JANUARY 3–6, 2019

Instability of Central America & the US Response (Part 2)

Political Climate

Manuel Orozco, PhD

Director
Migration, Remittances and Development
Inter-American Dialogue

Dr. Orozco reported a trend of increasing state fragility and political instability in Central America since 2010. He drew a stark picture of the trends, causes, and scenarios that are creating this instability and the implications for US policy in the region. He identified factors contributing to State vulnerability including the erosion of legitimacy among political authorities, the weak rule of law enabling corruption and organized crime, and political party and elite fragmentation. These three problems cause tremendous distraction among elites in ways that precluded them from focusing on key policy priorities, such as economic development, Dr. Oroczo reported.

Central America

Despite the fact that Central America figures largely in the current dispute in Washington, DC over the Border Wall, the region is not still among the top priorities for the State department. This lack of interest reflects an underappreciation of why and how Central America matters in US policy. Forty years of US policy toward the region, in particular regarding economic development, must change, Dr. Oroczo said.

While worldwide conflict is at a low point, state fragility and violence in Central America have dramatically increased. Four of the 7 Central American states are in the midst of a crisis in stability. Migration from the region is the third largest in the world after Syria and Venezuela, driven by drug and gang violence, which accounts for 15,000 deaths per year. The people have lost faith in their governments, therefore, political authority has no legitimate control. Most people live on less than $200 per year, while the Cost of Living is $600 annually, producing economic pressure and desperation.

The region is confronted with four major challenges:1. Politically vulnerable states affected by a legitimacy crisis, weak rule of law, and fragmented political parties.2. Poor economic development resulting from obsolete model of growth, informal economies, and a concentrated big business sector.3. A prevailing ecosystem of organized crime formed by drug cartels, extortion rings, human rights violations, and gang violence.4. Migratory wave shaped by demand for foreign labor, transnational networks, violence and weak economic performance.

Political Vulnerability

The historically weak states of the region have a common thread of reliance on military rule and coercion, with high levels of violence and repression over the rule of law. Coercion is more important than consent. The States are in the early stages of democratization, with less than 30 years of experience, and pro-democracy efforts are limited and confronted by a narrow circle of power. Furthermore, elites maintain a tight grip on power and access to wealth. They are reticent to take on political, social, or economic change, and are focused on a few resources of wealth and are unwilling/unable to take risks.

Economic Vulnerability

The region’s model of economic growth displays limited capacity to create good or even new jobs, Dr. Oroczo pointed out. First, economic growth in the region has been driven on a fragile dependence on the global economy. Specifically, on merchandise exports (predominantly agriculture and “maquilas”) and tourism. In terms of merchandise exports, less than 20 products accounts for more than 60% of exports handled by 50 top companies, which in turn employ only a fraction of the total labor force. The growth model based on ‘courtesan’ economies (tourism, maquila, non-traditional exports and migration) is decelarating with no subsitute in sight. The second pole of growth is linked to migration. Remittances, nostalgic trade, diaspora tourism and other services represent nearly 20% of GDP in the region.

Between these poles is a vast informal sector, comprised of more than two thirds of the labor force and the business sector together. Central America is not a private sector economy but rather is an informal economy of people living at the poverty level with little education, and earning a living via the informal economy, such as selling mangoes.  Most of these enterprises are one-person businesses. OVERALL, low income levels are the byproduct of an economic model based on agriculture or other low-performing products that rely on unskilled, uneducated and underpaid labor.

Remittances

The region’s GDPs (2017) ranged from $13 billion in Nicaragua to $70 billion in Guatemala, with growth ranging from 2.3% to 4.5%. Economic growth is limited and is substantially driven by remittances. For example, Guatemala’s GDP increased by $2 billion from 2016-2017, with $1 billion or 51% coming from remittances. Remittance contributions to GDP growth ranged from 25% in Nicaragua to 78% in El Salvador. Remittance transfers represent over 50% of household income among some 3.5 million households in the region (1 in 3 households).

Corruption

The ecosystem of organized crime and corruption is rampant in the region and is transnational. It crosses all levels of society, from the wealthiest elites who over-invoice the government for services and materials, defrauding the State of hundreds of millions of dollars, to strong transnational organized crime organizations that control most of the economy, down to local gangs who occupy and control areas. Fewer than 20,000 people in the drug cartels and organized crime syndicates manipulate and control the Central American States and their economies by co-opting politicians, the police, and the Army.

Synthetic drug use has grown worldwide, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which shows that the worldwide number of users of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) is higher than the combined number of heroin and cocaine users. The synthetic drug trade includes chemical acquisition, manufacturing equipment, expertise and movement of the finished product. According to the DEA, 65% of the methamphetamine available in the US is produced in Mexico. As demand grows, the Mexican cartels have developed further and now operate in Central America, which is becoming a nexus for low cost synthetic drug manufacturing.

Violence Drives Migration

Waves of severe violence and insecurity associated with organized crime networks influence decisions to emigrate. A larger number of people have sought to leave their home countries, including many applying for political asylum, to escape persecution from narco-trafficking networks, gangs, or extortion rings. In Honduras, a 1% increase in homicides drives migration by 120%. In Guatemala, a 1% increase in homicides drives migration by 100%. In El Salvador, homicides drive migration by 188%. Outmigration from Central America continues but is slowing down due to its irregular nature and US enforcement, showing only 1% growth between 2009-2018.

US Foreign Policy

Dr. Oroczo advised that US foreign policy could make a significant stabilizing impact on the region. He advocated for an increase in educational funding which will support the democratization effort. Currently, the old elite is dying out and a new generation is emerging to fill the power vacuum. An educated new generation willing to carry out corruption investigations would bring greater stability to the region.

Any policy intervention should triangulate the economic impact of migration with the drivers that caused it and with the fundamental development problems each migrant-sending country faces, Dr. Oroczo said. Based on this understanding, differentiated development strategies will capture the realities and the desired outcomes to be achieved.  Looking at the regional context, a triangulated approach includes:

1. Tackling one key value of migration, namely, formalizing savings and assets among remittance recipients.

2. Channeling the savings generated into credit for knowledge entrepreneurs and other small businesses.

3. Targeting the formalization of a small share of informal entrepreneurs in the local economies, particularly where migration is happening.

4. Formalizing labor migration into the US economy.

The US should make Central America a priority with a focus on:• Support economic development aimed at increasing competition• Enact political reforms• Improve organized attacks against criminal networks• Establish a migrant guest worker program

Transnational Criminal Organizations

Eric L. Olson

Consultant
Latin American Program
Mexico Institute
Wilson Center

Criminal activity in Central America has direct implications for US State Senate leaders, Mr. Olson pointed out. The region is a bridge, a key part of the transit path for illicit goods entering the US, which provides the best market for them. Mr. Olson noted that organized crime exists where the state is weak or where corruption allows collusion between State authorities and organized crime, which is rampant in the region.

He discussed the US response to these threats, which is promulgated in the executive order Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) and Preventing International Trafficking, whose goals are to disrupt illicit financial flows and to curb their operations in the US, as well as addressing the security, governance, and economic drivers of illegal immigration and illicit trafficking, and to promote private sector investment in Central America. Despite efforts to control the drug trade, 80-90% of cocaine entering the US continues to come through Central America and Mexico.

Central American Pathway of Illicit Goods

Central America is a bridge, a key part of the transit path for illicit goods entering the US, which provides the best market for them.

Organized Crime and Political Elites

Links between organized crime and political establishment figures in corrupt weak states have allowed the TCOs to operate with impunity. Mr. Olson identified the key cartels including the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico and the Bandas Criminals (BACRIM) in Columbia that trans-ship illicit goods, especially cocaine, through Central America. In Honduras, Los Cachiros and Valle Valle control cocaine trafficking, with the collusion of the government. Tony Hernandez, brother of the Honduran President, was arrested for cocaine shipments that bore his initials, illustrating the level of hubris among the crime organizations.  In El Salvador, where Los Perrones control the Gulf of Fonseca, a key trans-shipping harbor for illicit goods, one President is serving a jail term and a second fled to Nicaragua for asylum to escape judgment for corruption and collusion with TCOs. Guatemalan drug-trafficking routes are controlled by the Overdick family.

The Weakened Rule of Law

With the key players in the TCOs being readily identified, why are they so difficult to stop? Organized crime is emboldened in states that are weakened by ineffective police, ineffective justice systems (prosecutors and judges) with high impunity rates, overcrowded and disorganized criminal justice system and penitentiaries, and links between elites and organized crime. Some police officials in Central America are involved in corruption and/or linked to criminal organizations. For the most part, citizens have little trust in the police. The complicity of police and high level authorities makes it impossible for governments to deal with these criminals, Mr. Olson reported.

Strategies to contain TCOs include a focus on high valued targets, dismantling criminal organizations, incarceration, extradition and prosecution of key figures, Mr. Olson noted. Furthermore, police officials earn on average 16% less than the rest of the public sector in Latin America’s major cities, and, with higher salaries and greater professionalization of police work, the security in the region would likely improve. However, the scale of the problem is illustrated by these maps depicting the maritime, land, and air routes for illicit trade.

Maritime Routes for Illicit Trade

Land and Air Routes for Illicit Trade (2016)

The Illicit Economies

Mr. Olson identified 6 major illicit economies in the Americas: 1. Illicit drugs: marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin/fentanyl2. Extractives: precious metals, gems, and petroleum (crude and refined)3. Exotics: wood and animals4. Human:  smuggling and trafficking5. Contraband and pirated goods6. South bound: firearms and cash

The US Response

On February 9, 2017— President Trump signed the Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking executive order, with a goal to disrupt illicit financial flows and to curb their operations in the US.

The US Strategy for Engagement in Central America’s mission is to secure US borders and protect US citizens by addressing the security, governance, and economic drivers of illegal immigration and illicit trafficking, and to promote private sector investment in Central America. Mr. Olson described a 3-pillar approach focused on:

Prosperity: to improve the business environment, create jobs, enhance food security, expand energy security, and increase US investment and trade.

Security: by combatting drug and human trafficking, smuggling of people and illicit goods, and transnational gangs and criminal organizations before they reach the US.

Governance: to focus on reducing impunity and corruption through the creation of more transparent, efficient governments that deliver services effectively, including justice.

Attendance Rates By Age In Central America

SOURCE: Author's calculations from household data.

Education also is an important policy approach and US investments in education are imperative, Mr. Olson reported. In the region, school attendance drops off dramatically when children turn 12 years of age. At this vulnerable age, they are easy to recruit to gangs and criminal organizations. Intervening in this is essential to change the crisis, he concluded. 

Immigration & Migration

Andrew Selee

President
Migration Policy Institute

Migration from Northern Triangle countries of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala) now exceeds that from Mexico, and demographics also are changing. More families and minors trying to cross the border on migration routes through Mexico to Rio Grande Valley or to West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California border areas.

