THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: It is June 22nd, Thursday, 10:30 a.m. Welcome to the Foreign Press Center on-the-record roundtable discussion with our honored guest Marcela Escobari, Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Latin America and the Caribbean, USAID. My name is Jed Wolfington. Offering a reminder that this is on the record. There will be a transcript posted on our website by the end of the day. Thanks to everyone for being here.
The topic of today’s discussion will be migration policy and the Biden-Harris administration’s root causes strategy. We welcome our media representatives. And without further ado, I would like to extend a warm welcome to Marcela and turn it over to you for opening remarks.
MS ESCOBARI: Great, thank you so much. Thank you for being here. So as we mark the end of Title 42 and the anniversaries of the L.A. Declaration and the Biden-Harris administration’s root causes strategy, I wanted to provide some insight on how USAID looks at the role – at our role – in the broader U.S. Government strategy, because we believe that managing migration safely and humanely is key to advancing our objectives as a development agency.
Too often, the immigration conversation in the U.S. begins and ends in our southern border. But last June, at the Summit of the Americas, the Biden-Harris administration did something bold, bringing more than 20 countries together to endorse the L.A. Declaration. That framework recognizes that migration is not just a border problem but a regional phenomenon that requires us to work collaboratively with our partners in Latin America and the Caribbean.
And though migration is not new – we’ve had significant migration flows from Mexico and northern Central America for decades – we are now experiencing the largest levels of displacement and regional migration in the hemisphere’s history, with the displacement of more than seven million Venezuelans since 2018. The administration recognizes that addressing this challenge will require us to come at it from multiple angles at once, and at USAID we are taking a three-pronged approach.
First, we’re building on our years of work to tackle the complex root causes that drive migration – lack of economic opportunity, poor governance and corruption, crime and violence, which includes gender-based violence. Now, that is our day job at USAID, across the world and across the region. The Biden-Harris Administration’s Root Causes Strategy allows us to double down in northern Central America and has brought critical resources, like the commitment of $4 billion in funds and programming, as well as attention, like the Vice President’s Partnership for Central America, to the region.
And USAID’s programs continue to make a difference. For example, one area we focus on is helping farmers improve their production and yields to support themselves and their families while they stay on their land. During a recent trip to Guatemala, which I made last month, I visited CAMPO , one of our Feed the Future projects, that helps farmers improve their skills, productivity, the quality of their products, expands markets. And I met women like Mercedes, who had previously produced corn just for self-consumption, and through this program she was able to turn her subsistence farm into a flourishing business called Flor del Campo, selling flour, cookies, cereal, and she now makes over $5,000 a year. Her business is so successful that her husband, who had previously migrated to the U.S. for work, was able to return home, reunite with their family, and join the family business.
Second, we’ve worked to expand lawful pathways so people can migrate safely and legally and fill critical labor gaps here in the United States. This administration has innovated in this area, from the CHNV Parole Program to United for Ukraine. At USAID, our work with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras has helped nearly double the number of H-2A and H-2B visas, from around 9,800 to 19,000. And we expect this number to continue to grow year to year.
And finally, as we look at the crisis of the Venezuelan exodus, we recognize that the majority of displaced people are relocating within Latin America. So, we support host countries that have introduced pragmatic, bold, and long-term policies to integrate Venezuelans with their communities, like Ecuador, who is regularizing hundreds of thousands of migrants, or Colombia, who offered 10-year temporary protected status to immigrants. In Colombia, USAID supports 11 integration centers, which help families access government services, put their kids to school, find health care, get jobs, open bank accounts, and settle where they are.
Together, these tactics are helping us meaningfully improve lives, modernize our approach to migration, and reduce the need for people to make the dangerous journey north. So, I’m happy to take your questions on these programs and the way that we are tackling the challenge of migration. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Marcela. So, we have a good advantage here with a good ratio. We welcome any questions you may –
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Mounzer Sleiman. I’m the bureau chief of Al Mayadeen. It’s – Al Mayadeen network is based in Beirut, Lebanon, but it’s international for Arabic-speaking people and some program in English, just to give an idea about our network.
