Central America: Addressing Undocumented Migration

Everyday life for many Central American families is grim. Violence is rampant, the economic situation is bleak, and governments are grappling with corruption, weak institutions and overwhelming demand for basic services. As a result, many average Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans choose to make the long and dangerous journey to the United States as undocumented migrants in search of a better life. 

The trek through jungles and deserts and across gang-controlled territories is perilous. The human smugglers’ fees are expensive. Despite this, families still send their children on this journey, often unaccompanied by parents. Why? Because they believe staying put is worse than the risks of the migration. 

We will continue to warn of the dangers of the journey, and help our Central American partners inform their citizens about lawful alternatives to undocumented migration. However, words alone will not stop this. 

Only by working with the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador on a long-term, sustainable solution that addresses the underlying conditions leading to undocumented migration will we stop this tragic dynamic. The U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America provides a roadmap for our work in the region focusing on three areas -- security, governance, and prosperity – to create an environment in which the people of Central America can thrive, and from which few will want to leave their loved ones in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

In El Salvador, we are partnering with the government in support of “Plan El Salvador Seguro,” their own national security plan, to curb one of the highest homicide rates in the world.  There, we are putting our words into action with our Model Police Precincts (MPP) program, professionalizing local police forces while building stronger ties between the police and the communities they serve.   State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs funds instructors and advisors providing oversight and training in community-style policing, executive police decision making, and modern police philosophies. Community policing efforts are centralized in three model precincts: one in Lourdes, one in Santa Ana, and one in Usulután.  In the first two years after opening, there was a 70 percent reduction in homicides in Lourdes and 60 percent reduction in homicides in Santa Ana. We plan to expand this critical work to 19 operational MPPs by 2017.    

In Guatemala, we are working with international organizations strengthening government institutions and judicial systems. We have provided support to the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) since 2009. The creation of this anti-corruption office, staffed largely by international and independent jurists, was a novel approach to tackling the systemic corruption plaguing Guatemala for decades. We have seen CICIG deliver results. Its international jurists proceed independently in their investigations, then turn to established legal channels with their results.  For those of us used to the rule of law in the United States, this might not sound like a significant achievement, but in Central America, this is a transformative moment.  We continue to support CICIG, and we applaud the Guatemalan government’s decision to extend CICIG’s mandate for two more years.

In Honduras, job creation and economic opportunity are vital to improving the stability of the country. The workforce has on average only six years of schooling and more than half the population lives below the poverty line. The ongoing drought in Central America has devastated agricultural production, a key employer of unskilled labor.  Faced with limited economic prospects, members of rural communities become migrants looking for jobs and income stability. Through programs like Feed the Future, USAID will support the Government of Honduras to refine and implement a country-led, comprehensive food security strategy to reduce hunger and increase economic growth through market-led agricultural development. The Strategy for Engagement will also improve key policy and regulatory aspects of doing business in Honduras, emphasizing export sectors and the facilitation of investment.  These actions will support small business development.

Much work has already been done to stem the tide of undocumented migration, but much more remains. The underlying causes that drive such migration -- insecurity, high levels of violence, lack of economic and educational opportunities -- still exist in these countries.  While we secure our southwest border and work with Mexico to stem the flow of Central American migrants before they traverse our southern neighbor’s territory, we must address the underlying factors compelling migration. If we fail to do so and don’t resource our development and security partnerships adequately, we must be prepared for this migration pattern to continue, with significant political and financial costs to the United States. 

This will not be easy. It is going to require a more strategic and sustained effort. It will require the Administration and Congress to partner with the Central American and Mexican governments in a serious and committed manner over several years. But as Vice President Biden has said, “the cost of investing now in a secure and prosperous Central America is modest compared with the costs of letting violence and poverty fester”. 

About the Author: John D. Feeley serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Central American migrants emerge from side streets to crowd onto the tracks, as a northbound freight train arrives in the station in Arriaga, Chiapas state, Mexico
Posted by John D. Feeley
September 24, 2015

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