Many people are leaving the region due to fear of gangs and gang recruitment. Since 2012, asylum applications from Central Americans have increased 892% reflecting this threat. “We need pragmatic ways to approach migration policy,” Dr. Selee told the Forum, particularly focusing on asylum reform as the key to both fairness and deterrence. States hold the key to integration, Dr. Selee said, and the success of immigration depends on integration, education opportunities for children of immigrant families, and services and attention to unaccompanied minors.

Dr. Selee pointed out the then-current US government shutdown was related to Central American migration. The shutdown was driven by the Trump Administration’s conflict with Congress over the border wall policy, which is designed to block people crossing into the US. In recent years, migration from Mexico is down, while Central American immigration has increased.

Southwest Border Apprehensions (CBP Data)

Migration from Central America to the US

The US border strategy has focused on stopping young Mexican men from entering the US illegally, but they are no longer coming. Improvements in Mexico’s economy, educational opportunities, and healthcare is allowing Mexicans to seek a better life at home. Migrants from Central America now exceed those coming from Mexico.

Unaccompanied Minors

Changing demographics show increases in the number of unaccompanied minors and families, accounting for 57% of migrants in November 2019, mostly people fleeing due to fear of the gangs. Gang recruitment tactics are simple: “Join our gang or we will kill your family.”

There are other incentives for children to cross the border. US law requires that they be seen in court before being deported back to avoid the risk of them becoming victims of human trafficking. Instead, these children may reside in the US for years as they await an immigration hearing.

Asylum Seekers

The largest number of asylum seekers now come from Central America with 70,000 applicants in 2017, who may face a 2 to 3-year wait for an asylum hearing.

People seeking Asylum In the U.S.

* From three countries (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala).

SOURCE: DOJ EDIR FY12-FY16:UN HRC FY2017.

The Department of Homeland Security reports that it apprehends most people trying to cross the border illegally. But illegal entry is no longer through the desert. Most new unauthorized immigrants are visa overstayers or asylum permit overstayers, Dr. Selee reported.

Venezuela experienced economic freefall in the past 3 years with inflation exceeding one million per cent. It has become the source of large migration outflows in the last 3 years, at a scale and speed comparable to the current Syrian migration. Three million people left Venezuela in the last 3 years, and 5 million are projected to have left by 2019. Eighty per cent of Venezuelans leaving the country fled to other Latin American countries, but more are entering the US as well, including 100,000 in 2015-2017, mostly well-educated professionals who overstay their tourist visas.

Asylum Reform

Some strategies to reduce illegal immigration to the US have proven to be ineffective, including family separation, narrowing asylum access, and leaving asylum seekers in Mexico, and newer, more effective approaches are needed, Dr. Selee reported.

Currently, asylum seekers may work in the US for 2 to 3 years while they await an asylum hearing. If they are rejected, they will struggle against going back to the fearful situation in their home country. If asylum decisions were made more quickly, for example, made by asylum officers within 6 months, there would be less incentive and fewer attempts to get asylum wrongly.

Merit-based immigration, where people migrate to fill open jobs, would be a path toward fairness in migration policy, Dr. Selee said. Ultimately, long-term investments in rule of law and economic development in the sending countries will be essential to solve the problems of the region.

Dr. Selee contrasted asylum reform plans proposed by the Trump Administration and by Congress. The Administration’s plan, trumpeted in the State of the Union address in 2018, focuses on merit-based immigration and eliminates diversity visas. Enforcement through the Border Wall is a key platform, as well as a plan to legalize the “Dreamers” through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some individuals who entered the US illegally as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit in the US.

The Congressional plan also focuses on merit-based immigration and includes enforcement through workplace verification and improved technology at the border. The Congressional Plan differs in proposing earned legalization for unauthorized persons in US after a certain number of years, which varies in different versions.

Role of the States

Success of immigration depends on integration, Dr. Selee said, which usually happens in the second generation, where children of immigrants “feel American.” Educational opportunities for children of immigrant families, along with services and attention to the needs of unaccompanied minors are key for future integration, he said. Currently, there are limited services for unaccompanied minors who may be placed with families who don’t speak their language. They struggle with school and are easy targets for gang recruitment. The States hold the key to effective integration of immigrants through providing education, credentialing so immigrants can practice in their trained professions, and workforce development, he concluded.

Discussion

Sen. John Cullerton (IL): How does the asylum process work?

Dr. Selee: Asylum seekers can apply for asylum at US Ports of Entry, where they are taken into custody and allowed a “Credible Fear Screening.” If they are able to establish a credible fear of persecution or torture if they returned to their home country, they are allowed to enter the US. This hearing is a low bar and about 80% of applicants are accepted.

Their case then goes into the Immigration Court, which currently has a backlog of 700,000 cases. It may take 2 to 4 years for the asylum hearing to be scheduled. That hearing requires the asylum seeker to present evidence supporting their claim that their fear to return to their country is real, based on evidence of murders, threats.  If they do not persuade the Court that their fear is legitimate, they are deported.

People caught crossing the border illegally can claim asylum and receive a “Credible Fear Screening.” Adults will be detained until their hearing, while children and families may be detained 21 days. The US has been trying to leave people detained in Mexico but this is controversial. Are these detainees safe in Mexico? How will they get legal counsel? How will they know when their hearing date is set? Such questions make this scenario ineffective.

Additionally, many people don’t understand the system. They think that their “Credible Fear Screening” was their asylum hearing, and that they have been legally admitted to the US.

Today, most people are not crossing the border illegally. They are overstaying their visas while they wait for asylum hearings.

Sen. Martin Looney (CT): What is the difference in the documentation and evidence required for an asylum hearing versus a “Credible Fear Screening?”

Mr. Olson: The Asylum hearing requires that a person demonstrate a personal fear of persecution or torture and provide evidence for this. This may include medical reports, corroborative newspaper reports, and other evidence.

Dr. Oroczo: The challenge is that most people have no documentation. They were forced to flee and did not gather evidence. Furthermore, about half of asylum seekers have no legal counsel.  The asylum seeker must demonstrate that a personal threat exists.

Sen. Charles Schneider (IA): Many States are struggling to get an adequate workforce; we need specific skill sets. What occupations and skill sets do immigrants bring to the US? How much of a brain waste issue is there?

Dr. Selee: 48% of new immigrants in the past 5 years were college educated, compared to 32% of Americans. But they are challenged to get through examinations, certificate programs and past barriers erected by professional organizations. Two million immigrants in the US have professions but cannot practice. As a result, there is significant brain waste, with teachers, doctors, dentists, engineers and other professionals having to abandon their professions, if they cannot get a license to practice in the US. A better strategy would be to identify bilingual teachers and enable them to become teachers’ aides quickly, on a path toward full credentialing as teachers.

Dr. Oroczo: Unfortunately, many Central American immigrants do not have professional skills. Instead, 1 out of 3 Central American immigrant women work as domestic workers in millions of US households.  What is needed for them are labor rights and protections. Currently, there are few protections for them. At the State and municipal level, services could be provided to help them form Limited Liability Companies and become taxpayers. Their skill level may be low but they provide needed labor support.

Sen. Kenneth Eric LaFleur (LA): What training do immigration judges receive?

Dr. Selee: It depends very much on which judge you get, as their backgrounds and training are very diverse. There definitely could be a more organized and technological approach to immigration hearings. But refugees are the most-vetted population, and they are interviewed by highly trained investigators.

Nick Infante (Wal-Mart Stores): Given the thousands of routes by which illicit goods enter the US, is there any way to stop the tide?

Mr. Olson: We can’t stop all of it. At the US border, drugs enter through legitimate Ports of Entry. We could do more but the more sophisticated technology to detect drugs is at the border. We could do more in Central America in cooperation with States authorities and law enforcement, but the States are weak, there is collusion and no desire to fix the problem. In some cases, law enforcement agencies will not support or cooperate with US agents to stop the trafficking from its source. Corruption is the problem.

Dr. Oroczo: The logistics are challenging. Drugs are shipped in small packets worth $10,000 to $20,000 per carrier, which may be in taxis and cars. That way, loss from apprehensions is limited. It would be easiest to stop the flow at the border or at the point of manufacturing where the drug is loaded for transport.

Mr. Olson: The drug traffickers know they will lose some drugs along the way. But drugs have high profit margins, and they can lose 80% of the load and still make a profit. Law enforcement could stop more shipments, but consumption in the US is the real problem. Populist politicians let the drugs go through because if they interfere with the trade, they can expect violent reprisals from drug lords. They say “We are dying due to US cocaine use.” This is corrupting their politics.

Dr. Selee: The one and a half million cocaine users in the US are contributing to violence in Central America.

David Long (IceMiller LLP): What would be an effective “Path to Citizenship” program?

Dr. Selee: The US was built on immigration. The long-term goal is to integrate immigrants so they can contribute. That’s the thinking behind the Path to Citizenship. But most immigrants don’t care. They just want work permits and the legal right to stay and work.

Dr. Oroczo: In-migration and border security issues have been confused. Solutions to immigration are separate from border security concerns. Solutions include dealing with undocumented workers by providing green cards and eventually a path to citizenship; a guest worker program to attract people to fill open jobs would provide lower cost labor where needed. Asylum reform is a key to improved immigration policy. In the long-term, providing economic development support in the region could address development challenges and allow people to work and live where they are born.

Mr. Olson: We need to segregate risk at the border. Most people entering the US are not potential terrorist threats. A wall is not going to reduce risk.

Sen. Greg Treat (OK): How are all refugee Venezuelans integrating into other Latin American countries? What is the future for Venezuelans?

Dr. Selee: A huge number of Venezuelan immigrants have migrated to Argentina, Brazil and Columbia, where they have open borders and receive work permits. There is solidarity within the region. In contrast, Chile and Panama have restricted Venezuelan entry. As more Venezuelans flee the country this will create more pressure for push back in Latin countries.

Dr. Oroczo: Most Latin American countries have 2 levels of permits, Transitory Permits and Temporary Stays. It is expensive to leave Venezuela and move to Columbia, and immigrants have to earn enough money to make the move. Venezuela has a population of 32 million and 3 million people have already left.

There has been backlash against the Venezuelans in some Latin American countries. 35% of the Venezuelans have professional education but are now limited to working in the informal economy. It is a brain waste. They could be adding value to the host country.

Moderator Tom Finneran: What is the level of “nationalist” identification among Central Americans?

Dr. Oroczo: They are quite separate, very “Balkan.” This is reflected in the consumption of nostalgic goods among immigrants, who spend about $1500 per year on national brands that are reminders of back home.

Mr. Olson: There is a lot of cross migration in Central America, a significant internal flow. About 1 million Guatemalans per year go to Mexico for work. The exception is among indigenous people who are identified with their land.

Sen. Jack Whitver (Iowa): What roles do the other Central American countries (Costa Rica, Panama, Belize) play in helping to stabilize the region?

