Root Causes of Migration, Development, and US Aid to Northern Triangle States
Jill Marie Gerschutz-Bell
September 28, 2022
For decades, governments have sought to deter migration by investing in the development of migrant-sending communities, despite macroeconomic data that shows that development can increase emigration. However, emerging research suggests that well-designed aid can promote rootedness in home communities. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has increasingly attempted to use development to deter migration from the Northern Triangle states of Central America. Is this policy sound?
This paper argues that development should not be instrumentalized to discourage people from migrating. It examines migration and development policies from the lens of Catholic social teaching, which recognizes the need for states to respect the agency of individuals. This is particularly important when it comes to complex and consequential decisions like whether to migrate. The Catholic Church recognizes both a right to migrate, when necessary, and the responsibility of states, particularly wealthy nations, to help people realize the right not to migrate; that is, to thrive in their home communities. The paper argues for US government assistance to alleviate poverty and invest in human capital in Central America, but independently of efforts to deter migration. Prioritizing aid to potential migrants risks reducing its effectiveness. The United States should instead pursue a whole-of-government strategy that emphasizes the right relationships with aid recipients, and that prioritizes and empowers the poor and marginalized. The paper is strongly influenced by the author’s 15 years of work for Catholic agencies on migration and development, more than one-half of those with Catholic Relief Services.