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U.S. can help improve conditions in refugees’ homelands so that they stay

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The federal government shut down on Dec. 22 over funding for a border wall separating the United States from Mexico. Thousands of migrants, mostly from the Northern Triangle Countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, are stuck at the border in increasingly desperate conditions waiting to have their asylum claims adjudicated. Two Guatemalan children detained in Texas after crossing the border with their fathers died recently in separate tragedies.

Just before the midterm elections, a caravan of about 5,000 people making its way through Mexico was the focus of intense media coverage — and exploited in a cynical attempt to instill fear and justify wasteful spending on a border wall. Press coverage was driven by what the arrival of these migrants meant for the United States. There is still scant a word about the impact of their exodus on some of the world’s poorest and most violent countries they have left behind.

These Central American migrants, increasingly families, are driven by the same fears that drove millions more to this country from distant lands two centuries ago seeking a safer and better future. Predictably, the focus today remains on the impact their presence will have on the United States. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, this migration is only exacerbating the conditions that prompted the exodus in the first place.

Now these migrants are scattered just across the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Harassed or attacked by street gangs, criminal cartels, abusive police and dogged by corruption and misery, the vast majority saw no choice but to flee their homes. Yet their departure hollows out civil society in their countries, making them less safe and less desirable places to live. As more people leave, incentives increase for others to follow.

The pull toward the United States. is powerful, but the stories that individual migrants tell and countless reports from United Nations, Organization of American States and non-governmental groups point to the far more powerful push factors. The controversial caravan was composed not only of the dispossessed — a few had jobs back home. Some had been working in factories, making products that feed the supply chain that kept U.S. shelves stocked with seasonal garments for Christmas. The fact that even workers with jobs testified to the lack of protection in the face of violent threats and being unable “to make ends meets” speaks to the precariousness that so many Central Americans endure.

Those who make the dangerous and harrowing journey through Mexico are often the most determined, courageous and entrepreneurial. In some cases, whole villages in Central America are being abandoned, leaving only the elderly. The young people are irreplaceable and their absence portends a future of greater instability and hopelessness in their homelands, feeding a downward spiral in which many see no option other than to flee.

The United States and the international community need to help promote economic opportunities for youth, strengthen the rule of law and put an end to impunity for those who make their neighborhoods unsafe. Recently, anti-corruption initiatives have proven effective at fighting corruption even at the highest levels, while also playing a role in significantly reducing violence. If the United States wants Central America to “do more” on migration, then the this country and others should help these governments join the fight against corruption, as opposed to turning a blind eye as the Morales administration has undermined those efforts in Guatemala, while the Honduran Congress has done the same in that country.

Aid to this region won’t be a magic solution to stop migration overnight, but it will surely help. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the recently inaugurated president of Mexico, has called for a “Marshall Plan” massive investment of $30 billion. Lopez Obrador has done even more by offering generous sanctuary to asylum seekers until their cases here are resolved. New monies for a border wall should instead go toward joint funding of that Marshall Plan and helping Mexico provide that sanctuary.

Until the Northern Triangle countries become less beleaguered, the exodus will continue. Yet if the United States works in good faith with Central American governments, civil societies and private sectors, the factors that propel people to leave their countries can be reduced, and young families can see a way forward to stay and build their communities.

Joe Eldridge is the co-founder and former executive director of the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA). Mark L. Schneider is a former head of USAID for Latin America and the Caribbean and currently a senior adviser at the Center for International and Strategic Studies.