Dr. Oroczo: Other countries, such as Costa Rica, model greater democratization and respect for the “rule of law.”  Costs Rica has a political culture based on a Social Democratic model, respect for law, and providing education and health care for all. They take a strong position on human rights and have petitioned the Organization of American States to expel Nicaragua due to its human rights violation. Costa Rica maintains a strong stance against organized crime.

Panama has only been democratic since 1990, when Manuel Noriega was overthrown. They continue to have an internal struggle to modernize. However, their economic growth is averaging 6% per year, and this also provides a stabilizing influence on the region.

Mr. Olson: Belize is tiny, with a population less than 400,000. It is English-speaking and its development is focused on the Caribbean coast. It is not integrated into the Northern triangle with its neighbors. However, they are not immune to organized crime, violence and trafficking, and homicides are high. They are on the shipping corridor, and this makes them a stopping point for drugs to meet the demand from international tourists. They cannot monitor their sea lanes and the US Coast Guard supports them in this reconnaissance.

Moderator Tom Finneran: Each speaker has recommended potential US policies to address issues of corruption in these countries. Is the US forcing “nation-building?”

Mr. Olson: If policy is dictated by the US, it is doomed to fail. Rather, the US has to work with the host people in their countries, support them, and invest in the strategies that can work. The US can support courageous Attorneys General who are bringing elite criminals to justice, and participate in United Nations anti-impunity actions.

Dr. Selee: Migration is tied to opportunity. As opportunities in Mexico have improved, more people are moving back. In fact, more Americans are moving to Mexico than Mexicans coming to the US. People can live well in Mexico. Eventually, with economic development and efforts to eliminate corruption, Central America will also have more opportunities. There are more people that the US can work with to improve conditions.

Dr. Oroczo: Without the rule of law, attempts to change the processes in these countries will fail. The key element is to work together to support integration of the rule of law. Other approaches would be to use funds to help move the region to integration with the global economy, and to develop better judges, and police. The issue is finding the right partners to work with to foster the rule of law.

Speaker Biography

Eric L. Olson

Eric L. Olson is Deputy Director of the Latin American Program and Senior Advisor to the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. His research and writing has focused on security issues and the impacts of crime, organized crime, and violence on democratic governance. He has also written extensively about U.S. security assistance in Mexico and Central America. Among his most recent publications are, The Evolving Merida Initiative and the Policy of Shared Responsibility in U.S. - Mexico Security Relations, and Crime and Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle: How U.S. Policy is Helping, Hurting, and can be Improved. He also co-edited two volumes on U.S.-Mexico relations including Building Resilient Communities in Mexico: Civic Responses to Crime and Violence, (Wilson Center, 2014), and Shared Responsibility: U.S.-Mexico Policy Options for Confronting Organized Crime. (Wilson Center, 2010).

Prior to joining the Wilson Center he was a Senior Specialist in the Department for Promotion of Good Governance at the Organization of American States from 2006-2007. He served as Advocacy Director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA from 2002-2006. Prior to Amnesty, he was the Senior Associate for Mexico, and Economic Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America for eight years. He worked at Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education in Cuernavaca, Mexico from 1989-1993 where he was the program director. From 1986-1988, he worked in Honduras as a development specialist for several local non-governmental organizations.

He has an M.A. in International Affairs from the School of International Service at American University, Washington, D.C.

Manuel Orozco

Manuel Orozco is the director of the Migration, Remittances and Development Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. He also serves as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Development and as a senior adviser with the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Orozco has conducted extensive research, policy analysis and advocacy on issues relating to global flows of remittances as well as migration and development worldwide. He is chair of Central America and the Caribbean at the US Foreign Service Institute and senior researcher at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.

Orozco frequently testifies before Congress and has spoken before the United Nations. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Texas at Austin, a MA in public administration and Latin American studies, and a BA in international relations from the National University of Costa Rica.

Orozco has published widely on remittances, Latin America, globalization, democracy, migration, conflict in war torn societies, and minority politics. His books include International Norms and Mobilization for Democracy (2002), Remittances: Global Opportunities for International Person-to-Person Money Transfers (2005), América Latina y el Caribe: Desarrollo, migración y remesas (2012) and Migrant Remittances and Development in the Global Economy (2013).

Andrew Selee

Andrew Selee is President of the Migration Policy Institute, succeeding co-founder Demetrios G. Papademetriou and Michael Fix. He came to MPI from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he served as Executive Vice President from January 2014 through April 2017.

Dr. Selee has worked closely in the past on two of MPI’s signature initiatives: the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future, and the Regional Migration Study Group, which was jointly convened by MPI and the Wilson Center. He also served as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations' Task Force on Immigration.

The founding Director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, Dr. Selee is a respected scholar and analyst of Mexico and U.S.-Mexico relations. A frequent commentator in the media, he has also written and edited a number of books and policy reports on U.S.-Mexico relations, Mexican and Latin American politics, and Latino immigrant civic engagement in the United States, and is a regular columnist with the Mexican newspaper El Universal. His latest book, Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together, was published by Public Affairs in June 2018.

In his role as Executive Vice President of the Wilson Center and previously as Vice President for Programs, Dr. Selee was involved with the Center’s wide-ranging initiatives in Europe, Asia, Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East. He is also the author of a major book on think tank strategy, What Should Think Tanks Do? A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact (Stanford (2013).

Dr. Selee has regularly taught courses at Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University since 2006 and was a visiting professor at El Colegio de Mexico.

Prior to joining the Wilson Center as an associate in the Latin American Program in 2000, he was a professional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives and worked for five years with the YMCA of Baja California in Tijuana, Mexico, helping to start a community center and a home for migrant youth. He later served on the National Board of the YMCA of the USA and chaired its International Committee.

Dr. Selee holds a Ph.D. in policy studies from the University of Maryland, an M.A. in Latin American studies from the University of California, San Diego, and a B.A. in Latin American studies (Phi Beta Kappa) from Washington University in St. Louis.

Coercion is more important than consent.

The region’s model of economic growth displays limited capacity to create good or even new jobs.

The growth model based on ‘courtesan’ economies (tourism, maquila, non-traditional exports and migration) is decelarating with no subsitute in sight.

The ecosystem of organized crime and corruption is rampant in the region and is transnational.

An educated new generation willing to carry out corruption investigations would bring greater stability to the region.

Organized crime is emboldened in states that are weakened by ineffective police, ineffective justice systems (prosecutors and judges) with high impunity rates, overcrowded and disorganized criminal justice system and penitentiaries, and links between elites and organized crime.

Illegal entry is no longer through the desert. Most new unauthorized immigrants are visa overstayers or asylum permit overstayers.

The States hold the key to effective integration of immigrants through providing education, credentialing so immigrants can practice in their trained professions, and workforce development.

Sen. John Cullerton (IL)

Sen. Martin Looney (CT)

Today, most people are not crossing the border illegally. They are overstaying their visas while they wait for asylum hearings.

Sen. Charles Schneider (IA)

48% of new immigrants in the past 5 years were college educated, compared to 32% of Americans.

Sen. Kenneth Eric LaFleur (LA)

Nick Infante
(Wal-Mart Stores)

David Long
(IceMiller LLP)

Sen. Greg Treat (OK)

Tom Finneran (Moderator)

Sen. Jack Whitver (Iowa)

If policy is dictated by the US, it is doomed to fail. Rather, the US has to work with the host people in their countries, support them, and invest in the strategies that can work.

Migration is tied to opportunity. As opportunities in Mexico have improved, more people are moving back. In fact, more Americans are moving to Mexico than Mexicans coming to the US. People can live well in Mexico.

 The issue is finding the right partners to work with to foster the rule of law.

Eric L. Olson

Manuel Orozco

Andrew Selee

CONTACT

Senate Presidents’ Forum

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JANUARY 3–6, 2019

Instability of Central America & the US Response (Part 2)

Political Climate

Manuel Orozco, PhD

Director
Migration, Remittances and Development
Inter-American Dialogue

Dr. Orozco reported a trend of increasing state fragility and political instability in Central America since 2010. He drew a stark picture of the trends, causes, and scenarios that are creating this instability and the implications for US policy in the region. He identified factors contributing to State vulnerability including the erosion of legitimacy among political authorities, the weak rule of law enabling corruption and organized crime, and political party and elite fragmentation. These three problems cause tremendous distraction among elites in ways that precluded them from focusing on key policy priorities, such as economic development, Dr. Oroczo reported.

Central America

Despite the fact that Central America figures largely in the current dispute in Washington, DC over the Border Wall, the region is not still among the top priorities for the State department. This lack of interest reflects an underappreciation of why and how Central America matters in US policy. Forty years of US policy toward the region, in particular regarding economic development, must change, Dr. Oroczo said.

While worldwide conflict is at a low point, state fragility and violence in Central America have dramatically increased. Four of the 7 Central American states are in the midst of a crisis in stability. Migration from the region is the third largest in the world after Syria and Venezuela, driven by drug and gang violence, which accounts for 15,000 deaths per year. The people have lost faith in their governments, therefore, political authority has no legitimate control. Most people live on less than $200 per year, while the Cost of Living is $600 annually, producing economic pressure and desperation.

The region is confronted with four major challenges:1. Politically vulnerable states affected by a legitimacy crisis, weak rule of law, and fragmented political parties.2. Poor economic development resulting from obsolete model of growth, informal economies, and a concentrated big business sector.3. A prevailing ecosystem of organized crime formed by drug cartels, extortion rings, human rights violations, and gang violence.4. Migratory wave shaped by demand for foreign labor, transnational networks, violence and weak economic performance.

Political Vulnerability

The historically weak states of the region have a common thread of reliance on military rule and coercion, with high levels of violence and repression over the rule of law. Coercion is more important than consent. The States are in the early stages of democratization, with less than 30 years of experience, and pro-democracy efforts are limited and confronted by a narrow circle of power. Furthermore, elites maintain a tight grip on power and access to wealth. They are reticent to take on political, social, or economic change, and are focused on a few resources of wealth and are unwilling/unable to take risks.

Coercion is more important than consent.

Economic Vulnerability

The region’s model of economic growth displays limited capacity to create good or even new jobs, Dr. Oroczo pointed out. First, economic growth in the region has been driven on a fragile dependence on the global economy. Specifically, on merchandise exports (predominantly agriculture and “maquilas”) and tourism. In terms of merchandise exports, less than 20 products accounts for more than 60% of exports handled by 50 top companies, which in turn employ only a fraction of the total labor force. The growth model based on ‘courtesan’ economies (tourism, maquila, non-traditional exports and migration) is decelarating with no subsitute in sight. The second pole of growth is linked to migration. Remittances, nostalgic trade, diaspora tourism and other services represent nearly 20% of GDP in the region.

The region’s model of economic growth displays limited capacity to create good or even new jobs.

The growth model based on ‘courtesan’ economies (tourism, maquila, non-traditional exports and migration) is decelarating with no subsitute in sight.

