As the Biden administration nears the end of its first 100 days, immigration from Latin America has emerged as an increasingly hot political issue already promising to help shape his first term.

The president’s current plan envisages granting citizenship to most undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, among other measures, although it’s unclear how much support it will receive in a deeply divided Washington.

But there’s another problem, according to the anthropologist and former ICWA fellow Amelia Frank-Vitale: This so-called crisis is poorly understood. For one, says the doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, there’s nothing “illegal” about the flow of refugees across the American border—nor does it qualify as a “crisis.”

“Coming to seek asylum is absolutely the only way to do it under the law,” said Frank-Vitale, who studied the migrant corridor in Mexico and Central America during her fellowship from 2012-2014.

It’s part of what she says is a broader failure to grasp the fundamental nature of migration from Latin America, where crime, poverty and poor governance prompt hopeless locals to head north in search of security.

Another fallacy? Assuming the recent transition in the White House is a key push factor that’s likely to prompt a significant surge—an issue recently raised during Biden’s first press conference last week.

“I talk to people in Honduras every day… and none of them have said, ‘Hey, I hear Biden is going to let us in,’” Frank-Vitale said. Instead, she says, complaints typically center on locals’ continuing inability to feed their children or escape the grip of drug cartels, gangs and persecution by police.

I talk to people in Honduras every day… and none of them have said, ‘Hey, I hear Biden is going to let us in.’

Yet perhaps most frustrating is what Frank-Vitale says is the lack of creativity and innovation when it comes to tackling the root causes of migration in countries such as Honduras, the focus of her research on cycles of deportation among young adults.

Take anti-corruption work, for instance: US financial assistance is often funneled into private hands and organizations rather than used to strengthen the capacity of the state itself—a strategy that often backfires, according to Frank-Vitale. The problem, she says, is not necessarily a corrupt government, “but not enough government.”

“There is no social infrastructure,” she added. “There is no real welfare state.”

Corruption remains a major issue, to be sure. President Juan Orlando Hernández has consistently fought off allegations that he’s enmeshed in the drug trade, for example. The sentencing of his brother to life in prison by a New York court this week for “state-sponsored drug trafficking” certainly didn’t help that image.

But the United States backed his 2017 re-election amid claims of fraud—part of what Frank-Vitale says is a longstanding legacy of American influence in the region that often neglects Hondurans’ true interests. Many people are motivated to build a brighter political and socio-economic future for themselves, but are often stymied by a government and institutions that take marching orders from Washington.

“A lot of people would much rather stay if they saw a path to a better life in their own country,” she said. “Addressing the root causes of migration really means addressing all of these other things.”

So while absorbing and processing migrants at the southern border may be the Biden administration’s most immediate priority, it faces a much more complex and longer-term challenge: making sure Hondurans—and many others—have something to stay behind for.
Photo credit: Wotancito, Wikimedia Commons