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The Real Root Causes of America’s Border Crisis
And How Biden Can Address Them
Michael A. Clemens

June 7, 2021
Asylum seekers turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas, May 2021
Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters
From his first days in office, U.S. President Joe Biden has had to contend with a surge in migration across the U.S.-Mexican border, in particular from the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Instead of building walls or beefing up border security, as his predecessor did, Biden has promoted an ambitious $4 billion plan to address what he has called the “root causes” of irregular migration. By tackling insecurity, corruption, and poverty in Latin America, the Biden administration is betting that it can persuade many would-be migrants who lack visas to stay home.
Biden’s plan won’t slow the traffic at the U.S. border overnight, but it may help stabilize the flow over time, preventing the kinds of extreme surges of irregular migration that occurred at the beginning of this year. For the plan to work, however, Biden and his team must understand that migration pressures from the Northern Triangle follow two starkly different patterns: long waves that last decades and short spikes that last months.
The former, perhaps paradoxically, are symptoms of rising prosperity in the countries from which migrants hail, whereas the latter stem from crises and shocks. Any successful agenda
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MICHAEL A. CLEMENS is a Fellow at the Center for Global Development and the IZA Institute of Labor Economics.
Central America & Caribbean El SalvadorGuatemala Honduras Mexico United States Refugees & Migration Biden Administration Latin America
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