Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Should Central America Do More to Curb Migration?

Thousands of Central Americans have joined caravans, trekking to the United States this month. A group is pictured about to cross the Suchiate River from Guatemala into Mexico. // Photo: Radio TGW. Thousands of Central Americans have joined caravans, trekking to the United States this month. A group is pictured about to cross the Suchiate River from Guatemala into Mexico. // Photo: Radio TGW.

A group of as many as 3,000 Honduran migrants heading to the United States entered Mexico in October, prompting U.S. President Donald Trump to threaten cutting aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador if authorities in Central America failed to stop the group from moving ahead. In response, the foreign ministry of Honduras urged the country’s citizens not to join the group, and Guatemalan authorities detained the migrants’ organizer. Why do Central American migrants continue to seek entry into the United States despite Trump’s warnings? What are Northern Triangle countries doing to curb migration, and is it enough? How can the United States work with them more effectively to reduce the number of migrants fleeing north?

Manuel Orozco, director of the Migration, Remittances & Development program at the Inter-American Dialogue: “The reason why Central Americans continue to migrate is not accidental. The continuity of underdevelopment and violence has influenced a wave of outmigration that may currently constitute the third or fourth largest migration crisis in the world. Central American governments have been unable to tackle this problem effectively for two main reasons. First, the strategic efforts by the Alliance for Prosperity were not directly connected to the root causes of migration, but rather to broader chronic problems (infrastructure) or traditional markets (agriculture), with a strong emphasis on security issues not directly connected to the systemic presence of organized crime. Moreover, there is no leveraging on the inflow of migrants’ money to capitalize on development and business opportunities. Second, most of the Northern Triangle, and Honduras in particular, have only paid lip service to the implementation of the Alliance for Prosperity, a problem that has distracted them from taking a serious approach to migration. Withdrawing foreign aid would be a strategic mistake. A better strategy would be to reduce migration. This strategy should focus on increasing financial access for all and credit for microenterprises, to reduce the size of the informal economy and to invest in new markets. It needs not to ignore a transitional justice approach: the 500 tons of cocaine that are transshipped from the Northern Triangle and consumed in the United States are responsible for the organized crime that hurts economic growth and increases political fragility. The United States and the Trump administration must consider renewing the and hold the governments accountable for a new strategy. It needs to consider the reality of this migration, provide humanitarian relief to those leaving their homelands and a guest worker program that realistically recognizes the U.S. demand for foreign labor.”

Ray Walser, retired Foreign Service Officer and former Latin America policy analyst at Heritage Foundation: “Now approaching 7,000 people, the caravan grows along with the high-stakes political drama. President Trump considers its movements a national emergency and seizes upon the polarizing fear of uncontrolled migration and ‘open borders’ as a political wedge issue in the upcoming midterm elections. In reality, the caravan, while large in number, reflects pervasive and ongoing challenges in the Northern Triangle with marchers heading north, driven to extremes by persistent poverty, crime, impunity and corruption and with little to lose. The caravan reflects human despair, misguided hopes and the possible work of media-savvy organizers. Why go it alone or with ‘coyotes’ when you can march together with 24/7 media attention? Clearly, Northern Triangle nations are unable and possibly unwilling to curb this northward migration. Ranging from a lack of institutional capacity to the fact they are not police states limits their capabilities. Current U.S. policies that cut foreign assistance and end Temporary Protected Status, along with the absence of bipartisan immigration reform, toss additional fuel onto the fire. Threats to sever all economic assistance, including security assistance, will only worsen the crisis and reflect poorly on the United States. Addressing the recurrent migration challenge requires governments, the private sector and civil society to work together, backed by sustained but effective resources and broad international support. Clearly, the Trump administration cannot admit 7,000 migrants moving en masse without legal status. Smart diplomacy might explore utilizing U.S. consular and disaster response mechanisms to defuse the crisis in Mexico by reviews of asylum, refugee and family claims and a safe and orderly return for those denied entry. Defending the rule of law while intelligently addressing an ongoing humanitarian crisis with dignity and respect poses a far better outcome than the U.S. military arresting, caging and deporting thousands of desperate, unarmed Central Americans.”

Ursula Roldán, coordinator of the migration department at the research and administration institute of Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City: “Migrants continue to want to enter the United States because crisis in Central America is worsening, and people see fleeing to the United States as their only option for employment opportunities and safety. Central American governments and North American policies are responsible for this crisis. Honduras is among the world’s poorest and most unequal countries, with one of the highest rates of violence. The 2009 coup d’état and the electoral fraud in 2017, both situations that the U.S. government endorsed, ended in greater instability and political violence. Central American governments are doing very little to deal with migration. They are currently focused on defending their own interests, especially avoiding corruption trials. They back big business projects and the countries’ armed forces to maintain their political support. To help with the migration crisis, the United States needs to go back to a consensus among Democrats and Republicans, one that concludes that the problem of forced migration does not lie at the borders, but rather in the origin country’s unequal economies and co-opted states. It should continue supporting the fight against corruption and impunity, as well as policies that boost financing of small and medium enterprises and that generate well-paid jobs and a more balanced economy in general. At the same time, the United States should take up policies to strengthen Central American states so that they become democratized and, in this way, meet the basic needs of the population in terms of health, education, housing and social security. A better regulation of immigrants already there and recognizing what they contribute to the United States could also help generate economic mobility, as well as cultural and social exchanges. Establishing broader and more regulated labor programs in favor of workers in the countries of origin and destination would also help.”

Oscar Chacón, co-founder and executive director of Alianza Americas: “Even though nobody would guess it, given the dominant nature of the international debate on migration, the freedom to leave one’s own country continues to be an essential human right, one the United States has nominally championed for most of the past 60 years. As data tells us, migration has been a vastly positive experience for nations of destination, as well as of origin. The caravan of Hondurans traveling toward the United States for the past weeks represents something new only to the extent that people gathered at the point of departure. However, thousands of Hondurans have been making this trip, on a monthly basis, for a decade. Considering the abuses, including rape and murder, that these migrants often experience on their way north, as well as the hefty fees smugglers charge, joining a caravan that offers a minimum of protection in numbers, at no financial cost for the participants, is a no-brainer. To the extent that wealthy elites and national governments in the region remain indifferent before the urgency for widely available economic opportunity, broad social inclusion and well-being, scandalous homicidal rates and decaying democratic governance systems, Central Americans will continue to conclude that fleeing their countries represents their best survival strategy. The thousands of impoverished Hondurans participating in this caravan are also a collective outcry calling for a new generation of public policies, based on migration, and humanitarian protection, based on common sense and compassion. The U.S. government can help reverse this trend. However, it will require nothing short from a Marshall Plan-like approach, implemented with new partners and most certainly far more money than is so far the case. The opposite of this will only lead to more conflict, more migration and more misuse of U.S. taxpayers’ money.”

The Latin America Advisor features Q&A with leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. The publication is available to members of the Dialogue's Corporate Program and others by subscription.

Suggested Content

A Conversation with Bill Richardson

As the global financial crisis continues to alter US relations with the hemisphere, greater engagement in the region remains critical to US interests.