Central America is suddenly grabbing headlines again — decades after the civil wars, hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters that killed hundreds of thousands of people and decimated the economies of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
These days, the big story is the influx of more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the United States from Mexico during the first nine months of this fiscal year, double from the previous year. The total is likely to hit 90,000 by fall and possibly 150,000 next year. It’s so serious that President Obama — who’s already dealing with the latest Israeli-Palestinian flare-up, pro-Russia separatists battling the Ukrainian government, the imminent collapse of Iraq and the grinding war in Syria — made time to meet with three Central American leaders in July to discuss the humanitarian crisis on the southwestern border.
“I can recall no time since the Central American wars of the 1980s when so much U.S. media attention has been paid to this region,” Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, said during a July 24 discussion attended by 250 people crammed into the center’s sixth-floor auditorium and two overflow rooms. “These children come from an extremely violent region, where they probably perceive that the risk of traveling to the U.S. is preferable to remaining at home. Poverty levels have gone down, but 45 percent of Salvadorans, 55 percent of Guatemalans and 67 percent of Hondurans are still poor. There is no magic bullet to address these problems, which have taken decades, if not centuries, to develop.”
Julio Ligorria Carballido, Guatemala’s envoy to the United States, agrees.
“You cannot blame this crisis on any one thing. If you speak with ambassadors from the Northern Triangle countries or Mexico, everyone will tell you we all have a shared responsibility,” the ambassador told us. “But everyone has a lot to gain by resolving this.”
Until recently, the immigration debate focused largely on Mexico, even though the number of people coming to the United States from that country dropped following the 2008 economic crisis. Meanwhile, in Central America, a major drug corridor, a surge of minors began making the dangerous trek north to escape brutal gangs, endemic poverty, sex trafficking and some of the highest murder rates in the world.
Over the summer, after news broke of U.S. detention centers crammed with children and mothers, the Obama administration asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to hire more immigration judges, improve care for detained kids, crack down on smugglers and deter illegal immigration. Senate Democrats introduced a $2.7 billion package, while in the House, Republicans pared down a similar bill to $659 million.
The Senate effort went nowhere and House Republicans abandoned their own bill after failing to corral support from tea party conservatives egged on by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). But just before the start of a five-week summer recess, House Republicans managed to pass a $694 million border bill, along with a second bill to rein in Obama’s deportation powers, though neither has any chance of becoming law.
Republicans say their legislation addresses the root causes of the current crisis. Specifically, they cite a 2008 law (passed by George W. Bush at the tail-end of his presidency) that aims to curb human trafficking by requiring full hearings for minors from noncontiguous neighboring countries; in contrast, minors from Mexico and Canada can be turned back at the border. With the system overwhelmed, however, children from Central America often wait a year or longer to see a judge. In the meantime, most are sent to live with relatives and given an order to appear in court — an order that can be easily ignored, Republicans contend (Obama is now trying to expand family detention and fast track deportations to stop that practice).
In 2012, Obama also enacted the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, which provides two-year work permits for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children before 2007 (so-called “Dreamers”). Both policies, Republicans say, have fueled rumors in Central America that kids have permission to come to the States.
The $694 House-passed bill would change the 2008 anti-trafficking law to send minors from Central America back home without hearings, while the second bill would freeze and ultimately dismantle Obama’s deferred deportation program.
Democrats are also still fuming because GOP leaders in the House refused to take up a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate last year. Sitting comfortably in gerrymandered districts where popular sentiment runs against immigration reform, House Republicans have avoided addressing the status of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, preferring a piecemeal approach that prioritizes enforcement. That reticence, however, could ultimately boost Democrats’ election prospects, as Hispanics and other minorities increasingly turn against the white male-dominated GOP.
Republicans counter that they don’t trust the president to enforce the rules and insist that before any reward is given to immigrants who have broken the law, the border must first be secured ($35 million, for example, was added in the House spending bill to beef up the border with National Guard troops).
The Heritage Foundation, a well-known and well-funded conservative think tank, unequivocally places blame for the latest influx on the 44th president.
“Rather than use discretion as it is intended — to better administer the U.S. immigration system — the Obama administration has used its discretion to lessen enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, which creates an incentive for illegal immigration,” wrote Heritage research associate David Inserra in a July 15 briefing paper.
While only Congress can grant large groups of immigrants permission to stay in the U.S., the president can focus limited government resources on deporting certain individuals (criminals, for instance) over others (Dreamers).
But Inserra argues this creates a powerful magnet for more illegal immigrants, “since children and their families have hope that they might receive some sort of amnesty, or at least not be deported, if they make it into the U.S.” He added that the White House must “stop its anti-enforcement policies that are encouraging the increase in illegal immigration, thus making it more difficult and costly to secure U.S. borders.”
Yet some security measures may already be working. The White House says the number of Central American migrants crossing the U.S. border this summer has dropped significantly; the New York Times reported that greater policing by Mexico and a U.S.-funded ad blitz to debunk rumors that immigrants will be given amnesty may have contributed to the decrease. But the numbers are still high and the issue is sure to remain a political hot potato ahead of the November elections.
Rubén Zamora, El Salvador’s ambassador to the United Nations, doesn’t think lax border enforcement is behind the current crisis.
“The argument that the U.S. Border Patrol is inefficient is absolutely wrong. The Border Patrol is the most efficient thing I’ve ever seen in the U.S.,” said Zamora, who was El Salvador’s ambassador in Washington for a year before being reassigned to New York this summer. Ironically, 30 years ago, Zamora — then a member of a center-left group that assumed power in a coup — wasn’t even allowed into the United States.