Between these poles is a vast informal sector, comprised of more than two thirds of the labor force and the business sector together. Central America is not a private sector economy but rather is an informal economy of people living at the poverty level with little education, and earning a living via the informal economy, such as selling mangoes.  Most of these enterprises are one-person businesses. OVERALL, low income levels are the byproduct of an economic model based on agriculture or other low-performing products that rely on unskilled, uneducated and underpaid labor.

Remittances

The region’s GDPs (2017) ranged from $13 billion in Nicaragua to $70 billion in Guatemala, with growth ranging from 2.3% to 4.5%. Economic growth is limited and is substantially driven by remittances. For example, Guatemala’s GDP increased by $2 billion from 2016-2017, with $1 billion or 51% coming from remittances. Remittance contributions to GDP growth ranged from 25% in Nicaragua to 78% in El Salvador. Remittance transfers represent over 50% of household income among some 3.5 million households in the region (1 in 3 households).

Corruption

The ecosystem of organized crime and corruption is rampant in the region and is transnational. It crosses all levels of society, from the wealthiest elites who over-invoice the government for services and materials, defrauding the State of hundreds of millions of dollars, to strong transnational organized crime organizations that control most of the economy, down to local gangs who occupy and control areas. Fewer than 20,000 people in the drug cartels and organized crime syndicates manipulate and control the Central American States and their economies by co-opting politicians, the police, and the Army.

The ecosystem of organized crime and corruption is rampant in the region and is transnational.

Synthetic drug use has grown worldwide, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which shows that the worldwide number of users of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) is higher than the combined number of heroin and cocaine users. The synthetic drug trade includes chemical acquisition, manufacturing equipment, expertise and movement of the finished product. According to the DEA, 65% of the methamphetamine available in the US is produced in Mexico. As demand grows, the Mexican cartels have developed further and now operate in Central America, which is becoming a nexus for low cost synthetic drug manufacturing.

Violence Drives Migration

Waves of severe violence and insecurity associated with organized crime networks influence decisions to emigrate. A larger number of people have sought to leave their home countries, including many applying for political asylum, to escape persecution from narco-trafficking networks, gangs, or extortion rings. In Honduras, a 1% increase in homicides drives migration by 120%. In Guatemala, a 1% increase in homicides drives migration by 100%. In El Salvador, homicides drive migration by 188%. Outmigration from Central America continues but is slowing down due to its irregular nature and US enforcement, showing only 1% growth between 2009-2018.

US Foreign Policy

Dr. Oroczo advised that US foreign policy could make a significant stabilizing impact on the region. He advocated for an increase in educational funding which will support the democratization effort. Currently, the old elite is dying out and a new generation is emerging to fill the power vacuum. An educated new generation willing to carry out corruption investigations would bring greater stability to the region.

An educated new generation willing to carry out corruption investigations would bring greater stability to the region.

Any policy intervention should triangulate the economic impact of migration with the drivers that caused it and with the fundamental development problems each migrant-sending country faces, Dr. Oroczo said. Based on this understanding, differentiated development strategies will capture the realities and the desired outcomes to be achieved.  Looking at the regional context, a triangulated approach includes:

1. Tackling one key value of migration, namely, formalizing savings and assets among remittance recipients.

2. Channeling the savings generated into credit for knowledge entrepreneurs and other small businesses.

3. Targeting the formalization of a small share of informal entrepreneurs in the local economies, particularly where migration is happening.

4. Formalizing labor migration into the US economy.

The US should make Central America a priority with a focus on:• Support economic development aimed at increasing competition• Enact political reforms• Improve organized attacks against criminal networks• Establish a migrant guest worker program

Transnational Criminal Organizations

Eric L. Olson

Consultant
Latin American Program
Mexico Institute
Wilson Center

Criminal activity in Central America has direct implications for US State Senate leaders, Mr. Olson pointed out. The region is a bridge, a key part of the transit path for illicit goods entering the US, which provides the best market for them. Mr. Olson noted that organized crime exists where the state is weak or where corruption allows collusion between State authorities and organized crime, which is rampant in the region.

He discussed the US response to these threats, which is promulgated in the executive order Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) and Preventing International Trafficking, whose goals are to disrupt illicit financial flows and to curb their operations in the US, as well as addressing the security, governance, and economic drivers of illegal immigration and illicit trafficking, and to promote private sector investment in Central America. Despite efforts to control the drug trade, 80-90% of cocaine entering the US continues to come through Central America and Mexico.

Central American Pathway of Illicit Goods

Central America is a bridge, a key part of the transit path for illicit goods entering the US, which provides the best market for them.

Organized Crime and Political Elites

Links between organized crime and political establishment figures in corrupt weak states have allowed the TCOs to operate with impunity. Mr. Olson identified the key cartels including the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico and the Bandas Criminals (BACRIM) in Columbia that trans-ship illicit goods, especially cocaine, through Central America. In Honduras, Los Cachiros and Valle Valle control cocaine trafficking, with the collusion of the government. Tony Hernandez, brother of the Honduran President, was arrested for cocaine shipments that bore his initials, illustrating the level of hubris among the crime organizations.  In El Salvador, where Los Perrones control the Gulf of Fonseca, a key trans-shipping harbor for illicit goods, one President is serving a jail term and a second fled to Nicaragua for asylum to escape judgment for corruption and collusion with TCOs. Guatemalan drug-trafficking routes are controlled by the Overdick family.

The Weakened Rule of Law

With the key players in the TCOs being readily identified, why are they so difficult to stop? Organized crime is emboldened in states that are weakened by ineffective police, ineffective justice systems (prosecutors and judges) with high impunity rates, overcrowded and disorganized criminal justice system and penitentiaries, and links between elites and organized crime. Some police officials in Central America are involved in corruption and/or linked to criminal organizations. For the most part, citizens have little trust in the police. The complicity of police and high level authorities makes it impossible for governments to deal with these criminals, Mr. Olson reported.

Organized crime is emboldened in states that are weakened by ineffective police, ineffective justice systems (prosecutors and judges) with high impunity rates, overcrowded and disorganized criminal justice system and penitentiaries, and links between elites and organized crime.

Strategies to contain TCOs include a focus on high valued targets, dismantling criminal organizations, incarceration, extradition and prosecution of key figures, Mr. Olson noted. Furthermore, police officials earn on average 16% less than the rest of the public sector in Latin America’s major cities, and, with higher salaries and greater professionalization of police work, the security in the region would likely improve. However, the scale of the problem is illustrated by these maps depicting the maritime, land, and air routes for illicit trade.

Maritime Routes for Illicit Trade

Land and Air Routes for Illicit Trade (2016)

The Illicit Economies

Mr. Olson identified 6 major illicit economies in the Americas: 1. Illicit drugs: marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin/fentanyl2. Extractives: precious metals, gems, and petroleum (crude and refined)3. Exotics: wood and animals4. Human:  smuggling and trafficking5. Contraband and pirated goods6. South bound: firearms and cash

The US Response

On February 9, 2017— President Trump signed the Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking executive order, with a goal to disrupt illicit financial flows and to curb their operations in the US.

The US Strategy for Engagement in Central America’s mission is to secure US borders and protect US citizens by addressing the security, governance, and economic drivers of illegal immigration and illicit trafficking, and to promote private sector investment in Central America. Mr. Olson described a 3-pillar approach focused on:

Prosperity: to improve the business environment, create jobs, enhance food security, expand energy security, and increase US investment and trade.

Security: by combatting drug and human trafficking, smuggling of people and illicit goods, and transnational gangs and criminal organizations before they reach the US.

Governance: to focus on reducing impunity and corruption through the creation of more transparent, efficient governments that deliver services effectively, including justice.

Attendance Rates By Age In Central America

SOURCE: Author's calculations from household data.

Education also is an important policy approach and US investments in education are imperative, Mr. Olson reported. In the region, school attendance drops off dramatically when children turn 12 years of age. At this vulnerable age, they are easy to recruit to gangs and criminal organizations. Intervening in this is essential to change the crisis, he concluded. 

Immigration & Migration

Andrew Selee

President
Migration Policy Institute

Migration from Northern Triangle countries of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala) now exceeds that from Mexico, and demographics also are changing. More families and minors trying to cross the border on migration routes through Mexico to Rio Grande Valley or to West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California border areas.

Many people are leaving the region due to fear of gangs and gang recruitment. Since 2012, asylum applications from Central Americans have increased 892% reflecting this threat. “We need pragmatic ways to approach migration policy,” Dr. Selee told the Forum, particularly focusing on asylum reform as the key to both fairness and deterrence. States hold the key to integration, Dr. Selee said, and the success of immigration depends on integration, education opportunities for children of immigrant families, and services and attention to unaccompanied minors.

Dr. Selee pointed out the then-current US government shutdown was related to Central American migration. The shutdown was driven by the Trump Administration’s conflict with Congress over the border wall policy, which is designed to block people crossing into the US. In recent years, migration from Mexico is down, while Central American immigration has increased.

Southwest Border Apprehensions (CBP Data)

Migration from Central America to the US

The US border strategy has focused on stopping young Mexican men from entering the US illegally, but they are no longer coming. Improvements in Mexico’s economy, educational opportunities, and healthcare is allowing Mexicans to seek a better life at home. Migrants from Central America now exceed those coming from Mexico.

Unaccompanied Minors

Changing demographics show increases in the number of unaccompanied minors and families, accounting for 57% of migrants in November 2019, mostly people fleeing due to fear of the gangs. Gang recruitment tactics are simple: “Join our gang or we will kill your family.”

There are other incentives for children to cross the border. US law requires that they be seen in court before being deported back to avoid the risk of them becoming victims of human trafficking. Instead, these children may reside in the US for years as they await an immigration hearing.

Asylum Seekers

The largest number of asylum seekers now come from Central America with 70,000 applicants in 2017, who may face a 2 to 3-year wait for an asylum hearing.

People seeking Asylum In the U.S.

* From three countries (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala).

SOURCE: DOJ EDIR FY12-FY16:UN HRC FY2017.

The Department of Homeland Security reports that it apprehends most people trying to cross the border illegally. But illegal entry is no longer through the desert. Most new unauthorized immigrants are visa overstayers or asylum permit overstayers, Dr. Selee reported.

Illegal entry is no longer through the desert. Most new unauthorized immigrants are visa overstayers or asylum permit overstayers.

Venezuela experienced economic freefall in the past 3 years with inflation exceeding one million per cent. It has become the source of large migration outflows in the last 3 years, at a scale and speed comparable to the current Syrian migration. Three million people left Venezuela in the last 3 years, and 5 million are projected to have left by 2019. Eighty per cent of Venezuelans leaving the country fled to other Latin American countries, but more are entering the US as well, including 100,000 in 2015-2017, mostly well-educated professionals who overstay their tourist visas.

Asylum Reform

Some strategies to reduce illegal immigration to the US have proven to be ineffective, including family separation, narrowing asylum access, and leaving asylum seekers in Mexico, and newer, more effective approaches are needed, Dr. Selee reported.

