Beyond the Wall Recommendation: Partner with Central American Countries to Address Root Causes of Migration

(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

With cutbacks in support for anti-corruption efforts and aid for Central America, the United States has abandoned once promising policies to address the causes of migration.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The United States can help address the root causes of migration by: restoring critical aid to important development priorities in the region; reprioritizing support for strengthening anti-impunity, rule of law, and governance reforms; and working to promote economic development in the region.

Restore critical aid that will improve conditions in Central America, and condition U.S. assistance on demonstrable progress to much-needed strengthening of public institutions in Central America.

President Trump has cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in critical aid to countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This cut-off in U.S. assistance limits the reach and effectiveness of essential programs that address the root causes of migration.

The United States should restore aid to the region to fund programs that directly address the drivers of migration, including corruption, poverty, and violence. Specifically, the U.S. government should:

1.) Target assistance to expand evidence-based, community-level programs to reduce youth crime and violence, reintegrate youth seeking to leave the influence of street gangs and criminal groups, and protect women, young people, and children who have suffered violence.

2.) Support evidence-based employment creation and job training programs that focus on at-risk youth in targeted communities.

3.) Focus security-related funding on strengthening civilian law enforcement and justice institutions and making them more accountable and transparent. Aid should be directed toward bolstering policing capacity overall (such as police investigation techniques, vetting, recruitment and training, etc.) and community policing, as well as to enhancing the independence and capabilities of prosecutors and judges by supporting merit-based evaluation and disciplinary systems and ensuring adequate protection for judges, prosecutors and other justice officials.

4.) Help strengthen civil society organizations and their efforts to hold governments accountable.

5.) Condition aid on demonstrable progress to much-needed strengthening of public institutions in Central America.

Prioritize anti-impunity, rule of law, and governance reforms in Central America.

In an effort to secure commitments on migration enforcement and “safe” third country deals, President Trump has focused on migration cooperation over the fight against corruption in dealings with Central American leaders. Without U.S. pressure to uphold reforms, leaders in these countries have readily dismantled decades of U.S.-backed anti-impunity, rule of law, and governance work in the region.

Guatemala’s leaders killed a highly successful anti-corruption initiative in 2019 without any pushback from the White House, which had historically provided critical support regardless of who was in office. In the first weeks of 2020, the Honduran government similarly destroyed a promising anti-impunity initiative, while prompting no response from the White House. Both of these countries had recently signed “safe third country” deals with the Trump administration and understood that the United States primary focus is on migration policy in the region.

Corruption is one of the main drivers of migration in the region. The failure of governments in Central America to provide basic security in homes and communities is one of the key reasons people feel they need to flee for their safety. Addressing government officials’ embezzlement of public funds designated for healthcare, education and other programs, as well as tackling the collusion of corrupt government officials and individuals with criminal organizations should be at the heart of U.S. policy in Central America. This means supporting reformers and anti-corruption fighters both within and outside of government. It requires exerting pressure on Central American governments to uphold the rule of law and undertake essential institutional reforms. It calls for close collaboration with civil society organizations that specialize in anti-impunity, transparency, and governance.

Respond to calls from the Mexican government to work together to promote the region’s development.

Poverty and inequality are both critical drivers of migration in Central America, and the United States should take advantage of existing opportunities to strengthen economic development efforts in the region.

In 2019, the López Obrador administration worked with the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) on a “Comprehensive Development Plan of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico” and it has pledged funds to support the economic development of countries in Central America.

While a focus on the region is welcome, any joint efforts should also address the violence, corruption, and poor governance that is forcing tens of thousands of Central Americans to flee their homes.

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Listen to our podcast episode on the erosion of anti-corruption efforts in Central America:

A Way Forward for Security, Justice, and Human Rights Reform in Central America

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Learn More About Root Causes of Migration in Central America

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