Since the spring of 2014, the United States has been struggling to deal with an unprecedented influx of young, unaccompanied migrants from Central America. The massive increase in displaced people, combined with the already difficult security situation on America’s southern border and the politically contentious nature of immigration policy, is formidably challenging the country’s immigration apparatus and broader government. Authorities on both sides of the frontier are struggling to cope with the crisis, which has paralyzed the American bureaucracy, vexed the Obama administration, and led to an ineffective, unhelpful attempt to handle the quagmire. The majority of the more than 50,000 Central American migrants who arrived at the Texas-Mexico border in 2014 were young and unaccompanied, fleeing extremely high rates of violent crime in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras (collectively known as the Northern Triangle.) Having recovered from the more violent days of civil war during the heat of the Cold War, the region has struggled with the rise of drug-related violence, which has affected the poorest, most vulnerable youth of the region, creating a stark ultimatum: join a gang or flee. Such lack of opportunity and social strife manifest themselves in the ferocious territorial battles between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 (18th Street gang). Gun-flooded and institutionally weak (a residual effect of their brutal histories), the three countries have consistently topped murder rate charts as the most violent states not currently at war.
After the influx received increased attention in the nation’s capital, the Obama administration labeled it a “humanitarian” crisis and put forth policies to combat it. Though these policies are important first steps in improving the situation to the United States’ south, they have fallen short not only in addressing the longer-term, root causes of the issue, but also in temporarily steadying the current catastrophe on the isthmus. President Obama doubled down on his Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the close to $1 billion dollar aid program aimed primarily at security assistance but also at development projects throughout Central America. He also implemented an aggressive deterrence program, complete with warnings about the perils of migration and deportation threats from the Department of Homeland Security. The fact that these attempts to repel asylum-seekers have been ineffective is evidence of Central Americans’ distinct identity from other undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the United States, such as those from Mexico. A study by the American Immigration Council found that Northern Triangle migrants are “far more likely to fit the profile of refugees than of economic migrants,” while a Vanderbilt University Latin America research team found that a correlation “between crime victimization and migration intentions in Honduras and El Salvador remains strong even after controlling for an assortment of other factors.” A sense of insecurity is empirically proven to be a primary push factor for youth immigration from the region; American policies must thus address that underlying problem directly if there is to be any progress on preventing future migrant waves.
The following set of recommendations is not all-encompassing, but must be viewed critically and through a pragmatic lens with the best interests of both the United States and residents of the Northern Triangle in mind. First, the succeeding presidential administration should reiterate its commitment to stability in Central America and maintain the important relationships forged there throughout the Obama administration. Second, the administration should build upon the CARSI aid package pioneered by President Obama and his top hemispheric experts, restructuring it from a military gift basket à la Plan Colombia more towards a comprehensive development plan. The Department of State must be especially vigilant towards corruption and graft in the aid distribution and keep in place the current metered distribution system that is largely dependent on the Central American governments’ willingness to abide by best practices in reconstruction. Third, the United States should take historical sensitivity into account and assure that its efforts are multilateral, in understanding that many Central Americans remain distrustful of its government due to Cold War covert action policies that resulted in military coups in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Of course, military advisors and security assistance are imperative to the success of these operations, but they must be especially attentive to working by, with, and through local communities with professionalism. Fourth, in keeping with the spirit of multilateralism, the United States must bring a more assertive attitude to multinational bodies such as the United Nations and encourage vigorous discussion about the region. Policymakers should go beyond hitting mere talking points and even consider requesting that a modest United Nations peacekeeping force be deployed to the most violent parts of the Northern Triangle, in adherence to the organization’s principles. Distrust in local police and endemic corruption have made certain areas practically ungovernable, therefore a multinational force along the treacherous gang boundaries in Guatemala City, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, and San Pedro Zula could be prudent. Fifth, the Department of State should invest moderate diplomatic effort in jumpstarting negotiations towards a truce between the MS13 and 18th street gangs, building on lessons learned from the effective, albeit short-lived truce of 2013. Sixth, the United States should work with its less burdened partners in the region, such as Costa Rica and Panama, to create new sanctuaries for refugees. The above policies would help enhance security in daily life for Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans, but would also likely take time; as a seventh policy, the incoming presidential administration should consequently continue to relax the legal criteria necessary for one to achieve refugee status upon arrival in the United States. The United States currently takes a maximum of approximately 10,000 refugees per year, but should be willing to increase this number to around 30,000 in order to accommodate the majority of migrants who arrive fleeing imminent danger.
Taken together, a revamped effort to relieve pressure on the Texas-Mexico border combined with policies to enhance the security situation on the ground in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras could make impressive strides towards achieving better hemispheric security. While not without cost, a smart reorganization of our current aid packages and security policies – combined with increased diplomatic pressure – would not be significantly more expensive than our current policies towards the region. These policies will understandably face criticism from realists and libertarians alike as some sort of financially-hemorrhaging humanitarian foray, but the strategic calculus goes far beyond that. Stemming the violence in Central America will not only save lives, but notably alleviate the pressure on border security authorities (a goal sought by a bipartisan consensus of politicians and Americans), further impede the South American drug trade through the overwhelmingly popular land route, and potentially free up new markets for trade and investment in the long-term. Pundits are right that America must be selective with its foreign policy efforts – it should help swiftly where it can truly make a difference. In the case of the Northern Triangle, the time is now.