Currently, asylum seekers may work in the US for 2 to 3 years while they await an asylum hearing. If they are rejected, they will struggle against going back to the fearful situation in their home country. If asylum decisions were made more quickly, for example, made by asylum officers within 6 months, there would be less incentive and fewer attempts to get asylum wrongly.

Merit-based immigration, where people migrate to fill open jobs, would be a path toward fairness in migration policy, Dr. Selee said. Ultimately, long-term investments in rule of law and economic development in the sending countries will be essential to solve the problems of the region.

Dr. Selee contrasted asylum reform plans proposed by the Trump Administration and by Congress. The Administration’s plan, trumpeted in the State of the Union address in 2018, focuses on merit-based immigration and eliminates diversity visas. Enforcement through the Border Wall is a key platform, as well as a plan to legalize the “Dreamers” through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some individuals who entered the US illegally as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit in the US.

The Congressional plan also focuses on merit-based immigration and includes enforcement through workplace verification and improved technology at the border. The Congressional Plan differs in proposing earned legalization for unauthorized persons in US after a certain number of years, which varies in different versions.

Role of the States

Success of immigration depends on integration, Dr. Selee said, which usually happens in the second generation, where children of immigrants “feel American.” Educational opportunities for children of immigrant families, along with services and attention to the needs of unaccompanied minors are key for future integration, he said. Currently, there are limited services for unaccompanied minors who may be placed with families who don’t speak their language. They struggle with school and are easy targets for gang recruitment. The States hold the key to effective integration of immigrants through providing education, credentialing so immigrants can practice in their trained professions, and workforce development, he concluded.

The States hold the key to effective integration of immigrants through providing education, credentialing so immigrants can practice in their trained professions, and workforce development.

Discussion

Sen. John Cullerton (IL): How does the asylum process work?

Dr. Selee: Asylum seekers can apply for asylum at US Ports of Entry, where they are taken into custody and allowed a “Credible Fear Screening.” If they are able to establish a credible fear of persecution or torture if they returned to their home country, they are allowed to enter the US. This hearing is a low bar and about 80% of applicants are accepted.

Their case then goes into the Immigration Court, which currently has a backlog of 700,000 cases. It may take 2 to 4 years for the asylum hearing to be scheduled. That hearing requires the asylum seeker to present evidence supporting their claim that their fear to return to their country is real, based on evidence of murders, threats.  If they do not persuade the Court that their fear is legitimate, they are deported.

People caught crossing the border illegally can claim asylum and receive a “Credible Fear Screening.” Adults will be detained until their hearing, while children and families may be detained 21 days. The US has been trying to leave people detained in Mexico but this is controversial. Are these detainees safe in Mexico? How will they get legal counsel? How will they know when their hearing date is set? Such questions make this scenario ineffective.

Additionally, many people don’t understand the system. They think that their “Credible Fear Screening” was their asylum hearing, and that they have been legally admitted to the US.

Today, most people are not crossing the border illegally. They are overstaying their visas while they wait for asylum hearings.

Today, most people are not crossing the border illegally. They are overstaying their visas while they wait for asylum hearings.

Sen. Martin Looney (CT): What is the difference in the documentation and evidence required for an asylum hearing versus a “Credible Fear Screening?”

Mr. Olson: The Asylum hearing requires that a person demonstrate a personal fear of persecution or torture and provide evidence for this. This may include medical reports, corroborative newspaper reports, and other evidence.

Dr. Oroczo: The challenge is that most people have no documentation. They were forced to flee and did not gather evidence. Furthermore, about half of asylum seekers have no legal counsel.  The asylum seeker must demonstrate that a personal threat exists.

Sen. Charles Schneider (IA): Many States are struggling to get an adequate workforce; we need specific skill sets. What occupations and skill sets do immigrants bring to the US? How much of a brain waste issue is there?

Dr. Selee: 48% of new immigrants in the past 5 years were college educated, compared to 32% of Americans. But they are challenged to get through examinations, certificate programs and past barriers erected by professional organizations. Two million immigrants in the US have professions but cannot practice. As a result, there is significant brain waste, with teachers, doctors, dentists, engineers and other professionals having to abandon their professions, if they cannot get a license to practice in the US. A better strategy would be to identify bilingual teachers and enable them to become teachers’ aides quickly, on a path toward full credentialing as teachers.

48% of new immigrants in the past 5 years were college educated, compared to 32% of Americans.

Dr. Oroczo: Unfortunately, many Central American immigrants do not have professional skills. Instead, 1 out of 3 Central American immigrant women work as domestic workers in millions of US households.  What is needed for them are labor rights and protections. Currently, there are few protections for them. At the State and municipal level, services could be provided to help them form Limited Liability Companies and become taxpayers. Their skill level may be low but they provide needed labor support.

Sen. Kenneth Eric LaFleur (LA): What training do immigration judges receive?

Dr. Selee: It depends very much on which judge you get, as their backgrounds and training are very diverse. There definitely could be a more organized and technological approach to immigration hearings. But refugees are the most-vetted population, and they are interviewed by highly trained investigators.

Nick Infante (Wal-Mart Stores): Given the thousands of routes by which illicit goods enter the US, is there any way to stop the tide?

Mr. Olson: We can’t stop all of it. At the US border, drugs enter through legitimate Ports of Entry. We could do more but the more sophisticated technology to detect drugs is at the border. We could do more in Central America in cooperation with States authorities and law enforcement, but the States are weak, there is collusion and no desire to fix the problem. In some cases, law enforcement agencies will not support or cooperate with US agents to stop the trafficking from its source. Corruption is the problem.

Dr. Oroczo: The logistics are challenging. Drugs are shipped in small packets worth $10,000 to $20,000 per carrier, which may be in taxis and cars. That way, loss from apprehensions is limited. It would be easiest to stop the flow at the border or at the point of manufacturing where the drug is loaded for transport.

Mr. Olson: The drug traffickers know they will lose some drugs along the way. But drugs have high profit margins, and they can lose 80% of the load and still make a profit. Law enforcement could stop more shipments, but consumption in the US is the real problem. Populist politicians let the drugs go through because if they interfere with the trade, they can expect violent reprisals from drug lords. They say “We are dying due to US cocaine use.” This is corrupting their politics.

Dr. Selee: The one and a half million cocaine users in the US are contributing to violence in Central America.

David Long (IceMiller LLP): What would be an effective “Path to Citizenship” program?

Dr. Selee: The US was built on immigration. The long-term goal is to integrate immigrants so they can contribute. That’s the thinking behind the Path to Citizenship. But most immigrants don’t care. They just want work permits and the legal right to stay and work.

Dr. Oroczo: In-migration and border security issues have been confused. Solutions to immigration are separate from border security concerns. Solutions include dealing with undocumented workers by providing green cards and eventually a path to citizenship; a guest worker program to attract people to fill open jobs would provide lower cost labor where needed. Asylum reform is a key to improved immigration policy. In the long-term, providing economic development support in the region could address development challenges and allow people to work and live where they are born.

Mr. Olson: We need to segregate risk at the border. Most people entering the US are not potential terrorist threats. A wall is not going to reduce risk.

Sen. Greg Treat (OK): How are all refugee Venezuelans integrating into other Latin American countries? What is the future for Venezuelans?

Dr. Selee: A huge number of Venezuelan immigrants have migrated to Argentina, Brazil and Columbia, where they have open borders and receive work permits. There is solidarity within the region. In contrast, Chile and Panama have restricted Venezuelan entry. As more Venezuelans flee the country this will create more pressure for push back in Latin countries.

Dr. Oroczo: Most Latin American countries have 2 levels of permits, Transitory Permits and Temporary Stays. It is expensive to leave Venezuela and move to Columbia, and immigrants have to earn enough money to make the move. Venezuela has a population of 32 million and 3 million people have already left.

There has been backlash against the Venezuelans in some Latin American countries. 35% of the Venezuelans have professional education but are now limited to working in the informal economy. It is a brain waste. They could be adding value to the host country.

Moderator Tom Finneran: What is the level of “nationalist” identification among Central Americans?

Dr. Oroczo: They are quite separate, very “Balkan.” This is reflected in the consumption of nostalgic goods among immigrants, who spend about $1500 per year on national brands that are reminders of back home.

Mr. Olson: There is a lot of cross migration in Central America, a significant internal flow. About 1 million Guatemalans per year go to Mexico for work. The exception is among indigenous people who are identified with their land.

Sen. Jack Whitver (Iowa): What roles do the other Central American countries (Costa Rica, Panama, Belize) play in helping to stabilize the region?

Dr. Oroczo: Other countries, such as Costa Rica, model greater democratization and respect for the “rule of law.”  Costs Rica has a political culture based on a Social Democratic model, respect for law, and providing education and health care for all. They take a strong position on human rights and have petitioned the Organization of American States to expel Nicaragua due to its human rights violation. Costa Rica maintains a strong stance against organized crime.

Panama has only been democratic since 1990, when Manuel Noriega was overthrown. They continue to have an internal struggle to modernize. However, their economic growth is averaging 6% per year, and this also provides a stabilizing influence on the region.

Mr. Olson: Belize is tiny, with a population less than 400,000. It is English-speaking and its development is focused on the Caribbean coast. It is not integrated into the Northern triangle with its neighbors. However, they are not immune to organized crime, violence and trafficking, and homicides are high. They are on the shipping corridor, and this makes them a stopping point for drugs to meet the demand from international tourists. They cannot monitor their sea lanes and the US Coast Guard supports them in this reconnaissance.

Moderator Tom Finneran: Each speaker has recommended potential US policies to address issues of corruption in these countries. Is the US forcing “nation-building?”

Mr. Olson: If policy is dictated by the US, it is doomed to fail. Rather, the US has to work with the host people in their countries, support them, and invest in the strategies that can work. The US can support courageous Attorneys General who are bringing elite criminals to justice, and participate in United Nations anti-impunity actions.

If policy is dictated by the US, it is doomed to fail. Rather, the US has to work with the host people in their countries, support them, and invest in the strategies that can work.

Dr. Selee: Migration is tied to opportunity. As opportunities in Mexico have improved, more people are moving back. In fact, more Americans are moving to Mexico than Mexicans coming to the US. People can live well in Mexico. Eventually, with economic development and efforts to eliminate corruption, Central America will also have more opportunities. There are more people that the US can work with to improve conditions.

Migration is tied to opportunity. As opportunities in Mexico have improved, more people are moving back. In fact, more Americans are moving to Mexico than Mexicans coming to the US. People can live well in Mexico.

Dr. Oroczo: Without the rule of law, attempts to change the processes in these countries will fail. The key element is to work together to support integration of the rule of law. Other approaches would be to use funds to help move the region to integration with the global economy, and to develop better judges, and police. The issue is finding the right partners to work with to foster the rule of law.

 The issue is finding the right partners to work with to foster the rule of law.

