Here’s what’s getting lost in the passionate debate over Central American asylum seekers at the U.S. border: This problem will keep getting worse as long as parents in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador continue to fear for their children’s lives if they stay in their countries.
In other words, the solution to the Central American asylum seekers problem lies in Central America. No U.S. border wall, or child detention centers, or increased funds for the border patrol will deter desperate parents who fear — with good reason — that their children will be recruited by drug gangs and, sooner or later, end up dead.
Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit Guatemala on Thursday and issue a strong warning against migration in a meeting with the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Speaking to reporters in Brazil on Tuesday, Pence told Central Americans, “If you can’t come [to the United States] legally, don’t come at all.”
But such warnings won’t deter scared and desperate Central Americans.
“Why do immigrant parents put their children in peril?” Roger Noriega asked in a tweet this week. He served in the State Department, under George W. Bush, as Latin American department chief.
“In part, organized crime and gang violence — fueled significantly by U.S. demand for illegal drugs — have decimated economies and state institutions in Central America and Mexico,” he said, answering his own question. “Let’s fix the problem.”
Indeed, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras rank among the world’s most violent countries. In many areas, drug- and human-trafficking gangs are the main employers of young people, and they demand protection money from virtually everybody.
If you own a store, sell tortillas on the street or send your kids to school, you have to pay the gangs protection money, or risk you or your children being harmed. You may refuse to pay once or twice, but once you see a neighbor killed for refusing to go along, you get the message.
State institutions are powerless, corrupted or both. It’s no surprise, therefore, that many parents prefer to risk being detained at the U.S. border than risk the lives of their children by staying at home. Many of us would do the same thing.
“The state in these countries has become so fragile, that organized crime groups have taken control of big chunks of their territory,” says Manuel Orozco, a Central America expert with the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington D.C. “People live in fear of murder and extortion by the gangs.”
For every 1 percent increase in the region’s homicide rates, there is a 100 percent increase in migration, Orozco says.
What can be done? “Investing additional money in fences and border patrol agents alone will not solve U.S. illegal immigration problems,” a 2014 study by the pro-business American Enterprise Institute said.
Instead, the United States should, among other things be “addressing human rights and refugee concerns before people abandon their countries, and mobilizing international cooperation and funding” to restore law and order and hold corrupt officials accountable, it said.
But the Trump administration earlier this year asked for a more than 30 percent cut in U.S. assistance for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, as part of its overall foreign assistance budget cuts. While Congress refused to make such deep cuts, it still reduced U.S. foreign assistance to Central America from almost $700 million in 2017 to $615 million this year.
That will further weaken Central American governments, allow gangs to expand their powers and is likely to drive up the number of Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans fleeing to the United States. The same goes for Trump’s plan to deport to Central America. more than 200,000 Temporary Protection Status holders.
Rather than U.S. isolationism, the answer to the plight of Central American asylum seekers should be to team up with other Latin American and European countries to increase law enforcement and anti-corruption cooperation with these countries, as well as to promote more free trade with the region. Isolationism won’t work, but a rising tide will lift all boats.
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