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The Biden administration’s new Central America immigration plan must involve investing in rural economies so would-be migrants can have a better future
Willy Foote is Founder and CEO of Root Capital
The US is facing its biggest migrant surge in 20 years, including a heartbreaking influx of unaccompanied minors. Fortunately, President Biden's comprehensive plan for immigration reform includes provisions to tackle this challenge at its roots: the violence, poverty, and climate-related disasters that drive so many men, women, and children to flee their homes.
After years of federal policy focusing almost exclusively on border security and deterrence, the new administration wants $4 billion in aid to help Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador address systemic problems that spur migration. It’s a practical acknowledgment that until underlying issues are resolved, immigration policies will only be Band-Aids.
But exactly how this assistance is targeted is critical. Rather than embracing historic top-down approaches that focus on working with governments—a tactic Biden used as vice president in crafting a $750 million aid program for the region—a portion of this aid should be invested in locally rooted economic solutions. The agricultural sector, in particular, employs up to a third of workers in these countries and has enormous potential to create vibrant rural economies.
Local agricultural enterprises and farmer-owned cooperatives provide some of the most stable livelihoods in the region—especially when they have access to financing and other resources. They connect small-scale farmers with international markets, premium pricing, and training to help them adapt to climate change. With this support, farming families can weather shocks that might otherwise drive migration out of sheer necessity.
Take, for example, Cooperativa Maya Ixil in Guatemala. More than two decades ago, a handful of coffee farming families from local indigenous communities formed the cooperative to access better economic opportunities. Member Susana Rodríguez Pérez says that “with the cooperative’s help, now we can sell coffee at a higher price. For my family, [it] has allowed us to study, to put nutritious food on the table, and buy more land.” In 2013, cooperative members reported incomes that were double that of non-member families.
Why does this story matter for immigration policy? Because despite the outsized impact of small cooperatives like Maya Ixil, farmers in Central America are at the mercy of converging crises. The one-two punch of COVID-19 and climate-fueled disasters—like back-to-back hurricanes in November—has disrupted rural livelihoods. Without immediate action, shocks like these will only worsen in the coming years.
If the Biden administration is serious about addressing the roots of migration, it should prioritize investment in rural resilience, particularly through small and growing agricultural enterprises. The World Bank has found that growth in the agricultural sector is up to four times more effective at reducing poverty than growth in other sectors.
I’ve seen this firsthand. Working closely with public and private partners, my organization, Root Capital, has provided $533 million in loans and technical assistance in the region, enabling hundreds of thousands of smallholder coffee farmers to earn stable incomes while boosting their resilience against climate threats. Over the past two decades, our loans have generated over $3 billion in economic activity and boosted the average farmer’s income by 18 percent. This model of local investment helps address primary drivers of migration while strengthening rural economies in a lasting way.
Still, promising approaches like these are not getting the support that’s needed to be truly transformative—a clear result of foreign aid and other investments being tilted toward other priorities such as border security and deterrence.
It’s the same story with global climate finance, which is overwhelmingly directed at reducing carbon emissions rather than helping people, particularly farmers, adapt to the impacts of climate change that are already here. According to a recent International Fund for Agricultural Development study, only 1.7 percent of climate finance from international financial institutions and other donors is going to climate adaptation activities for smallholder farmers in low-income countries.
As the Biden administration looks to implement its new immigration plan in Central America, it is critical to prioritize investment in rural economies. By doing so, they can help ensure that rural families have what all would-be migrants are searching for: a better future.