Speaker Biography

Eric L. Olson

Eric L. Olson is Deputy Director of the Latin American Program and Senior Advisor to the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. His research and writing has focused on security issues and the impacts of crime, organized crime, and violence on democratic governance. He has also written extensively about U.S. security assistance in Mexico and Central America. Among his most recent publications are, The Evolving Merida Initiative and the Policy of Shared Responsibility in U.S. - Mexico Security Relations, and Crime and Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle: How U.S. Policy is Helping, Hurting, and can be Improved. He also co-edited two volumes on U.S.-Mexico relations including Building Resilient Communities in Mexico: Civic Responses to Crime and Violence, (Wilson Center, 2014), and Shared Responsibility: U.S.-Mexico Policy Options for Confronting Organized Crime. (Wilson Center, 2010).

Prior to joining the Wilson Center he was a Senior Specialist in the Department for Promotion of Good Governance at the Organization of American States from 2006-2007. He served as Advocacy Director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA from 2002-2006. Prior to Amnesty, he was the Senior Associate for Mexico, and Economic Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America for eight years. He worked at Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education in Cuernavaca, Mexico from 1989-1993 where he was the program director. From 1986-1988, he worked in Honduras as a development specialist for several local non-governmental organizations.

He has an M.A. in International Affairs from the School of International Service at American University, Washington, D.C.

Manuel Orozco

Manuel Orozco is the director of the Migration, Remittances and Development Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. He also serves as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Development and as a senior adviser with the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Orozco has conducted extensive research, policy analysis and advocacy on issues relating to global flows of remittances as well as migration and development worldwide. He is chair of Central America and the Caribbean at the US Foreign Service Institute and senior researcher at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.

Orozco frequently testifies before Congress and has spoken before the United Nations. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Texas at Austin, a MA in public administration and Latin American studies, and a BA in international relations from the National University of Costa Rica.

Orozco has published widely on remittances, Latin America, globalization, democracy, migration, conflict in war torn societies, and minority politics. His books include International Norms and Mobilization for Democracy (2002), Remittances: Global Opportunities for International Person-to-Person Money Transfers (2005), América Latina y el Caribe: Desarrollo, migración y remesas (2012) and Migrant Remittances and Development in the Global Economy (2013).

Andrew Selee

Andrew Selee is President of the Migration Policy Institute, succeeding co-founder Demetrios G. Papademetriou and Michael Fix. He came to MPI from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he served as Executive Vice President from January 2014 through April 2017.

Dr. Selee has worked closely in the past on two of MPI’s signature initiatives: the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future, and the Regional Migration Study Group, which was jointly convened by MPI and the Wilson Center. He also served as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations' Task Force on Immigration.

The founding Director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, Dr. Selee is a respected scholar and analyst of Mexico and U.S.-Mexico relations. A frequent commentator in the media, he has also written and edited a number of books and policy reports on U.S.-Mexico relations, Mexican and Latin American politics, and Latino immigrant civic engagement in the United States, and is a regular columnist with the Mexican newspaper El Universal. His latest book, Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together, was published by Public Affairs in June 2018.

In his role as Executive Vice President of the Wilson Center and previously as Vice President for Programs, Dr. Selee was involved with the Center’s wide-ranging initiatives in Europe, Asia, Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East. He is also the author of a major book on think tank strategy, What Should Think Tanks Do? A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact (Stanford (2013).

Dr. Selee has regularly taught courses at Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University since 2006 and was a visiting professor at El Colegio de Mexico.

Prior to joining the Wilson Center as an associate in the Latin American Program in 2000, he was a professional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives and worked for five years with the YMCA of Baja California in Tijuana, Mexico, helping to start a community center and a home for migrant youth. He later served on the National Board of the YMCA of the USA and chaired its International Committee.

Dr. Selee holds a Ph.D. in policy studies from the University of Maryland, an M.A. in Latin American studies from the University of California, San Diego, and a B.A. in Latin American studies (Phi Beta Kappa) from Washington University in St. Louis.

JANUARY 3–6, 2019

Instability of Central America & the US Response (Part 2)

Political Climate

Manuel Orozco, PhD

Director
Migration, Remittances and Development
Inter-American Dialogue

Dr. Orozco reported a trend of increasing state fragility and political instability in Central America since 2010. He drew a stark picture of the trends, causes, and scenarios that are creating this instability and the implications for US policy in the region. He identified factors contributing to State vulnerability including the erosion of legitimacy among political authorities, the weak rule of law enabling corruption and organized crime, and political party and elite fragmentation. These three problems cause tremendous distraction among elites in ways that precluded them from focusing on key policy priorities, such as economic development, Dr. Oroczo reported.

Central America

Despite the fact that Central America figures largely in the current dispute in Washington, DC over the Border Wall, the region is not still among the top priorities for the State department. This lack of interest reflects an underappreciation of why and how Central America matters in US policy. Forty years of US policy toward the region, in particular regarding economic development, must change, Dr. Oroczo said.

While worldwide conflict is at a low point, state fragility and violence in Central America have dramatically increased. Four of the 7 Central American states are in the midst of a crisis in stability. Migration from the region is the third largest in the world after Syria and Venezuela, driven by drug and gang violence, which accounts for 15,000 deaths per year. The people have lost faith in their governments, therefore, political authority has no legitimate control. Most people live on less than $200 per year, while the Cost of Living is $600 annually, producing economic pressure and desperation.

The region is confronted with four major challenges:1. Politically vulnerable states affected by a legitimacy crisis, weak rule of law, and fragmented political parties.2. Poor economic development resulting from obsolete model of growth, informal economies, and a concentrated big business sector.3. A prevailing ecosystem of organized crime formed by drug cartels, extortion rings, human rights violations, and gang violence.4. Migratory wave shaped by demand for foreign labor, transnational networks, violence and weak economic performance.

Political Vulnerability

The historically weak states of the region have a common thread of reliance on military rule and coercion, with high levels of violence and repression over the rule of law. Coercion is more important than consent. The States are in the early stages of democratization, with less than 30 years of experience, and pro-democracy efforts are limited and confronted by a narrow circle of power. Furthermore, elites maintain a tight grip on power and access to wealth. They are reticent to take on political, social, or economic change, and are focused on a few resources of wealth and are unwilling/unable to take risks.

Coercion is more important than consent.

Economic Vulnerability

The region’s model of economic growth displays limited capacity to create good or even new jobs, Dr. Oroczo pointed out. First, economic growth in the region has been driven on a fragile dependence on the global economy. Specifically, on merchandise exports (predominantly agriculture and “maquilas”) and tourism. In terms of merchandise exports, less than 20 products accounts for more than 60% of exports handled by 50 top companies, which in turn employ only a fraction of the total labor force. The growth model based on ‘courtesan’ economies (tourism, maquila, non-traditional exports and migration) is decelarating with no subsitute in sight. The second pole of growth is linked to migration. Remittances, nostalgic trade, diaspora tourism and other services represent nearly 20% of GDP in the region.

The region’s model of economic growth displays limited capacity to create good or even new jobs.

The growth model based on ‘courtesan’ economies (tourism, maquila, non-traditional exports and migration) is decelarating with no subsitute in sight.

Between these poles is a vast informal sector, comprised of more than two thirds of the labor force and the business sector together. Central America is not a private sector economy but rather is an informal economy of people living at the poverty level with little education, and earning a living via the informal economy, such as selling mangoes.  Most of these enterprises are one-person businesses. OVERALL, low income levels are the byproduct of an economic model based on agriculture or other low-performing products that rely on unskilled, uneducated and underpaid labor.

Remittances

The region’s GDPs (2017) ranged from $13 billion in Nicaragua to $70 billion in Guatemala, with growth ranging from 2.3% to 4.5%. Economic growth is limited and is substantially driven by remittances. For example, Guatemala’s GDP increased by $2 billion from 2016-2017, with $1 billion or 51% coming from remittances. Remittance contributions to GDP growth ranged from 25% in Nicaragua to 78% in El Salvador. Remittance transfers represent over 50% of household income among some 3.5 million households in the region (1 in 3 households).

Corruption

The ecosystem of organized crime and corruption is rampant in the region and is transnational. It crosses all levels of society, from the wealthiest elites who over-invoice the government for services and materials, defrauding the State of hundreds of millions of dollars, to strong transnational organized crime organizations that control most of the economy, down to local gangs who occupy and control areas. Fewer than 20,000 people in the drug cartels and organized crime syndicates manipulate and control the Central American States and their economies by co-opting politicians, the police, and the Army.

The ecosystem of organized crime and corruption is rampant in the region and is transnational.

Synthetic drug use has grown worldwide, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which shows that the worldwide number of users of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) is higher than the combined number of heroin and cocaine users. The synthetic drug trade includes chemical acquisition, manufacturing equipment, expertise and movement of the finished product. According to the DEA, 65% of the methamphetamine available in the US is produced in Mexico. As demand grows, the Mexican cartels have developed further and now operate in Central America, which is becoming a nexus for low cost synthetic drug manufacturing.

Violence Drives Migration

Waves of severe violence and insecurity associated with organized crime networks influence decisions to emigrate. A larger number of people have sought to leave their home countries, including many applying for political asylum, to escape persecution from narco-trafficking networks, gangs, or extortion rings. In Honduras, a 1% increase in homicides drives migration by 120%. In Guatemala, a 1% increase in homicides drives migration by 100%. In El Salvador, homicides drive migration by 188%. Outmigration from Central America continues but is slowing down due to its irregular nature and US enforcement, showing only 1% growth between 2009-2018.

US Foreign Policy

Dr. Oroczo advised that US foreign policy could make a significant stabilizing impact on the region. He advocated for an increase in educational funding which will support the democratization effort. Currently, the old elite is dying out and a new generation is emerging to fill the power vacuum. An educated new generation willing to carry out corruption investigations would bring greater stability to the region.

An educated new generation willing to carry out corruption investigations would bring greater stability to the region.

Any policy intervention should triangulate the economic impact of migration with the drivers that caused it and with the fundamental development problems each migrant-sending country faces, Dr. Oroczo said. Based on this understanding, differentiated development strategies will capture the realities and the desired outcomes to be achieved.  Looking at the regional context, a triangulated approach includes:

1. Tackling one key value of migration, namely, formalizing savings and assets among remittance recipients.

2. Channeling the savings generated into credit for knowledge entrepreneurs and other small businesses.

3. Targeting the formalization of a small share of informal entrepreneurs in the local economies, particularly where migration is happening.

4. Formalizing labor migration into the US economy.

The US should make Central America a priority with a focus on:• Support economic development aimed at increasing competition• Enact political reforms• Improve organized attacks against criminal networks• Establish a migrant guest worker program

Transnational Criminal Organizations

Eric L. Olson

Consultant
Latin American Program
Mexico Institute
Wilson Center

Criminal activity in Central America has direct implications for US State Senate leaders, Mr. Olson pointed out. The region is a bridge, a key part of the transit path for illicit goods entering the US, which provides the best market for them. Mr. Olson noted that organized crime exists where the state is weak or where corruption allows collusion between State authorities and organized crime, which is rampant in the region.

