The journey from Central America to the southern border of the United States stretches thousands of miles over inhospitable terrain and through regions of Mexico beset by violence.
And yet, the majority of the estimated 2 million people who have fled the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras since 2014 have chosen the United States for their safety.
Previous administrations have attempted to deter Central American immigration to the United States by simply strengthening law enforcement, the most severe example being President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated children from their parents. from 2017. This brute force approach and a 2019 requirement that asylum seekers remain in dangerous camps in Mexico while the United States processes their cases (the ‘Migrant Protection Protocols) do was not only morally repugnant, but did little to quell the number of migrants arriving at the border.
What is driving this migration and how can the United States respond effectively? It’s a complicated question that begins with a long-term commitment to rooting out corruption. Improving conditions in the Northern Triangle (NTC) countries would encourage more people to stay in their home countries rather than take a dangerous and uncertain journey north. Early moves by the Biden administration, including a visit to Central America by Vice President Kamala Harris, indicate they are heading down such a path.
For decades, illicit criminal networks have committed violence and created widespread insecurity in the CNT. In fact, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 reports that the Northern Triangle countries score lower on corruption than 103 of the 180 countries surveyed.
This corruption has its roots in the violent upheavals of the civil wars and military dictatorships that have ravaged the region. By the end of the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, more than 300,000 people in the region had lost their lives. This, combined with decades of military rule in Honduras, created the perfect environment for criminals to take power and thrive. Today, these criminals operate in the shadows, bribe judges and politicians with money from drugs and human trafficking, and commit brutal violence in communities across the region.
Corruption in Central America has rotted the lives of countless families: a small business owner in Honduras has to pay a gang just to run his business. He must pay another gang to escape this gang and bring his family to the US-Mexico border. And pay yet another criminal operation to cross the border and seek asylum in the United States
Women are particularly at risk. The Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean found that the highest rates of femicide per 100,000 women in Latin America were in Honduras and El Salvador: this fact prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to empower women fleeing domestic violence in other countries to seek asylum in the United States
It is possible to overcome these challenges, as Kurt Ver Beek, president and co-founder of the Association for a Fairer Society in Honduras, and I wrote in theBoston Globe. In 2007, the International Commission launched impunity in Guatemala and dismantled 70 illicit networks in 10 years. In 2016 and with the support of the United States, the Honduran Special Commission on Purge and Transformation cleaned up corrupt cops, firing more than 6,000 police officers. At the same time, the murder rate in Honduras has fallen by 60%.
In 2019, the Trump administration withdrew US support and leadership from these efforts. It’s no surprise that corrupt elites have re-established their grip on the Northern Triangle, that gangs have flourished locally, and families have moved north to escape impunity.
Until corruption is dealt with in Central America, migration to the United States will continue. Harris’s direct involvement in the region offers the promise of a pragmatic solution to a border crisis that has exacerbated partisan polarization on the issue. Among the initiatives announced: new efforts to target human trafficking and smuggling, and an investment of nearly $ 90 million in the region’s economic development. Working with local organizations and civic leaders, while holding national governments accountable, is the necessary approach.
The vice president announced the creation of a Justice Department anti-corruption task force that would include the State Department to: increase the number of resident legal advisers to ensure capacity building, training and case-based mentoring; and, develop a rapid response capacity to deploy US prosecutors and law enforcement experts to provide mentorship to develop corruption cases.
Now the hard work begins.
Biden tasked Harris with addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. Its movement in the region cannot be a one-off gesture. Success will require the administration to engage directly with the leaders of the Northern Triangle and Mexico, holding them accountable for their commitments. In addition, the administration must work with Congress to allocate the necessary funds that are critical to long-term success.
From border walls to the abolition of the ICE, much of our immigration debate is oversimplified into a question of application or lack of application. The point is that most migrants do not want to leave their country of origin. But Central American parents are no different from others. They want to raise their children in safe environments. They do not want to embark on a dangerous journey to our border to seek asylum. To find safety for their children, they will take this trip.
It serves our national interest to eradicate corruption and impunity in Central America. It won’t be easy. And it won’t happen overnight. But, it is fundamental for the security of Central American families and the ability of their children to live their full potential in their own communities.
Ali Noorani is the CEO of the National Immigration Forum, author of “There Goes the Neighborhood” and host of the “Only in America” ââpodcast.