To keep kids from our borders, fix things farther south
Despite their differences on almost everything else, President Barack Obama and Texas Governor Rick Perry agree that the unlawful migration of more than 50,000 Central American children to the United States is a humanitarian crisis. Some members of Congress and U.S. military leaders label it a security crisis. Whatever it’s called, it is an emergency that requires immediate attention.
But the United States and the Central American countries that the children are fleeing have to address the violence and chaos they seek to escape if this wave isn’t to be followed by another one all too soon. That message is contained in the Obama administration’s urgent request to Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with this emergency, though it doesn’t say what the underlying causes are or include more than a sliver of resources to address them.
It is not hard to identify the roots of the current crisis. Most of the underage migrants come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where living conditions are close to intolerable for much of the population. In addition to being among the most economically backward nations, the three are plagued by some of the world’s highest rates of homicide and other violence. Regular employment at living wages is scarce. Government services are woefully inadequate and scarred by pervasive corruption.
It is largely up to the leaders and citizens of each country to pursue the political and economic reforms demanded by these complex challenges. The United States is already supporting programs to address the region’s problems. Yet solutions are not only about money. Adjustments in some of Washington’s long-standing policies that affect Central America are crucial.
Heading the list is the vital need to overhaul the broken U.S. immigration system. Next are major changes in misdirected U.S. drug policies, followed by Washington’s need to review its trade and foreign-aid strategies throughout the region.
The crisis on the border could have been avoided, however, by a few critical changes in U.S. legislation. Providing legal residency for undocumented migrants and allowing them to travel between the United States and their home country, for example, could substantially reduce the future prospect of waves of children coming to the border to be reunited with their parents.
Revising U.S. deportation practices could also help diminish violence in Central America. Many deportees are convicted felons who, after serving time in U.S. jails, have ended up leading Central America’s brutal gangs. An estimated 75,000 gang members in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala today are involved in kidnappings, drug peddling, robbery, extortion and murder. In many places, youngsters are urgently fleeing these gang activities.
There is one crucial change that should not be hard for the United States to make. Local governments in Central America should be given timely information about convicted felons and their crimes in the United States before they are returned to the region. This would help authorities take precautionary measures in dealing with the dangers that career criminals or violent offenders may present. U.S. support for local agencies working to rehabilitate and reintegrate deportees into society could also make a difference.
U.S. anti-drug policies need to be reassessed. Drug trafficking is a critical part of Central America’s cycle of violence. For the region is strategically located between the lucrative drug markets in the United States and the cocaine-producing countries of South America.
The United States has made some progress here, stepping up efforts to reduce the demand for illicit drugs. A number of programs are showing promising results. But a successful campaign to cut demand will require a far more dramatic shift from law enforcement to initiatives focused on prevention and treatment.
Just as important, U.S. anti-drug policies in Central America need to be redirected. Most independent analysts have concluded that Washington’s emphasis on the interdiction of drugs passing through Central America has had little impact on the quantity or price of narcotics in the United States. In fact, it is probably contributing to the region’s pervasive violence. U.S. anti-drug money might be better used to help the Central American republics bolster their police forces to deal directly with the violence.
Washington also needs to be careful about the impact of U.S. trade policies on Central America. There is growing alarm about current U.S. negotiations toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new free-trade area that would include a dozen Asian and Latin American nations. Low-cost Asian clothes could quickly threaten the viability of Central America’s textile industries and the wider economy.
On another economic front, recent U.S. measures to prevent money laundering are raising the cost of family remittances to Central America. The money amounts to $15 billion a year, roughly 10 percent of the region’s gross domestic product. The new measures could deprive the region, and many of its poorest families, of more than of $1 billion a year.
Ideally, to help ease the problems at the border the United States should offer long-term aid to Central America. The objectives would be to accelerate economic growth and social development and to bolster security across the isthmus by strengthening law enforcement and the courts.
It was not so long ago that Washington provided Colombia, whose population is not dramatically larger than Central America’s, some $8 billion over a decade. That effort sharply diminished the threats posed by guerrillas, paramilitary groups and drug cartels. Today, it is widely viewed as a success story.
This level of assistance to Central America, however, seems far-fetched now, given U.S. commitments in so many other parts of the world, the still-troubled state of the U.S. economy and the fitful politics of Washington.
Yet if the United States had decided to make an investment of some $3 billion to $4 billion in Central America’s economy and security five years ago or so, it might not have to shell out a similar amount today to deal with a crisis on its border.
PHOTO (TOP): Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, in Brownsville, Texas, June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Eric Gay/Pool
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Two female detainees sleep in a holding cell, as the children are separated by age group and gender, as hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Arizona, June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Ross D. Franklin/Pool
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Detainees play as other sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas, June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Eric Gay/Pool