He discussed the US response to these threats, which is promulgated in the executive order Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) and Preventing International Trafficking, whose goals are to disrupt illicit financial flows and to curb their operations in the US, as well as addressing the security, governance, and economic drivers of illegal immigration and illicit trafficking, and to promote private sector investment in Central America. Despite efforts to control the drug trade, 80-90% of cocaine entering the US continues to come through Central America and Mexico.

Central American Pathway of Illicit Goods

Central America is a bridge, a key part of the transit path for illicit goods entering the US, which provides the best market for them.

Organized Crime and Political Elites

Links between organized crime and political establishment figures in corrupt weak states have allowed the TCOs to operate with impunity. Mr. Olson identified the key cartels including the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico and the Bandas Criminals (BACRIM) in Columbia that trans-ship illicit goods, especially cocaine, through Central America. In Honduras, Los Cachiros and Valle Valle control cocaine trafficking, with the collusion of the government. Tony Hernandez, brother of the Honduran President, was arrested for cocaine shipments that bore his initials, illustrating the level of hubris among the crime organizations.  In El Salvador, where Los Perrones control the Gulf of Fonseca, a key trans-shipping harbor for illicit goods, one President is serving a jail term and a second fled to Nicaragua for asylum to escape judgment for corruption and collusion with TCOs. Guatemalan drug-trafficking routes are controlled by the Overdick family.

The Weakened Rule of Law

With the key players in the TCOs being readily identified, why are they so difficult to stop? Organized crime is emboldened in states that are weakened by ineffective police, ineffective justice systems (prosecutors and judges) with high impunity rates, overcrowded and disorganized criminal justice system and penitentiaries, and links between elites and organized crime. Some police officials in Central America are involved in corruption and/or linked to criminal organizations. For the most part, citizens have little trust in the police. The complicity of police and high level authorities makes it impossible for governments to deal with these criminals, Mr. Olson reported.

Organized crime is emboldened in states that are weakened by ineffective police, ineffective justice systems (prosecutors and judges) with high impunity rates, overcrowded and disorganized criminal justice system and penitentiaries, and links between elites and organized crime.

Strategies to contain TCOs include a focus on high valued targets, dismantling criminal organizations, incarceration, extradition and prosecution of key figures, Mr. Olson noted. Furthermore, police officials earn on average 16% less than the rest of the public sector in Latin America’s major cities, and, with higher salaries and greater professionalization of police work, the security in the region would likely improve. However, the scale of the problem is illustrated by these maps depicting the maritime, land, and air routes for illicit trade.

Maritime Routes for Illicit Trade

Land and Air Routes for Illicit Trade (2016)

The Illicit Economies

Mr. Olson identified 6 major illicit economies in the Americas: 1. Illicit drugs: marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin/fentanyl2. Extractives: precious metals, gems, and petroleum (crude and refined)3. Exotics: wood and animals4. Human:  smuggling and trafficking5. Contraband and pirated goods6. South bound: firearms and cash

The US Response

On February 9, 2017— President Trump signed the Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking executive order, with a goal to disrupt illicit financial flows and to curb their operations in the US.

The US Strategy for Engagement in Central America’s mission is to secure US borders and protect US citizens by addressing the security, governance, and economic drivers of illegal immigration and illicit trafficking, and to promote private sector investment in Central America. Mr. Olson described a 3-pillar approach focused on:

Prosperity: to improve the business environment, create jobs, enhance food security, expand energy security, and increase US investment and trade.

Security: by combatting drug and human trafficking, smuggling of people and illicit goods, and transnational gangs and criminal organizations before they reach the US.

Governance: to focus on reducing impunity and corruption through the creation of more transparent, efficient governments that deliver services effectively, including justice.

Attendance Rates By Age In Central America

SOURCE: Author's calculations from household data.

Education also is an important policy approach and US investments in education are imperative, Mr. Olson reported. In the region, school attendance drops off dramatically when children turn 12 years of age. At this vulnerable age, they are easy to recruit to gangs and criminal organizations. Intervening in this is essential to change the crisis, he concluded. 

Immigration & Migration

Andrew Selee

President
Migration Policy Institute

Migration from Northern Triangle countries of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala) now exceeds that from Mexico, and demographics also are changing. More families and minors trying to cross the border on migration routes through Mexico to Rio Grande Valley or to West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California border areas.

Many people are leaving the region due to fear of gangs and gang recruitment. Since 2012, asylum applications from Central Americans have increased 892% reflecting this threat. “We need pragmatic ways to approach migration policy,” Dr. Selee told the Forum, particularly focusing on asylum reform as the key to both fairness and deterrence. States hold the key to integration, Dr. Selee said, and the success of immigration depends on integration, education opportunities for children of immigrant families, and services and attention to unaccompanied minors.

Dr. Selee pointed out the then-current US government shutdown was related to Central American migration. The shutdown was driven by the Trump Administration’s conflict with Congress over the border wall policy, which is designed to block people crossing into the US. In recent years, migration from Mexico is down, while Central American immigration has increased.

Southwest Border Apprehensions (CBP Data)

Migration from Central America to the US

The US border strategy has focused on stopping young Mexican men from entering the US illegally, but they are no longer coming. Improvements in Mexico’s economy, educational opportunities, and healthcare is allowing Mexicans to seek a better life at home. Migrants from Central America now exceed those coming from Mexico.

Unaccompanied Minors

Changing demographics show increases in the number of unaccompanied minors and families, accounting for 57% of migrants in November 2019, mostly people fleeing due to fear of the gangs. Gang recruitment tactics are simple: “Join our gang or we will kill your family.”

There are other incentives for children to cross the border. US law requires that they be seen in court before being deported back to avoid the risk of them becoming victims of human trafficking. Instead, these children may reside in the US for years as they await an immigration hearing.

Asylum Seekers

The largest number of asylum seekers now come from Central America with 70,000 applicants in 2017, who may face a 2 to 3-year wait for an asylum hearing.

People seeking Asylum In the U.S.

* From three countries (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala).

SOURCE: DOJ EDIR FY12-FY16:UN HRC FY2017.

The Department of Homeland Security reports that it apprehends most people trying to cross the border illegally. But illegal entry is no longer through the desert. Most new unauthorized immigrants are visa overstayers or asylum permit overstayers, Dr. Selee reported.

Illegal entry is no longer through the desert. Most new unauthorized immigrants are visa overstayers or asylum permit overstayers.

Venezuela experienced economic freefall in the past 3 years with inflation exceeding one million per cent. It has become the source of large migration outflows in the last 3 years, at a scale and speed comparable to the current Syrian migration. Three million people left Venezuela in the last 3 years, and 5 million are projected to have left by 2019. Eighty per cent of Venezuelans leaving the country fled to other Latin American countries, but more are entering the US as well, including 100,000 in 2015-2017, mostly well-educated professionals who overstay their tourist visas.

Asylum Reform

Some strategies to reduce illegal immigration to the US have proven to be ineffective, including family separation, narrowing asylum access, and leaving asylum seekers in Mexico, and newer, more effective approaches are needed, Dr. Selee reported.

Currently, asylum seekers may work in the US for 2 to 3 years while they await an asylum hearing. If they are rejected, they will struggle against going back to the fearful situation in their home country. If asylum decisions were made more quickly, for example, made by asylum officers within 6 months, there would be less incentive and fewer attempts to get asylum wrongly.

Merit-based immigration, where people migrate to fill open jobs, would be a path toward fairness in migration policy, Dr. Selee said. Ultimately, long-term investments in rule of law and economic development in the sending countries will be essential to solve the problems of the region.

Dr. Selee contrasted asylum reform plans proposed by the Trump Administration and by Congress. The Administration’s plan, trumpeted in the State of the Union address in 2018, focuses on merit-based immigration and eliminates diversity visas. Enforcement through the Border Wall is a key platform, as well as a plan to legalize the “Dreamers” through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some individuals who entered the US illegally as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit in the US.

The Congressional plan also focuses on merit-based immigration and includes enforcement through workplace verification and improved technology at the border. The Congressional Plan differs in proposing earned legalization for unauthorized persons in US after a certain number of years, which varies in different versions.

Role of the States

Success of immigration depends on integration, Dr. Selee said, which usually happens in the second generation, where children of immigrants “feel American.” Educational opportunities for children of immigrant families, along with services and attention to the needs of unaccompanied minors are key for future integration, he said. Currently, there are limited services for unaccompanied minors who may be placed with families who don’t speak their language. They struggle with school and are easy targets for gang recruitment. The States hold the key to effective integration of immigrants through providing education, credentialing so immigrants can practice in their trained professions, and workforce development, he concluded.

The States hold the key to effective integration of immigrants through providing education, credentialing so immigrants can practice in their trained professions, and workforce development.

Discussion

Sen. John Cullerton (IL): How does the asylum process work?

Dr. Selee: Asylum seekers can apply for asylum at US Ports of Entry, where they are taken into custody and allowed a “Credible Fear Screening.” If they are able to establish a credible fear of persecution or torture if they returned to their home country, they are allowed to enter the US. This hearing is a low bar and about 80% of applicants are accepted.

Their case then goes into the Immigration Court, which currently has a backlog of 700,000 cases. It may take 2 to 4 years for the asylum hearing to be scheduled. That hearing requires the asylum seeker to present evidence supporting their claim that their fear to return to their country is real, based on evidence of murders, threats.  If they do not persuade the Court that their fear is legitimate, they are deported.

People caught crossing the border illegally can claim asylum and receive a “Credible Fear Screening.” Adults will be detained until their hearing, while children and families may be detained 21 days. The US has been trying to leave people detained in Mexico but this is controversial. Are these detainees safe in Mexico? How will they get legal counsel? How will they know when their hearing date is set? Such questions make this scenario ineffective.

Additionally, many people don’t understand the system. They think that their “Credible Fear Screening” was their asylum hearing, and that they have been legally admitted to the US.

Today, most people are not crossing the border illegally. They are overstaying their visas while they wait for asylum hearings.

Today, most people are not crossing the border illegally. They are overstaying their visas while they wait for asylum hearings.

Sen. Martin Looney (CT): What is the difference in the documentation and evidence required for an asylum hearing versus a “Credible Fear Screening?”

Mr. Olson: The Asylum hearing requires that a person demonstrate a personal fear of persecution or torture and provide evidence for this. This may include medical reports, corroborative newspaper reports, and other evidence.

Dr. Oroczo: The challenge is that most people have no documentation. They were forced to flee and did not gather evidence. Furthermore, about half of asylum seekers have no legal counsel.  The asylum seeker must demonstrate that a personal threat exists.

Sen. Charles Schneider (IA): Many States are struggling to get an adequate workforce; we need specific skill sets. What occupations and skill sets do immigrants bring to the US? How much of a brain waste issue is there?

