Biden Administration

Biden Should Strive To Be Better Than Both Trump and Obama on Central America

The administration’s approach should discourage the drug war, encourage immigration.


The press has been filled with praise for President-elect Joe Biden's foreign policy team. Antony Blinken, tapped to head the Department of State, has been lauded for his pledge to restore aid to the Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—that account for the majority of migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. These funds were largely cut during the Trump administration.

Blinken also brings an immigrant background to the table, which Biden sees as a uniquely qualifying factor for a secretary of state. While announcing his foreign policy nominees, Biden declared, "I know him and his family, immigrants and refugees, a Holocaust survivor, who taught him to never take for granted the very idea of America as a place of possibilities."

"America is back!" Biden exclaimed during the announcement.

Back to what, exactly?

For all the differences between Barack Obama's and Donald Trump's approaches to immigration, both administrations tried to discourage immigration from Central America. Blinken appears poised to continue that under Biden: The reason he wants to restore aid to Northern Triangle nations is to encourage would-be migrants to stay home. As The New York Times puts it, the point is "to persuade migrants that they will be safer and better off remaining home."

That was the Obama approach. In those days, then–Vice President Biden helped broker a bipartisan deal to send $750 million in aid to those countries, hoping to stem the outflow of migrants by spurring economic improvement, rooting out corruption, and cracking down on violent crime.

"Obviously, the problems in those countries when it comes to crime and gang violence, drugs, lack of economic opportunity, among other things, are huge drivers," Blinken said in a July interview with the Hudson Institute. "The idea that someone wakes up in the morning and says, 'Gee, wouldn't it be great fun today to give up everything I know, where I live, my family, my friends, my comfort and go to someplace that may not want me where I may not even know the language or have family or friends. Wouldn't that be a great thing to do?'"

But did the aid package really change that calculation? According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Obama's tenure saw the deportation of around 3 million people, outpacing the number under President George W. Bush. And a majority of those deportees came from the Northern Triangle.

"I doubt the Biden administration will try to make migration from Central America easier," says Stephen Yale-Loehr, immigration law attorney and professor at Cornell University. "At most they hope to manage it better."

The Global War on Drugs

Worse yet, some of the aid billed as a cure for the Northern Triangle's violence might have exacerbated it instead. Much of that Obama-era assistance was tied to the War on Drugs, which has had a destabilizing effect on the region. In a directive issued halfway through his second term, Obama argued that "U.S. engagement in Central America" needed to include "intensified counternarcotics efforts."

Biden seems eager to continue that approach. In 2019, he described his immigration policy by boasting about his role in Plan Columbia, an early-'00s package of assistance to the Colombian government. "You do the following things to make your country better so people don't leave, and we will help you do that. Just like we did in Colombia," Biden told CNN. But Plan Columbia was aimed mostly at stopping the production of cocaine, and it helped prop up a violent regime as long as the government claimed to be fighting the "war on drugs and terror."

Back in 1988, a RAND report found that interdiction efforts abroad have little impact on drug consumption in the U.S. In fact, prohibition made the black market more profitable. As Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote that same year in Foreign Policy, black-market drug profits pay for the bribes—to authority figures ranging from low-level cops to federal judges—that help facilitate the drug trade. The functionaries who resist are killed. If drugs were legal, Nadelmann noted, the trade would instead "function not unlike the international markets in legal substances such as liquor, coffee and tobacco."

More than 30 years later, Nadelmann says those gangs have diversified their business, entering sectors ranging from cattle farming to the construction industry. But illicit drug trafficking still drives a lot of violence, and prohibition continues to backfire.

"It's analogous to alcohol prohibition," he tells Reason. "When you prohibit a transnational commodities market, the result is to have all the negative implications: organized crime, violence, corruption." Washington's interdiction efforts are not just futile; they're dangerous. "Drug interdiction operations pursued by DEA and others…may immobilize a particular gang or route, but they tend not to pay attention to the fallout. Sometimes you knock out one criminal organization, and a more powerful one takes its place."

But while Biden appears open to softening domestic enforcement of marijuana laws, he isn't interested in cutting the link between foreign aid and the drug war. During a vice presidential visit to Mexico and Honduras in 2012, Biden slapped down leaders' hopes that the U.S. might consider legalizing drugs. ("It's worth discussing, but there is no possibility the Obama/Biden administration will change its policy on [drug] legalization," he said after meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón.) Eight years later, a drug crackdown is a central component of his foreign policy team's plan to improve conditions in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Open Borders?

Biden and Blinken do appear to want a more humane immigration policy than Trump's. And it's hard to beat the inhumanity of the outgoing president's "zero tolerance" effort to contain migration by separating children from their parents. But can't the Democrats do better than a failed strategy that steps up a militarized drug war—and still tries to discourage migration from the region, albeit with more carrots than sticks? Isn't there a better way?

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, has long advocated open borders. He acknowledges that this is an even harder sell than usual during a pandemic, but he hopes that will change once a vaccine is widely distributed and the virus abates.

Caplan expects Biden's immigration strategy to be preferable to Trump's, but he argues that curtailing freedom of movement is ultimately a lost cause. What's more, he says it's a bad cause: Freedom of movement, he argues, is a good thing. Not just for the immigrants, but for almost everyone.

"When you let people move from places where there's labor unproductivity to places with more productivity, there's so much to gain," Caplan says. "If anyone could work anywhere on earth, the production of humanity could double. Let human talent move."

Trying to stop that, he adds, leads to tragedy. U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimates that 7,216 people died trying to cross the border from 1998 and 2017. The most common causes of death were exposure and drowning.

"Rather than having to separate from family, leaving kids, risk dying in the desert," Caplan says, "someone could take a $30 bus ride from their country into the U.S." Instead, Biden and Blinken seem committed to the policies that earned Obama the nickname deporter-in-chief.