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What's Driving The Migrant Surge At The U.S. Southern Border?


The number of people who crossed the border into the U.S. in March was higher than at any point in the past 15 years. That's according to new data from Customs and Border Protection that was reviewed by The Washington Post. What is happening? Cecilia Munoz was the head of President Obama's Domestic Policy Council, and she also worked with the Biden transition team. Our co-host Rachel asked what she thinks led to this moment.

CECILIA MUNOZ: In 2014, the Obama administration faced a similar problem. It took a couple months, but ultimately, for the rest of the Obama administration, it was managed with the right facilities and the right procedures. We never ran out of shelter space again, and the process flowed pretty smoothly. I think that's where the Biden administration is ultimately heading. But they signaled early on that it was going to be messy at first because they inherited a mess and that it was going to take time until we're able to manage the flow and to properly house people.

But ultimately, this is a refugee crisis in our hemisphere, and you're never going to be able to fix a refugee crisis with the measures that we take at the border. So it is tremendously important that the president has asked Vice President Harris to lead the conversation with the Northern Triangle countries, where people are coming from, that they have plans to reinstate the kinds of investments that started getting made in the Obama years and, very importantly, to help people in the region get to safety without having to cross all of Mexico with smugglers. We lost four years of progress and momentum, but the sooner we get started - and the Biden administration is getting started - the sooner we'll be able to manage this problem at its roots, which is really how you fix it. You can't fix it at the border.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: But how do you measure your return on that investment? I mean, the Biden administration has announced it wants to spend roughly $4 billion to address root causes - right? - failing economies, violence in Central and South American countries. The Obama administration, as you say, spent $750 million to - sent that money to those countries in 2016 alone. And it just didn't work. Is this throwing more money at a problem that can't be solved that way?

MUNOZ: Look, this is not a problem which is going to go away over the long term unless we actually get very serious about addressing the reasons that people migrate in the first place. We did see some progress in Honduras, for example, as a result of the investments that the Obama administration made. But ultimately, you can't secure long-term progress in the course of a year or two years. At the end of the day, this is our hemisphere. We live in it, and we are reaping the effects of disinvestment over a long period of time. We are seeing the effects of failing to fix our own immigration laws over a long period of time. They haven't been updated since the '90s. And had we done that, we wouldn't be seeing nearly the scale of problem that we're seeing now.

MARTIN: But what are the realistic benchmarks for these countries and these governments when it comes to getting this foreign aid? What effects does the money need to have in order to say this is money worth spending?

MUNOZ: So for example, in Guatemala, which is experiencing a drought - which had a disastrous failure of the coffee crop, the United States had been engaged in work in Guatemala to change the kinds of crops that people are raising to ultimately make their lives more sustainable in response, frankly, to the ways in which climate change is changing agriculture in the country. In Honduras - Honduras has just suffered two huge hurricanes that happened in exactly the same place within two weeks of each other, so immediate disaster assistance is a short-term way to make sure that people can survive at home and not have to resort to making a very dangerous trip in order to survive.

Like, people don't choose to take a trip this dangerous or to send their children with smugglers because it's easy. They do it because they're desperate. So we can measure the impact of creating the wherewithal so that people can stay at home, which is ultimately what they prefer.

MARTIN: Cecilia Munoz - she worked as the domestic policy adviser under President Barack Obama, and she also served on Joe Biden's transition team. Thank you so much.

MUNOZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.