by the pandemic demonstrates an opportunity for increased manufacturing in the region.

“How do we think of regional value chains not only U.S., Mexico, and Canada but U.S. Mexico, Canada, and Central America?” Barcena said. “In the medium-long term, I would work harder on integrating better economies of the Central American countries with Mexico. Because if you look at the data, their exports to Mexico are not even 10% of their total exports, which is ridiculous.”

“We need to have a road map on having these regional conversations: how to create jobs, but how to create jobs in the context of the regionalization of the value chains,” Barcena continued.

Traditional aid also has a place, she said when it comes to addressing short-term causes of migration. There are multiple international agencies, as well as local and regional groups, that are currently implementing successful programs in the region that are helping address immediate needs, she said.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation, humanitarian assistance such as direct cash transfers, school networks that improve access to education, and infrastructure projects to increase internet access must all continue, Barcena said.

“Do not try to create new programs ... because it will take time. Just use what’s already in place,” Barcena said. “These will allow you to gain time to prepare for the next step or the next kind of programs that you need, that, of course, should be concentrated in vaccination and the economic recovery.”

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.