Central American insecurity fuels US border crisis


President Barack Obama (2nd R) hosts a meeting with El Salvador's President Salvador Sanchez Ceren (L), Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina (2nd L) and Honduras' President Juan Orlando Hernandez, to discuss the flow of undocumented migrants from their countries, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, July 25, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • The programs currently being implemented and planned by the administration are primarily stopgap measures.

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  • A U.S.-led multinational initiative is needed to better equip regional Central American governments to confront criminal organizations that smuggle drugs and people.

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  • The immediate task is to staunch the current explosion of illegal crossings, including thousands of unaccompanied minors.

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The surge of illegal immigrants at the U.S. southwest border should sound the alarm for the President and Congress to lead an international rescue mission to confront murderous narco-traffickers and street gangsters who threaten U.S. security along with the lives and livelihood of millions of Central Americans.

President Obama has requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding to cope with the influx of illegal immigrants along the US-Mexico border. Notwithstanding that considerable sum, it is clear that the programs currently being implemented and planned by the administration are primarily stopgap measures. They do nothing to address the long term driver of the problem: the escalating criminality and corruption in Central America—most of it fueled by illegal drug trafficking driven by U.S. demand—that undermines democratic institutions, rule of law, economic opportunity, and public safety.

The immediate task is to staunch the current explosion of illegal crossings, including thousands of unaccompanied minors. Although the uptick in violence in their homelands contributes to economic dislocation and fear, loose talk about a more permissive U.S. immigration policy has contributed significantly to the surge. "Coyotes" have drummed up business by advertising that people reaching U.S. territory will be permitted to stay. Until such misrepresentations are disproven by the quick and steady return of would-be immigrants, thousands more every day will begin the perilous 1,000-mile trek northward.

To deal with this extraordinary humanitarian crisis, Mr. Obama should allow U.S. border patrol and immigration officers at the scene to use their experience and legal discretion to assess cases in order to facilitate the urgent return of most illegal immigrants. Arranging the immediate voluntary return in most cases would help deter the dangerous migrations and undercut the business model of smugglers. Although this policy can be adopted without changing existing U.S. law, the bipartisan Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency (HUMANE) Act, if passed, would help expedite due process for minors with possible refugee or asylum claims.

Central American governments should invite UN and private relief agencies to establish centers in their countries that will receive returning migrants, weigh refugee claims and, if necessary, arrange resettlement in another country. The UN, U.S., and other countries should consider the need for an "orderly departure" program to allow in-country processing of persons seeking asylum; in recent decades, such programs were established to accommodate Vietnamese, Haitian and Cuban migrants.

The current surge is an international crisis, not just a U.S. problem—and it is more than a migration crisis. To address chronic security problems, a U.S.-led multinational initiative is needed to better equip regional Central American governments to confront criminal organizations that smuggle drugs and people.

The UN reports that Central America has a homicide rate more than four times the global average. Reported incidents of robberies, extortion, kidnappings, and human trafficking are on the rise--making personal security a widespread concern. Most of the violence can be attributed to the drug trade that has migrated there since Colombia and Mexico cracked down on local cartels in the last 15 years. The State Department estimates that almost 90 percent of the cocaine smuggled into to the U.S. transits the Mexico–Central America corridor.

The increased crime and violence exacts a heavy economic toll. A UN Development Program report puts the financial costs of violence at a 2.5 percent loss of gross domestic product in Costa Rica, with a loss of more than 10 percent in Honduras. The loss of domestic and foreign investment because of security concerns has a drastic impact.

Local governments, plagued by weak institutions and poorly trained law enforcement, have proven no match for these well-financed international criminal organizations, which are aided and abetted by local gangs. Mr. Obama should work with the Central American counterparts with whom he is meeting in Washington on Friday to convene an international summit—including representatives of regional governments, the Inter-American Development Bank, the UN, and other international development agencies—to address the broader security crisis.

Central Americans leaders should request a UN security mission to deploy international police personnel to mentor, monitor and mobilize local security forces to confront the transnational organized criminal organizations, including international human and narcotics traffickers and street gangs. A key task of this mission would be to ensure more professional police forces that respect human rights and reject corruption.

The current surge of illegal immigration is a symptom of a larger problem. Until we deal more effectively with the insecurity and resulting economic woes in Central America, the costs of illegal immigration will continue to grow.

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