Dr. Selee: 48% of new immigrants in the past 5 years were college educated, compared to 32% of Americans. But they are challenged to get through examinations, certificate programs and past barriers erected by professional organizations. Two million immigrants in the US have professions but cannot practice. As a result, there is significant brain waste, with teachers, doctors, dentists, engineers and other professionals having to abandon their professions, if they cannot get a license to practice in the US. A better strategy would be to identify bilingual teachers and enable them to become teachers’ aides quickly, on a path toward full credentialing as teachers.

48% of new immigrants in the past 5 years were college educated, compared to 32% of Americans.

Dr. Oroczo: Unfortunately, many Central American immigrants do not have professional skills. Instead, 1 out of 3 Central American immigrant women work as domestic workers in millions of US households.  What is needed for them are labor rights and protections. Currently, there are few protections for them. At the State and municipal level, services could be provided to help them form Limited Liability Companies and become taxpayers. Their skill level may be low but they provide needed labor support.

Sen. Kenneth Eric LaFleur (LA): What training do immigration judges receive?

Dr. Selee: It depends very much on which judge you get, as their backgrounds and training are very diverse. There definitely could be a more organized and technological approach to immigration hearings. But refugees are the most-vetted population, and they are interviewed by highly trained investigators.

Nick Infante (Wal-Mart Stores): Given the thousands of routes by which illicit goods enter the US, is there any way to stop the tide?

Mr. Olson: We can’t stop all of it. At the US border, drugs enter through legitimate Ports of Entry. We could do more but the more sophisticated technology to detect drugs is at the border. We could do more in Central America in cooperation with States authorities and law enforcement, but the States are weak, there is collusion and no desire to fix the problem. In some cases, law enforcement agencies will not support or cooperate with US agents to stop the trafficking from its source. Corruption is the problem.

Dr. Oroczo: The logistics are challenging. Drugs are shipped in small packets worth $10,000 to $20,000 per carrier, which may be in taxis and cars. That way, loss from apprehensions is limited. It would be easiest to stop the flow at the border or at the point of manufacturing where the drug is loaded for transport.

Mr. Olson: The drug traffickers know they will lose some drugs along the way. But drugs have high profit margins, and they can lose 80% of the load and still make a profit. Law enforcement could stop more shipments, but consumption in the US is the real problem. Populist politicians let the drugs go through because if they interfere with the trade, they can expect violent reprisals from drug lords. They say “We are dying due to US cocaine use.” This is corrupting their politics.

Dr. Selee: The one and a half million cocaine users in the US are contributing to violence in Central America.

David Long (IceMiller LLP): What would be an effective “Path to Citizenship” program?

Dr. Selee: The US was built on immigration. The long-term goal is to integrate immigrants so they can contribute. That’s the thinking behind the Path to Citizenship. But most immigrants don’t care. They just want work permits and the legal right to stay and work.

Dr. Oroczo: In-migration and border security issues have been confused. Solutions to immigration are separate from border security concerns. Solutions include dealing with undocumented workers by providing green cards and eventually a path to citizenship; a guest worker program to attract people to fill open jobs would provide lower cost labor where needed. Asylum reform is a key to improved immigration policy. In the long-term, providing economic development support in the region could address development challenges and allow people to work and live where they are born.

Mr. Olson: We need to segregate risk at the border. Most people entering the US are not potential terrorist threats. A wall is not going to reduce risk.

Sen. Greg Treat (OK): How are all refugee Venezuelans integrating into other Latin American countries? What is the future for Venezuelans?

Dr. Selee: A huge number of Venezuelan immigrants have migrated to Argentina, Brazil and Columbia, where they have open borders and receive work permits. There is solidarity within the region. In contrast, Chile and Panama have restricted Venezuelan entry. As more Venezuelans flee the country this will create more pressure for push back in Latin countries.

Dr. Oroczo: Most Latin American countries have 2 levels of permits, Transitory Permits and Temporary Stays. It is expensive to leave Venezuela and move to Columbia, and immigrants have to earn enough money to make the move. Venezuela has a population of 32 million and 3 million people have already left.

There has been backlash against the Venezuelans in some Latin American countries. 35% of the Venezuelans have professional education but are now limited to working in the informal economy. It is a brain waste. They could be adding value to the host country.

Moderator Tom Finneran: What is the level of “nationalist” identification among Central Americans?

Dr. Oroczo: They are quite separate, very “Balkan.” This is reflected in the consumption of nostalgic goods among immigrants, who spend about $1500 per year on national brands that are reminders of back home.

Mr. Olson: There is a lot of cross migration in Central America, a significant internal flow. About 1 million Guatemalans per year go to Mexico for work. The exception is among indigenous people who are identified with their land.

Sen. Jack Whitver (Iowa): What roles do the other Central American countries (Costa Rica, Panama, Belize) play in helping to stabilize the region?

Dr. Oroczo: Other countries, such as Costa Rica, model greater democratization and respect for the “rule of law.”  Costs Rica has a political culture based on a Social Democratic model, respect for law, and providing education and health care for all. They take a strong position on human rights and have petitioned the Organization of American States to expel Nicaragua due to its human rights violation. Costa Rica maintains a strong stance against organized crime.

Panama has only been democratic since 1990, when Manuel Noriega was overthrown. They continue to have an internal struggle to modernize. However, their economic growth is averaging 6% per year, and this also provides a stabilizing influence on the region.

Mr. Olson: Belize is tiny, with a population less than 400,000. It is English-speaking and its development is focused on the Caribbean coast. It is not integrated into the Northern triangle with its neighbors. However, they are not immune to organized crime, violence and trafficking, and homicides are high. They are on the shipping corridor, and this makes them a stopping point for drugs to meet the demand from international tourists. They cannot monitor their sea lanes and the US Coast Guard supports them in this reconnaissance.

Moderator Tom Finneran: Each speaker has recommended potential US policies to address issues of corruption in these countries. Is the US forcing “nation-building?”

Mr. Olson: If policy is dictated by the US, it is doomed to fail. Rather, the US has to work with the host people in their countries, support them, and invest in the strategies that can work. The US can support courageous Attorneys General who are bringing elite criminals to justice, and participate in United Nations anti-impunity actions.

If policy is dictated by the US, it is doomed to fail. Rather, the US has to work with the host people in their countries, support them, and invest in the strategies that can work.

Dr. Selee: Migration is tied to opportunity. As opportunities in Mexico have improved, more people are moving back. In fact, more Americans are moving to Mexico than Mexicans coming to the US. People can live well in Mexico. Eventually, with economic development and efforts to eliminate corruption, Central America will also have more opportunities. There are more people that the US can work with to improve conditions.

Migration is tied to opportunity. As opportunities in Mexico have improved, more people are moving back. In fact, more Americans are moving to Mexico than Mexicans coming to the US. People can live well in Mexico.

Dr. Oroczo: Without the rule of law, attempts to change the processes in these countries will fail. The key element is to work together to support integration of the rule of law. Other approaches would be to use funds to help move the region to integration with the global economy, and to develop better judges, and police. The issue is finding the right partners to work with to foster the rule of law.

 The issue is finding the right partners to work with to foster the rule of law.

Speaker Biography

Eric L. Olson

Eric L. Olson is Deputy Director of the Latin American Program and Senior Advisor to the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. His research and writing has focused on security issues and the impacts of crime, organized crime, and violence on democratic governance. He has also written extensively about U.S. security assistance in Mexico and Central America. Among his most recent publications are, The Evolving Merida Initiative and the Policy of Shared Responsibility in U.S. - Mexico Security Relations, and Crime and Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle: How U.S. Policy is Helping, Hurting, and can be Improved. He also co-edited two volumes on U.S.-Mexico relations including Building Resilient Communities in Mexico: Civic Responses to Crime and Violence, (Wilson Center, 2014), and Shared Responsibility: U.S.-Mexico Policy Options for Confronting Organized Crime. (Wilson Center, 2010).

Prior to joining the Wilson Center he was a Senior Specialist in the Department for Promotion of Good Governance at the Organization of American States from 2006-2007. He served as Advocacy Director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA from 2002-2006. Prior to Amnesty, he was the Senior Associate for Mexico, and Economic Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America for eight years. He worked at Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education in Cuernavaca, Mexico from 1989-1993 where he was the program director. From 1986-1988, he worked in Honduras as a development specialist for several local non-governmental organizations.

He has an M.A. in International Affairs from the School of International Service at American University, Washington, D.C.

Manuel Orozco

Manuel Orozco is the director of the Migration, Remittances and Development Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. He also serves as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Development and as a senior adviser with the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Orozco has conducted extensive research, policy analysis and advocacy on issues relating to global flows of remittances as well as migration and development worldwide. He is chair of Central America and the Caribbean at the US Foreign Service Institute and senior researcher at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.

Orozco frequently testifies before Congress and has spoken before the United Nations. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of Texas at Austin, a MA in public administration and Latin American studies, and a BA in international relations from the National University of Costa Rica.

Orozco has published widely on remittances, Latin America, globalization, democracy, migration, conflict in war torn societies, and minority politics. His books include International Norms and Mobilization for Democracy (2002), Remittances: Global Opportunities for International Person-to-Person Money Transfers (2005), América Latina y el Caribe: Desarrollo, migración y remesas (2012) and Migrant Remittances and Development in the Global Economy (2013).

Andrew Selee

Andrew Selee is President of the Migration Policy Institute, succeeding co-founder Demetrios G. Papademetriou and Michael Fix. He came to MPI from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he served as Executive Vice President from January 2014 through April 2017.

Dr. Selee has worked closely in the past on two of MPI’s signature initiatives: the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future, and the Regional Migration Study Group, which was jointly convened by MPI and the Wilson Center. He also served as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations' Task Force on Immigration.

The founding Director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, Dr. Selee is a respected scholar and analyst of Mexico and U.S.-Mexico relations. A frequent commentator in the media, he has also written and edited a number of books and policy reports on U.S.-Mexico relations, Mexican and Latin American politics, and Latino immigrant civic engagement in the United States, and is a regular columnist with the Mexican newspaper El Universal. His latest book, Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together, was published by Public Affairs in June 2018.

In his role as Executive Vice President of the Wilson Center and previously as Vice President for Programs, Dr. Selee was involved with the Center’s wide-ranging initiatives in Europe, Asia, Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East. He is also the author of a major book on think tank strategy, What Should Think Tanks Do? A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact (Stanford (2013).

Dr. Selee has regularly taught courses at Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University since 2006 and was a visiting professor at El Colegio de Mexico.

Prior to joining the Wilson Center as an associate in the Latin American Program in 2000, he was a professional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives and worked for five years with the YMCA of Baja California in Tijuana, Mexico, helping to start a community center and a home for migrant youth. He later served on the National Board of the YMCA of the USA and chaired its International Committee.

Dr. Selee holds a Ph.D. in policy studies from the University of Maryland, an M.A. in Latin American studies from the University of California, San Diego, and a B.A. in Latin American studies (Phi Beta Kappa) from Washington University in St. Louis.