U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a plenary session of the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, California, June 9, 2022.
Photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
June 10, 2022 5:10 PM EDT

Leaders across the Western Hemisphere signed on Friday the “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration,” a robust new international agreement designed to buttress economies in Central and South America in order to prevent waves of new immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Biden Administration, which has made addressing the root causes of migration central to its agenda, celebrated the new declaration. “Today the leaders on this stage to join together to make what is almost an overused phrase…to make a historic commitment,” Biden said. Twenty countries signed the declaration.

But migration experts were more sanguine. The declaration is non-binding and will likely only be effective if it is the first of further initiatives, Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan research institution, said in a statement to TIME. “It is, of course, hard to know how the Los Angeles agreement will be implemented in practice,” he adds. “Like many other international declarations, it creates a set of shared proposals that governments agree they would like to pursue but leaves the actual details to later negotiations…The Los Angeles Declaration will be successful if it is the first, not the final, word on migration cooperation in the Americas.”

Read more: The Summit of the Americas Was Meant To Counter China’s Influence. Instead, It Showed How Weak the U.S. Is

Top leaders from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela—nations that collectively account for most emigration to the U.S.-Mexico border—did not even attend the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles this week, and most were not expected to sign the declaration at all. Without those leaders’ buy-in, the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration mostly only impacts countries that have already received migrants. According to the White House, the U.S., Mexico, and Canada have so far assumed most of the responsibility to increase legal pathways for migration.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who is spearheading the Biden Administration’s effort to address root causes of migration, said in a June 8 speech at the Summit on Thursday that private sector investment is necessary to achieve longterm goals in Central America. “When I think about all the challenges we face in the Western Hemisphere, I know they will require new and innovative coalitions between the public and private sectors,” she said. “We continue to see corruption, migration flows, and democratic backsliding, and violence. These issues effect all of us, and the solutions then must involve all of us.”

Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at MPI, who spoke to TIME from the Summit in Los Angeles, said the Administration’s project, which has been underway for more than a year, can claim some success. Forty companies and organizations have generated more than $3.2 billion in investments to the Northern Triangle region of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The businesses and organizations who are committing investments plan to launch endeavors that could create employment opportunities in Central America, increase internet capabilities throughout the region, and increase financial infrastructure so that more people have access to bank accounts, among other initiatives.

But even billions in private investment won’t have much of an effect, Ruiz Soto warns, if the governments of the countries with high rates of emigration lack the political will or ability to work with other nations to address the root causes of migration. “Investment is great,” he says. “But it’s not enough alone.”

‘Friction points’ before the summit even began

On June 6, the Biden Administration confirmed that the U.S., which hosted the Summit this year, did not invite the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua because of their anti-democratic leanings. In protest, the presidents of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras announced that they would not attend. Other lower-ranking officials from the governments attended in their place. “To many of us, the absence of the highest levels of government from these countries represents a lack of political continuity and will,” Ruiz Soto says.

The decision by Honduran President Xiomara Castro to boycott the summit was particularly sharp, as she has been in frequent contact Vice President Harris to achieve the goals of the the root causes initiative. Castro and Harris spoke as recently as May 27, but Castro stressed the next day on Twitter that she would only attend the Summit if “all the countries of the Americas are invited without exception.” On June 6, she shared that the Honduran foreign minister would attend the Summit in her place, and added “My government maintains good relations with the U.S.”

Read more: Why Kamala Harris’ Trip to Honduras Is Really About the U.S.-Mexico Border

The leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador present bigger challenges to the U.S. and other Latin American nations. Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei is tied up in controversy for reappointing Maria Consuelo Porras as the attorney general, who essentially banished the country’s anti-corruption investigators. Her appointment has raised red flags for international organizations like Human Rights Watch. And in El Salvador, president Nayib Bukele has increased international concerns that the country is slipping into authoritarianism. In the past few months, Bukele has cracked down on free press. Bukele has also launched a crackdown on gangs that has lead to more than 30,000 arrests, raising concerns at the United Nations that—while acknowledging the prevalence of gang violence in El Salvador and that it has contributed to the flight of Salvadorans leaving the country—El Salvadoran police may be violating international law and making arbitrary arrests, including 5,747 who were arrested without a warrant.

These issues were clearly “friction points” for the U.S. prior to the start of the Summit of the Americas, Ruiz Soto says.

‘Historic and unprecedented rates of irregular migration’

Encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border have reached nearly 1.3 million so far this fiscal year. In Fiscal Year 2021, encounters surpassed 1.7 million, historically high rates. So far this year, most people encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border have been from Mexico, Cuba, and Guatemala. Countries like Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica have also seen high numbers of migration to its borders by people fleeing Central America and Venezuela.

“The Western Hemisphere, as a region, is undergoing historic and unprecedented rates of irregular migration. Nearly every country has been impacted,” a senior Biden Administration official said on Thursday evening. “There’s certain countries that, I think, feel the pain and recognize the value in coming together, working on responsibility sharing, and…exploring new tools that we can employ to better bring the situation under control.”

Read more: Joe Biden’s Immigration Bill Aims to Address the Root Causes of Migration. Will it Work?

The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection includes efforts to achieve economic stability in migrant communities that have already arrived in countries like Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Belize; expand legal migration pathways in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., including resettlement and family reunification programs for Haitians and Cubans; implementing “humane border management policies”; and coordinated emergency response.

“The bottom line is this: the Western Hemisphere is home for all of us,” President Joe Biden said during Thursday remarks at the Summit of the Americas. “Over the past decade our region has changed, the challenges we face have changed, and so our policies and solutions have to change as well.”

The Biden Administration’s focus on addressing root causes of migration follows in the footsteps of the Obama Administration, which invested more than $1.6 billion in Central America in an effort to stem migration. The project was met with little success. The Biden Administration’s efforts, which also include anti-corruption efforts, are more expansive than Obama’s, Ruiz Soto says, but need to take place while governments of those regions also take steps to mitigate migration.

While the nations convened in Los Angeles this week, a caravan of several thousands of migrants, including from Venezuela and Central America, formed in southern Mexico and began the journey north, hoping to make it to the U.S.

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com.

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