When Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly attend the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America in Miami, they will have an important opportunity to meet with the leaders of the Northern Triangle countries to discuss the migration crisis affecting our countries. The chance to start a dialogue with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador, President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras and President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala could allow this administration to chart a course for regional cooperation and identify long-term solutions that serve all our interests.
The reality is, life is not getting better for families and kids in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. If the U.S. murder rate were the same as El Salvador’s, more than 349,000 Americans would have been killed last year — not including extrajudicial killings by police, which average more than one a day. El Salvador and Honduras have the two highest homicide rates in the world, and Guatemala is not far behind.
Salvadorans are regularly killed for refusing to sell drugs for gangs or refusing to be a gang “girlfriend,” failing to pay protection money and for countless other reasons. Considering the size of the population, the civilian death toll in El Salvador was not much different than Syria’s last year. Living in El Salvador is like being in a war zone, and is especially dangerous for women and children.
At the same time, the number of children and families being detained at our southern border is declining. At the end of 2016, upwards of 23,000 families and children were being apprehended each month at the U.S. southern border. Starting in January of this year, those numbers began to decline. In April, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) arrested just over 2,000 families and kids.
While this news might seem to suggest a victory for the administration’s much-publicized measures to increase immigration enforcement, it may actually be a symptom of a dangerously imperiled U.S. asylum system. What’s worse, a decline in American humanitarian leadership at the border and throughout the region could lead to a wave of instability for us and our southern neighbors.
After several years and many thousands of Central American children and families seeking asylum in the United States, what is happening to them if they are not showing up anymore?
Mexico is one option for migrants, but conditions for asylum seekers there are harsh, and the chances of receiving legal refugee status are slim. Some towns along the southern border of Mexico have become de facto refugee camps as thousands of asylum seekers are deciding it is too risky to cross Mexico and too uncertain that they will be able to present their claims in the United States. And, for the kids seeking to avoid the risks of traveling through Mexico, President Trump’s refugee ban has slowed a program that provides visas for child refugees from Central America seeking to join close relatives who have legal status in the United States.
Further south, Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize are seeing huge surges in asylum applications. But resources in these countries are stretched, and the infrastructure for processing cases and helping integrate refugees is not there. In Panama, jobs are available but obtaining a work permit is close to impossible. In Costa Rica, where HIAS recently opened an office to serve this growing population, the cost of living is high and it is difficult for asylum seekers to earn enough to meet their basic needs.
All the countries in the region that are receiving refugees have much smaller economies and less-developed systems for accepting refugees than the United States. These countries need support to ensure a fair and humane process for people in the region who are seeking asylum and to provide basic services to those who have been forced to flee the tragedies that their countries have become.
The sustained effort to stop asylum seekers from seeking safety in the United States is not only perpetuating the problem, it is increasing the burden on the families desperately seeking safety as well as the other countries in the region that are hosting them. As the wealthiest and most powerful country in the region by far, the United States must, at a minimum, leverage its vast experience receiving and integrating asylum seekers to support countries that are now hosting thousands of refugees who cannot access the United States.
Simply waiting out asylum seekers who have fled for their lives is neither moral nor legal. They must have somewhere to go, as the right to seek and enjoy asylum is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the Refugee Convention. Nor can we expect any one country in the region to step up to the plate and offer more rights than others.
This week marks an occasion for the United States to start working with our neighbors to develop a truly regional and harmonized approach to ensure that the rights of bona fide asylum seekers are respected in every country in the region, including the right to work.
As the administration intensifies its efforts to keep Central American asylum seekers away from our own borders—reducing their options for finding safety — the United States must mitigate the negative impact of its failing asylum system by stepping up its regional humanitarian efforts.
This week in Miami is the perfect place to start.
Melanie Nezer is vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees and asylum seekers.