Pence’s message to Central American people: Come legally or don’t come

Vice President Mike Pence called on the leaders of the three Central American countries who are the region’s greatest source of migrants to the United States to take concrete steps to secure their borders and warn their people not to come to the United States illegally.

Pence was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for what they described as a “candid” conversation about the steps that the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala need to take to stem the outflow of migrants to the north.

At the national palace in Guatemala City, Pence outlined “concrete steps” for the nations to take, including ripping down public advertisements for human traffickers, expanding their border police, renewing the fight against corruption and gang violence, and telling their people that traveling to the United States “will only result in a hard journey and a harder life.”

“I have a message for the people of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, straight from my heart, and from the heart of the American people,” Pence said. “If you want to come to the United States, come legally, or don’t come at all.”

Pence traveled to Guatemala City Thursday as part of a three-nation bonding tour around Latin America that was supposed to end by meeting victims of the Fuego volcano eruption. But the outcry over immigration and families turned the meeting more into a lecture against the Central American leaders.

Facing threats that the Trump administration will cut off their foreign aid, Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran officials walked a careful balance, delicately pushing back on U.S. immigration policy can calling for separated children to be reunited with their parent while pledging near-unconditional loyalty to President Donald Trump for everything else.

Current and former officials in the so-called Northern Triangle say they don’t know how seriously to take Trump’s aid-cutoff threats, but they’re doing everything in their power to stay on his good side, maintain current funding and avert any U.S. scrutiny of their own problems of corruption and mismanagement that have contributed to the illegal immigration problem and threaten their own standing.

In Guatemala’s case, that meant initially supporting Trump’s right to separate families at the border before quickly backtracking due to public uproar. And, along with Honduras, it meant being the first to curiously announce they too would move their own embassies in Israel to Jerusalem, the disputed capital.

One official from the region told McClatchy, however, that it’s a “two-way street. The United States also has some responsibility.”

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén delivered some of the strongest remarks calling on the Trump administration to protect “human rights,” warned its policies to separate children and parents at the U.S. border put children’s health and mental well-being at risk., but he also promised to take “concrete steps” to reduce migration from El Salvador.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández promised to build border police and fight drug and human traffickers and said the people of Honduras need to understand and respect the rules of the United States.

Immigration, he said was “a multi-headed monster with one foot in the Northern Triangle and another in the United States,” he said.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales warned the Guatemalan people against traveling illegally to the United States and asked the local media to help with an awareness campaign on the dangers.

Trump has threatened to cut foreign aid to the region multiple times, including when the so-called caravan of 1,000 Central American migrants, largely from Honduras, traveled to the border as well as during a round table talk in Long Island about the extent of Salvadoran gang, MS-13, around the country.

Speaking at a small business event in Washington, D.C., last week, Trump said he would “very shortly” seek authorization to withhold funding from countries.

“When countries abuse us by sending people up — not their best — we’re not going to give any more aid to those countries. Why the hell should we?” Trump said.

It was not clear whether Pence delivered the same message Thursday in private sessions after the public statements.

Weak economies, corruption, drugs and violence are the root causes of the crisis, Pence said. The United States will continue to work with the countries to address these challenges, but Pence said the crisis has become more urgent and stronger action is needed.

“This exodus must end,” he said.

While migration from Mexico has decreased, people arriving from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have become the greatest source of migrants crossing the southern border.

The flow of money from the U.S. to the Northern Triangle is substantial. The United States dedicated $140 million in foreign aid to Guatemala in 2017, $95 million to Honduras and $72 million to El Salvador.

The money family members in the United States send back is even greater. Remittances to the Northern Triangle, among the top receiving nations, exceeded $17.5 billion in 2017, a 12 increase from 2016, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington organization focused on Latin America.

“We’re attached at the hip,” the U.S. official said.

Fernando Carrera, the foreign minister of Guatemala in 2013 and 2014 who worked with Obama administration when nearly 70,000 unaccompanied children from Central American arrived on the U.S. doorstep, said violence is a real problem in the region, but said that’s not the full picture.

“The deterrence policy is flawed,” he said. “We’re trying to stop a phenomena that can’t be stopped.”

In an interview in his home in Guatemala City, he questioned U.S. advocacy groups, NGOs and the national media for promoting a narrative that all Central Americans are asylum seekers. Many are fleeing serious violence and deserve protections. The region is extremely violent, but he said those seeking asylum out of fear is probably only about 20 percent of the cases.

The majority, he said, are coming in search of jobs and to be reunited with family members who arrived a decade earlier.

Not only do Guatemalans hear Trump talking about deporting immigrants. They’re paying close attention when he touts the strong economy and wealth of jobs. And so do friends and family in the United States who share reports of bosses needing workers.

“No one in their right mind is going to stop trying to reunite with their kids just because you threaten to deport them,” Carrera said. “It’s human nature.”

But the three governments’ must tread lightly when broaching the sensitive subject. Facing their own political volatility, they see opportunities to shore up their stability by getting closer to the Trump administration.

In Guatemala, Morales and members of his family are under fire for possible campaign finance violations. The government has responded by seeking Trump’s support in return for giving him political cover after becoming the second country to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem despite diplomatic fallout.

“Guatemala has outsourced its foreign policy to the White House, and it’s unclear what it has received in return,” said Benjamin Gedan, who was National Security Council director for Latin America during the Obama administration.

In Honduras, where Hernández faces allegations of election fraud, the government also announced plans to move its embassy. The United States formally recognized Hernández’s victory but also called for a review of any challenges to the results.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez

Related stories from Miami Herald