Recently, I came across a piece on The Atlantic, “The Price of Title 42 Is the Battered Bodies of My Patients”, and I was taken back to a year ago when I first began writing for the Institute and almost wrote about immigration in response to the news that 53 migrants had died after being abandoned inside a trailer truck in San Antonio’s oppressive heat

There have been many casualties and tragedies in the year between these two pieces, in the time before them, and unfortunately many more will come after them. Immigration is litigated and debated and politicized over and over again—yet nothing changes. Different strategies have been adopted across administrations, from promising to address root causes of migration to delineating new consequences for those who fail to use legal pathways. 

None of these strategies have worked. 

Why? Because when it comes to immigration policy, it’s important to remember that strategy is what gets done, not what gets promised. And strategy is determined and developed through resource allocation. Therefore, it follows that if immigration policy is going to move forward, if these migrant tragedies and casualties are finally going to be addressed, then the key lies in managing the process through which immigration strategy is developed.  

A better strategy

There are generally two processes of strategy formulation: deliberate and emergent. Deliberate strategies are analytical and top-down. They’re often used in projects with properly defined problems and clear solutions. For deliberate strategies to work, three conditions must be met: 

  1. The strategy must encompass and address all of the important details required to succeed, and those responsible for its implementation must understand each important detail;
  2. the strategy must make sense to everyone implementing it, not just the leaders who design it, but to those it affects as well, so that everyone involved will act appropriately and consistently; and 
  3. the strategy must be implemented with little unanticipated influence from outside political, technological, or market forces.

Regarding immigration policy, the US is not yet ready to employ a deliberate strategy. Immigration strategy incentives are not aligned and there are many political and social influences on this topic. But emergent strategies could prove more effective. 

Emergent strategies are employed when there isn’t a clear solution to a complex problem. They emerge from responses to unforeseen challenges. When it comes to immigration, there are many factors to consider, amongst them humanitarian and security issues—issues that leaders might not exactly know how to solve. But that’s okay, because emergent strategies can adapt, improve, and evolve. And, eventually, once an emergent strategy’s efficacy is recognized, that strategy can be formalized and turned into a deliberate one—one that has a clear solution to the problem.

But how do we get there?

Trial and error, except smarter

Because strategy is determined through resource allocation, strategy is what emerges from the resource allocation process, not what goes into it. The resource allocation process will determine which of the emergent initiatives get funded and implemented, and which are denied resources. There are two main factors that typically guide resource allocation and that are important to keep in mind when drafting immigration initiatives: 

  1. An organization’s cost structure; and
  2. the size threshold (in this case the impact measure) of the new initiative.

An emergent immigration initiative must appeal to leaders and decision makers in terms of both cost structure and impact to get funded and implemented. This may seem like a very basic notion, but consider the current administration’s Root Causes Strategy

The Root Causes Strategy framework is organized under five pillars, essentially five smaller strategies, one of which is to address the economic insecurity and inequality in Central America to deter migration in the first place. The Hope Border Institute’s year two assessment of this strategy found that under this pillar, not only is US development funding and foreign assistance not clearly reported, but there are no clear metrics in place to actually measure any progress. 

Regardless of these shortcomings, the larger strategy was still funded and implemented; but as elections come and go, as new measures are proposed, and more migrant tragedies occur, will this strategy evolve and prove effective, or will it just become another failure riddled with unclear reporting and progress metrics that deter future investment? 

The Root Causes Strategy seems to address the issue that migration is a workaround for many people. Its five pillars aim to improve conditions in Central America, but it’s still very much an emergent strategy and shouldn’t be treated as a deliberate one. 

At least not yet. Not until the details are reassessed and its assumptions are tested and confirmed, which is why assessments like those the Hope Border Institute are doing are crucial to the strategy’s evolution. 

The administration recognizes that, “even with a strong, sustained commitment, the type of systemic change envisioned in the Strategy will take time to achieve, and progress will not be linear”. While this is true, leaders and policymakers shouldn’t wait around for the failure or success of their current strategy; instead, they need to accelerate reassessments and assumption testing to improve their approach. 

The solution to a problem isn’t always about finding the right strategy, it’s about managing the process through which that strategy is developed. 


  • Sandy Sanchez
    Sandy Sanchez

    Sandy Sanchez is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on understanding and solving global development issues through the lens of Jobs to Be Done and innovation theories. Her current work addresses how individuals can use market-creating innovations to create sustainable prosperity in growth economies.