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A group of Central American migrants surrenders to U.S. Border Patrol Agents south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2019.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson - RC1EFD427530
Future Development

Central Americans need less violence, more development, and a safe place to stay

The Trump administration plans to punish the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for the continuing flow of migrants by cutting foreign aid to these Northern Triangle countries. The administration also blames weak U.S. immigration laws and border security for creating incentives for migration. This is used to justify demands for tougher laws, returning asylum seekers to Mexico, declaring a national emergency to build a border wall, and threatening to shut the U.S.-Mexico border.

This approach demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of current migration at the southern border. These policies are likely to increase human trafficking, decrease U.S. security, hurt the economy, and exacerbate underlying drivers of migration.

Sarah Bermeo

Associate Director - Duke Center for International Development

Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science - Sanford School, Duke University

Combating the crisis within sending countries will take money, political will, and time. It requires acknowledging true causes and working toward sustainable change. Until progress is made, people will continue to arrive in the U.S. fleeing insecurity at home. Policies adopted toward these asylum seekers will help determine regional stability.

Crafting a response requires correctly identifying the problem

Northern Triangle countries remain among the most dangerous in the world. Homicides, extortion, kidnappings, sexual assaults, and violence from drug traffickers and gangs are significant threats. The vast majority of crimes—as high as 95 percent—go unpunished. Desperate people travel thousands of miles, often with children, risking death, rape, human trafficking, and other evils to reach the U.S.

President Trump has blamed weak U.S. laws, insufficient border security, and lax enforcement for the number of migrants at the border. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan have repeated this to Congress. This thinking has been endorsed by some members of Congress. Those making this argument point to the Flores settlement requiring children to be released from detention in less than 21 days, leading to release of family units during the often lengthy asylum process.

Critics argue that economic migrants exploit U.S. law by arriving with children and claiming asylum. If true, families from many poor countries should be taking advantage of this to pursue economic opportunity. Instead, data released by the government show that 96 percent of recent family unit arrivals are from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In countries where violence is not endemic, migration is decreasing. Neither a border wall nor tougher policies will stop migration that is driven by violence at home, not by U.S. laws.

Countering violence, corruption, and lack of opportunity

To decrease violence, increase economic growth, and stop forced migration, the U.S. should adopt a three-track policy response. One track should focus on long-term stability. Corruption is a serious problem. The international community should pressure President Jimmy Morales to reverse his ban on the work of the international anti-corruption group in Guatemala, CICIG. The U.S. and other countries should support anti-corruption efforts in El Salvador and Honduras and assist national and local leaders fighting corruption and impunity.

Foreign aid can help develop effective police capacity for combating gang influence in communities. International experts can provide technical assistance to improve tax systems and boost government revenues, which remain low as a percentage of income. Regional initiatives can lower transnational crime. Achieving long-term stability will be difficult and depends partly on national leaders. The U.S. should be prepared for both progress and setbacks on the road to success.

A second policy should pursue short-term goals in parallel with advocating broader reforms. Areas devastated by drought may be less plagued by violence, but need immediate food security assistance and help to transition to resilient and economically viable crops. Most people displaced by climate change globally migrate within their home countries; this option is less viable when the countries and their cities are among the world’s most violent. Foreign aid can also improve education and health, laying foundations for growth once the macro-level problems of violence, corruption, and capacity are addressed.

Realistic short-term policy includes haven for asylum seekers

While these plans take root, a third policy to allow people to legally remain in the U.S., at least temporarily, will increase security while benefitting both migrants and the economy. Making entry illegal or more difficult increases the likelihood that desperate migrants use traffickers rather than surrender to U.S. agents. This strengthens the same organized criminal groups that wreak havoc in the U.S. through illegal drug trade. Organized crime makes northern Mexican cities among the most violent in the world, increasing instability near the U.S. border. Insecurity is enhanced by thousands of asylum seekers stuck in Mexico, in poor and unsafe living conditions, subject to exploitation by these groups.

Tough legal barriers result in less control over immigration and less safety for migrants, as people resort to illegal entry and disappear into the shadows. Providing people with legal status allows migrants to work, pay taxes, and be educated while in the United States. Migrants boost local economies and create new businesses. Studies show no increased crime when migrant populations increase. Deliberate policy, like that already used for refugee resettlement, can avoid overwhelming individual locations by distributing asylum seekers throughout the U.S. and connecting them with charities skilled in assisting arrivals.

Deportations have historically fueled gang violence in Central America, contributing to the current wave of asylum seekers. Instead of deportations, the U.S. can allow individuals to gain skills while waiting to return home. In cases of returned refugees to other countries, skills developed abroad have benefitted home country economies. Programs currently working with Mexican returnees can be expanded to Central America when return is safe. This creates a virtuous cycle, replacing the negative circle fueled by deportations, violence, and lack of economic opportunity.

This three-track approach of long-term investment, short-term strategy, and legal status for asylum seekers is costly and politically difficult. Yet unlike cutting foreign aid or building a wall, it has the potential to address underlying problems, increase U.S. security, and stop forced migration in the long-term. Policymakers need to replace counterproductive demands with comprehensive strategy if they are serious about sustainable solutions in Central America.

This blog was first launched in September 2013 by the World Bank in an effort to hold governments more accountable to poor people and offer solutions to the most prominent development challenges. Continuing this goal, Future Development was re-launched in January 2015 at brookings.edu.

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