“They know when the people are coming. There are 40 TV screens along one section of the Rio Grande alone, and as soon as there’s movement, all of them move into focus and can detect immediately what’s coming,” Zamora said at a recent Inter-American Dialogue event. “When I was ambassador here, I asked the immigration people how they measured that migration from El Salvador was on the increase, and they said it was because they were catching more and more people every day.”
Guatemala’s Ligorria agrees that the problem isn’t border security — it’s the lack of security back home. Earlier this summer, his country’s foreign minister became the first, and so far the only, foreign minister to visit the border during a trip to McAllen, Texas.
“We have to look at the violence in Central America, the hunger, misery, poverty and lack of education,” the ambassador said. “These are structural problems of our society that resulted 30 years ago from the Cold War. Help us to manage the crisis, but if you really want to solve the problem, you can invest in our countries. Promote real U.S. investments in Central America and take advantage of the lower wages. And increase cooperation to solve narco-violence and our other social problems.”
Honduran Foreign Minister Mireya Agüero de Corrales, who recently visited Washington, said the United States has an obligation to protect the welfare of all children trying to cross the border while helping her country fight the poverty, gangs and drug-fueled violence that force these minors to flee in the first place.
“This problem is all-encompassing, and it ties into the tragedy of our country being a transit point for drug traffickers and organized crime,” Agüero said during the Wilson Center discussion, where she was joined by the foreign ministers of El Salvador and Guatemala.
Agüero estimated that 80 percent of the cocaine shipped or flown from South America to the United States passes through Honduras. The Virginia-size nation of 8 million is already plagued with the world’s highest homicide rate: 79 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013.
“Our data show that 70 percent of the homicides in Honduras are related to drug trafficking,” she said. “We need to work together to break this vicious cycle. How much as governments can we actually do to attract investments and create jobs? The first thing is to focus on containing violence in order to create a much safer environment, so that there is trust in state institutions, which have also been undermined by organized crime. We accept that fact, and we’re working on it.”
They have a lot of work to do. Honduras ranks 16th out of 17 countries in the Social Inclusion Index 2014 issued by the Americas Society. The annual index assesses human rights, access to markets and education, political participation and women’s empowerment throughout the hemisphere. Dead last on this year’s list was Guatemala; El Salvador wasn’t far behind, in 14th place. (In contrast, Uruguay scored highest, while the United States came in fourth.)
So while Central American leaders justifiably point to America’s voracious appetite for drugs for fueling violence in their countries, they also need to own up to the lack of regional cooperation and graft-ridden governance that allows drug gangs to thrive, often in collusion with security forces.
“The Obama administration is right to urge them to more seriously tackle domestic challenges, including corruption, which is pervasive and shows few signs of abating,” wrote Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Politico Magazine recently. “Central Americans in positions of power have not done nearly enough to advance the rule of law, promote economic opportunities and help construct a decent life for their poorest citizens.”
Honduras and Guatemala, for example, have been pushing the U.S. for a Plan Colombia-type military assistance package to fight narco-trafficking, but it’s unclear if these governments have the institutional capacity to absorb such a massive investment. Since 2008, the United States has already spent nearly $650 million on the Central America Regional Security Initiative but has hardly made a dent in the political dysfunction.
As a result, even though the most effective way to reduce immigration is to keep people from wanting to leave in the first place, Washington is understandably wary of pouring millions of dollars into countries with little accountability.
Question of Money
Yet Agüero points out that Washington has already spent enormous sums of money in a futile attempt to militarize a porous 2,000-mile border.
“My view as a woman, perhaps, is more humanitarian in nature. We’re talking about children and families that are being broken,” she said. “We need to be logical. What have we gotten out of this strengthening and hardening of the border? If the U.S. had decided to give 10 percent [of what’s been spent on border security] to employment programs or maquilas [factories], our history today would be different.”
Zamora said that in addition to the lack of opportunities back home, the increasing prosperity of Central Americans already in the United States is also attracting immigrants to reunite with their families.
“The father or mother has special status in the U.S., but they left their child in El Salvador. Now they have the capacity to have the kids live with them in their own home,” the diplomat from El Salvador said. “What father wouldn’t ask for his own child? The upward mobility of our community has created the conditions for that phenomenon.”
“Migration emergencies have happened before, and will happen again, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. The problem now is that the average wait time for a child migrant to appear before a judge is 578 days. At the same time, funding for immigration enforcement programs has jumped by 300 percent in recent years, while the money available for hearings has risen by only 70 percent,” said Meissner, who headed the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration.
Despite this backlog, she defended the anti-trafficking law that granted migrants from Central America added legal protections.
“Special protections have to do with the fact that children are vulnerable,” Meissner said. “They are much less likely to understand the legal options available to them, so they cannot be returned voluntarily to their home countries in the way adult migrants can.”
Meissner estimated that 82 percent of the kids who have crossed the border are now in the care of either parents or close relatives, but she disputes the notion that these minors are hiding from the law.
“What we have on the southwestern border is young people coming to turn themselves in, not evade enforcement,” she argued. “They’re coming to find an agent to bring them to a Border Patrol station so these proceedings can begin.”
Zamora says these youths would rather face U.S. law enforcement than the gangs that operate with impunity in the northern tier of Central America, such as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18 — many of whose members were themselves deported from the United States over the last decade.
“Gangs create a very serious problem on the peripheries of big cities, where they control the territory. They decide who lives and who doesn’t,” Zamora said. “Let’s say a 12-year-old boy sees the gangs approaching him and telling him, ‘Work for us or we’ll kill your mother.’ What’s he going to do, move to another place? Usually these are poor people. What are the alternatives? They know they have a relative in the U.S. who is ready to accept them, so they go.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.