Frankly, I had fortune of meeting you prior to this, and I – one of the reasons that I came here was more personal and to act with that to try to get that – I’m not going to repeat the issue, but you were very kind to allow me to send information about my case.
But I want to take one issue from my case to stress the difficulties and the problem that the people with the legal pathway for immigration versus the other and how the priorities for the immigration, whether from this continent or all over, how we can speed up the process that has been lacking with the backlog due to the previous administration, frankly, policy toward immigration and due to COVID. How the administration can really refocus or double the focus on the issue that – for the people, whether could be reunion of the family – all the cases that is going through the legal pathway, and to really give them priority or at least address them in a more equitable, fair fashion versus the focusing only on the illegal immigration that’s happening, and which is understood for the political situation and – currently in the country, that these issues are sometimes being used as a political football between certain – primarily by the Republican who they don’t like the administration. But how can this steps to be taken would assure the people who are, because this is – has lots of implication about the people who – they feel that going through the legal pathway has merit, has – also would find results.
MS ESCOBARI: Well, thank you for your question. And the premise of your question is so true and what we find also in the Western Hemisphere – which is people want to come here legally, with dignity, through the front door, and what this administration has done is expand those pathways in a significant way, I think more than any other administration that I know of.
And it’s based on the premise of what we know works when we have had spikes of migration, of irregular migration, which is a mix of enforcement with legal pathways. Enforcement by itself doesn’t work. The desperation of people to improve their lives or the reasons that actually led them to migrate are so strong that they will find another way, and that’s what actually creates stress at the border. So, it is the combination of increased enforcement with legal pathways that historically have worked and is the premise of the administration’s focus.
So, the increasing the pathways have happened not only on the policy side, right, by increasing the number of slots of H2-A and H2-B visas, which allow people to come temporarily here, work, and then go back to their families, bring those resources, bring that know-how and put it to use. It’s what people want. They have doubled those laws from 66,000; they’ve added 64,000 to that last year. We have the CHNV parole program, and that’s in the Western Hemisphere; obviously United for Ukraine.
But additionally, aside from changing those policies, it has put the resources so they can be processed. Right? To give you an example, we at USAID are now working with the labor ministries in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador so that they can actually get skilled workers, put them in a database, understand their skills, understand what they want to do, and match them with employer demand. Right? Those are resources from USAID that increase capability within these countries to have a very streamlined process to that matching. So, it’s not just a policy change; it’s also the resources behind the operability so that things take less time.
QUESTION: Can you follow up on this? There is people who have already in the pipeline with the pathway, and there’s the people who you encourage them to go now, currently – let’s say currently this year or the year before, since the administration. My point is there is an impression that sometimes – let’s say after the war in Ukraine, there is – took more priorities to European-based immigration and allow them to do in a kind of discriminatory way for others. But my basic question here is, what about – talking about legal pathway – let’s assume that there is one bucket of new attempts, and there is the one that still (inaudible).
MS ESCOBARI: Whether that —
QUESTION: So how —
MS ESCOBARI: — supplants —
QUESTION: — it’s been addressed?
MS ESCOBARI: Yes. So, I’ll tell you what I know about that because it might be different in different places, and it’s what we discussed earlier, right? Previous administrations decimated the capability of our immigration system. And I think many of the new consular offices have been working to staff up again to deal with that backlog. And I think, what I know, is that new resources of people are being put everywhere. You’re correct. It probably means that when this program happened, we – like United for Ukraine, we needed to also stress – put resources there. But overall, the whole system, I think, is being —
MS ESCOBARI: — at least improved – no, it’s overwhelmed because migration dislocation has only grown, but there are new resources and people being put to the whole migration system to deal with the backlog also. So, what you’re saying is true, but I also think it’s not just going from here from there. The whole system, I think, is being strengthened, but I know that probably State Department, DHS would have more information on numbers.
