A second chance for Biden in Central America

Ariel Castro-Martinez | Latin America Fellow

America’s response to the immigration crisis from Central America’s ‘Northern Triangle’ has no easy answer. Highly contested U.S immigration and border security policy makes a consistent foreign policy response difficult. Inability to solve this humanitarian emergency fails both Central American refugees, and America’s promise to itself and the world. President-elect Joseph Biden has shown a willingness to refine his positions on tough policy questions. He may just have the tools to redeem himself and the nation.

How Biden builds out his Central America policy demands scrutiny. Caught between his history in the region, domestic constraints that limit the possibility for reform, and the inherent uncertainty of America’s ability to solve deep problems abroad, Biden’s second chance in Central America risks simply extending unsuccessful immigration and foreign policy orthodoxy in the region.


In 2014, as record numbers of unaccompanied minors entered the United States, President Obama tapped Vice President Biden as point-person to manage the international response to Central America’s burgeoning crisis. The Obama-Biden administration’s heavy use of deportation––and the Trump administration’s family separation policy––has drawn criticism on humanitarian grounds. Deterrence strategies aimed at stemming the flow of migration from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are cruel and ineffective against the existential threats of poverty and the world’s highest homicide rates. President-elect Biden’s aspirations to ‘restore moral leadership’ to America’s immigration policy make his prospective solutions more urgent, contentious, and fragile.


The key pillar of Biden’s Central America policy will be a renewed Alliance for Prosperity aid program. Personally negotiated between Vice President Biden and Northern Triangle leaders in 2015, the USD $750 million development assistance package had aimed to provide stability in these countries. The new Biden administration plans to expand the program by spending USD $4 billion over four years as part of a comprehensive regional strategy to re-engage the U.S in Central America. In 2019, President Trump pulled the program’s funding, asking Central American governments to first halt migration before they would receive development assistance.


The opposing logic of Biden and Trump’s Central America approaches belies an unstated consensus in strategy that has operated––and may continue to operate––across American administrations. Both approaches work to deter migration but disagree about timing. Where Biden’s approach expects slowed migration flows to follow development, Trump demands reduced migration as a precondition for investment. Problematically for Biden, delayed results leave him politically vulnerable over how to handle migrant flows caused by existing insecurity across Central America. Where Trump benefited politically from taking tougher measures to impede migration, Biden has signalled reluctance to re-employ the tactics of the Trump or Obama administrations to deal with the buildup of migrants at America’s southern border. If high levels of northern migration from Central America re-emerge due to pressures from lapsed development aid, pandemic, or climate change, Biden will see a buildup of asylum claims before he sees the buildup of relative security in Central America.


To be successful, Biden will have to mend the gap between a regretful past and an unrealised, more moral future. Complicating matters is the political gap between Biden’s power as President and his ability to enact comprehensive legislative reform through a divided congress.


President-elect Biden pledges to use executive action to reverse Trump-era detention and deterrence policy. This includes family separation, the appropriation of federal funds for border wall construction, and the persecution of DACA recipients. Furthermore, Biden pledges to commit significant political capital to deliver legislative immigration reform. Besides doing the necessary work to undo President Trump’s most egregious border policies, Biden will not be able to achieve long-term immigration reform to match his ambition in Central America without the input of congressional Republicans that have, until now, abided Trump’s immigration policies.


At stake in Biden’s Central American immigration dilemma is his role as redeemer of America to itself and abroad. Biden’s political hallmark is his ability to work both across the wings of his party and across the aisles of congress. Key to his political style is a personalism that can generate agreements with opposition lawmakers and foreign leaders. Biden’s long path to the White House centred on a redemptive arc for not only his own past political mistakes, but also the nation’s rejection of Donald Trump. If President Biden cannot deliver the legislative immigration reform that his party demands and that his Central America policy needs, he may lose much of the personal political capital his leadership trades on. Much worse, the United States will lose the opportunity to find a lasting solution to a regional crisis that threatens to perpetuate.


America’s ability to conduct long-term foreign policy is on the line. Complex international crises are exceeding the nation’s ability to build the consensus, enact the reforms, and sustain the responses necessary to solve the problems where American leadership matters. The U.S cannot instil stability abroad with its own unsteady hand. The cooperation the U.S needs from its Central American partners to solve problems like migration and corruption requires reliable and ethical intentions in the region. President Biden may be the best navigator of America’s political and moral terrain, and the best steward of its values overseas. Joe Biden’s second chance in Central America will give his original long-term vision the continuity it needs. Hopefully, it will also deliver a new, more compassionate, and sustainable immigration policy that Central America deserves.


Ariel Castro-Martinez is the Latin America fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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