MODERATOR: Thank you for your question.
QUESTION: Hello, my name is Yoko Morita from Asahi Shimbun, Japan. So, I have some questions. First, so in terms of call it strategy, I believe that many migrants from Central America come to the United States to seek asylum. And how exactly are you working on to address the root causes of asylum, like the forced displacements?
MS ESCOBARI: So, in terms of asylum – and there is a new program that is being instituted by the administration, creating safe mobility offices in different countries that are being launched in the coming days that would streamline and allow people who are seeking asylum to do so more expeditiously in the countries that they – that they are based. And there is an office that, I think, will launch shortly in Guatemala. Other countries like Colombia and Ecuador are also considering them, and I think that’s another investment to try to expedite people who need protection to provide them an easier, local, and faster service to receiving that protection.
QUESTION: And then another question is that you – you said that you are working with the labor ministries in Central America and – in order to provide more economic opportunities to potential migrants and local people, but I assume that those initiatives will take a certain amount of time. Like, it’s not like you can accept something in one month or by the year – so, like, I was wondering what kind of, like, vision in terms of timeline that – what kind of vision do you have in terms of timeline?
MS ESCOBARI: This is a good question. So – and there are two different initiatives. So, number one, we have been working on the Root Causes Strategy and root causes of migration in terms of creating economic opportunity, improving governance, strengthening institutions, and strengthening rule of law and security, which was a big challenge in Central America, for many years – for decades.
What the Root Causes Strategy has done, and it’s started with – during the Obama Administration – the Obama-Biden Administration where they strengthened and doubled our investment in the region and now again through the Biden-Harris administration to just continue to focus resources and attention to the region and doubling down our efforts of what we know works, right?
We have invested in universities in – 20 years ago that now are teaching the new leaders in Central America 20 years later, right? We have improved the cultural opportunity and productivity and brought technology like till agriculture, drought resistant seeds. We helped – when coffee rust had decimated coffee in El Salvador – all those investments paid off through time that allowed what we want: people who want to stay to be able to have the opportunity to stay. Our ability to double down our resource, also double down our impact. And we’re seeing that, right? So, we can show that the other thing that the root causes strategy has a lot to do is try to measure the impact of that. Because of course development takes time. It’s hard to create a causal relationship between migration and economic opportunity. But we’ve actually been able to show it.
And just to share a couple numbers, participants in our flagship rural development program, those who participate migrate at half the rate of those in the surrounding community, right? Or we know that people who participate in our Feed the Future program that I discussed, their intentions to migrate, which are very tied to actual migration, reduced 78 percent, lower than the general population.
So, we can tie that, but we can also say that we’ve been working this for a long time. The strategy just allows us to double down on the things that we know work.
QUESTION: Because I focus on different region than the Western Hemisphere, but I have to ask you a question regarding that. Because there is some criticism coming that – to follow up on my previous question, or part of it – from the Middle East or let’s say Asia and Africa continent compared to other places, the focus – like, for instance, the Syrian case. A war for 12 years there. There are many people that United States did not attempt to accept more refugees from – to give them – versus other region.
So how this can be balanced? Do you have any idea? I know it’s not of your area of responsibility or knowledge, and I can understand that, but at least maybe if this issue can be raised to respond to the kind of criticism that has been waged against the United States that it’s not focusing its resources or the policy to accept immigrant from certain area from let’s say Asia and Africa compared to let’s say Europe or the focus on – because it’s on your borders here, and leaving people – having miserable situation and you can see why the refugee issue is really an international crisis. I know that there is 100 million probably throughout the world that are refugees, but you see every – you don’t hear of tragedies with Latin American country compared to what’s happening in the Middle East region, and every day or the other day you hear about some boat with people dying because they are attempting to get out of their miserable situation to – but they are really facing death most of the time.
How can the United States maybe address these concerns and criticism?
MS ESCOBARI: Let me hit at your question to a couple of important trends. Number one, the reality of what you are saying, which is human dislocation is a tragedy and it’s one that is increasing, right? People don’t want to move. People don’t want to leave their families. People don’t want to be separated. It happens because of shocks, of weather events, war, authoritarian governments – probably the largest reason of displacement in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere is authoritarian regimes. And unfortunately, all these forces are only increasing, right? And we need better ways to manage this dislocation.
The one thing – and this is why we at USAID and as a U.S. government are – obviously my job is in the Western Hemisphere – are focused on managing this new or this large displacement in Latin America, is that we are seeing a different and a cautiously hopeful trend of countries within the region making very generous and pragmatic approaches to that displacement. The example of Colombia deciding to accept 2.5 million – that’s 4 percent of their population – Venezuelans in their country and giving them 10 years’ TPS to integrate. That’s unheard of in the world of migration, right? So, USAID did send our help to be able to help the government manage that, right?
Ecuador just did the same thing for 500,000 Venezuelans – gives them school; it gives them access to the labor market; it gives them access to their health system. These are not politically beneficial policies, right? But they take courage, and we are trying to support them in that because we think that if all countries do that for this crisis of the Venezuelan dislocation, displacement, if most countries tend to have those policies and we and other donors can be behind them, we can show that that is a more successful way of managing migrants. Because we also know given strengthened entrepreneurialism and the desire of having a better life that migrants bring, that they will bring an economic boost to those societies. It’ll just take a bit of time.
In the case of Colombia, they know. They have measured that in 10 years, that integration – positive integration of migrants will lead to over $2 billion of added GDP; a 4 percent of GDP improvement in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, if they successfully integrate. But the costs are now politically and in terms of budget. So just to say that that focus of it – we support these countries showing that a regional approach to migration is possible and doable, I think could be a model for the world.
On your question on Syria, unfortunately what I have is the Western Hemisphere perspective: it’s a huge tragedy. But, the world rallied in terms of providing like $28 billion to deal with the Syrian migration, which has been around 6.8 million displaced people. For Venezuela, that number is only 2.8, and it’s the same number of people. So, if anything, that migration crisis has been underfunded, and it has been mostly the U.S. who has funded it. So, it’s not enough, but the U.S. has tried to – showed up in these displacement (inaudible).
QUESTION: Well, anyway, I hoped that because of these questions maybe we could have a briefing focusing on different region, because this is probably the second briefing at the Foreign Press Center that focusing on the Western Hemisphere issues. So maybe – because they really – because I’m originally from Lebanon, although I’m American citizen for 40 years now. The refugees from Syria and Lebanon, they are almost equal to the population of the Lebanese, and Lebanon is suffering economically and from corruption of political elite who are really making life miserable. These issues need to be addressed, and sometimes the assistance from outside is to make the refugees stay in Lebanon instead of facilitating how then to go back.
So it’s a very complicated – more than – each region has its problems. But I agree with you that the focus should be on regional also, regional solutions, but to solution – not the solution that has been imposed on Lebanon now, because this is – could create another crisis when you have the population outnumber the actual people, the population of refugees to be greater than – and especially with the birth rate that occurring, and with people from Lebanon are leaving the country because of the miserable situation. We’re going to be facing with a very tragic situation.
MS ESCOBARI: And one final comment to what you’re saying, right – given that displacement is going to be more of the norm, we do always have to look at the very difficult reasons of the root causes of trying to avoid war, of trying to avoid displacement. In the case of the Western Hemisphere, it’s really the Maduro regime’s corruption, mismanagement, violation of human rights, that really has caused 20 percent of the country to leave, right? And at the end, that’s what – as the globe, we need to rally against those root causes.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that question and bringing that up. Is there anything else that you would like to ask, or – okay, great. Well, on behalf of the Foreign Press Center, I would like to thank our briefer for sharing her time with us today and her expertise, and I would like to thank you from the media for your interest and your attendance. So that concludes the briefing.