WASHINGTON – The ongoing migration surge from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador reflects troubled conditions in those countries that the United States has contributed to with its insatiable appetite for illegal drugs and should help combat, according to a new report, “Stronger Neighbors – Stronger Borders: Addressing the Root Causes of the Migration Surge from Central America,” released by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.).
In the spring of 2014, tens of thousands of children and families from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, a region known as the Northern Triangle, arrived at the southwest border of the United States. These migrants weren’t avoiding the Border Patrol. They were often turning themselves in and seeking asylum. The minority staff report, which is based on a dozen hearings and briefings on the issue as well as multiple trips to the region over the past three years, found that most migrants were fleeing conditions of severe violence, poverty, and lack of economic opportunity.
According to multiple experts who have testified to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, these migrants will continue to come unless the societal and economic root causes of their desperate journey are addressed in a holistic, strategic manner. In fact, the report comes as the number of families and unaccompanied children arriving at the border is once more on the rise.
“During my time in the Northern Triangle, I have seen firsthand how the violence and lack of security, economic opportunity, and hope for the future there has led so many parents to do the unthinkable — to put their children in the hands of smugglers to undertake a dangerous 1,500-mile journey to the United States,” said Sen. Carper, who began studying the issue of Central American migration to the United States – with a special focus on the migration of children and families — shortly after becoming Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in 2013.
The report found that the United States has taken important steps to manage the flow of Central American migrants and deter new arrivals. These steps include increased capacity to handle Central American migrants at the southwest border, more investigations and prosecutions of smuggling rings, and coordination with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to deter migration and return detainees who do not seek or qualify for asylum. These enforcement measures are indispensable and must continue.
“After last year’s surge, our government took unprecedented steps to try to stem the flow of Central American migrants,” Sen. Carper continued. “Working in coordination with Mexico and the Central American governments themselves, we were able to slow the migration for a time. But we must recognize that we have only bandaged the wound. We haven’t fully dealt with the underlying conditions that push desperate parents and children to leave their homes for a dangerous journey and an uncertain future. Shamefully, we’ve focused more on ways to keep migrants out of our country rather than helping them address the misery in their homelands, misery we’ve unfortunately helped create through our appetite for illegal drugs.”
Border protection alone is not a sufficient answer to the recent waves of children and families from Central America, many of whom are potentially eligible for protection under U.S. and international law, according to the report. The United States must also address the root causes of the migration, including the fear, hopelessness, lack of economic opportunity, and corruption, that compel so many Central Americans to risk life and limb to come here.
“By tackling the root causes driving this surge in migration, and helping these countries help themselves, we will not only strengthen America, we will help create a stable, safe, and economically resilient region to our south, and help end the preventable humanitarian crisis at our border,” Sen. Carper said. “There is a moment of opportunity to help the governments of the Northern Triangle as they have united in an unprecedented effort, called the Alliance for Prosperity, to promote change within their borders and the region generally.”
The report identifies the following root causes as the primary “push” and “pull” factors driving migration from the Northern Triangle:
- Violence and Insecurity: Inhabitants of the Northern Triangle endure some of the highest murder rates in the world, as well as an epidemic of extortion and violent crimes. The U.S. demand for narcotics has made Central America a key transit zone, and in the process, helped boost the power of brutal local cartels that serve to transship drugs and link Colombian and Mexican cartels;
- Poverty and Lack of Opportunity: Migrants also flee the Northern Triangle out of economic desperation. In Honduras and Guatemala more than half the population lives in poverty, and nearly 40 percent do so in El Salvador. Job opportunities are scarce, especially for the many young people with limited education;
- Desire for Family Reunification: Civil wars and instability in Central America during the 1980s sent waves of migrants to the United States. Those flows subsided in the late 1990s, but increased again in recent years. Now, as many as 1 out of every 5 Salvadorans resides in the United States and significant numbers of Hondurans and Guatemalans as well;
- Increasing Role of Smugglers and their Misinformation Tactics: Administration officials estimate that as many as 80 percent of the Central Americans who come to the United States do so with the help of professional smugglers, or in some cases traffickers. By many accounts, these smugglers have become more ruthless and aggressive about recruiting customers and peddle misleading information about U.S. immigration policy.
Based on these findings, the report recommends:
- The United States should increase its engagement with Central America. As part of this effort, Congress should support the President’s $1 billion request to improve governance and security and generate prosperity in the Northern Triangle. The proposed U.S. aid package for Central America, paired with new security and development initiatives by Northern Triangle governments themselves, directly addresses the poverty and insecurity that drives migrants to the United States in the first place. While past U.S. investments in the region have focused on security and counternarcotics programs, the President’s new strategic proposal addresses the region’s broader issues by dedicating most of the package to reforming civil society and institutions and promoting economic growth. This investment will have a more meaningful and lasting impact on behalf of U.S. interests than the $1.5 billion spent in 2014 alone to handle the migrant surge. Over the past decade, our nation has spent nearly $250 billion to strengthen our borders and enforce our immigration laws, however less than 1 percent of that amount has been used to help proactively address the root causes driving so many Central Americans to come here.
- Federal agencies must continue and strengthen their crack down on the gangs, drug cartels and human traffickers that plague the Northern Triangle. Transnational crime and increasingly brutal gang activity are playing a fundamental role in fueling violence in the region and both spurring and facilitating unlawful migration from the Northern Triangle. U.S. law enforcement entities must continue and expand initiatives to combat these criminals, including through vital partnerships and engagement with Central American, South American and Mexican law enforcement. At the same time, the United States must help ensure that human rights protections remain in place for migrants fleeing dangerous conditions.
- Congress must fully resource immigration courts. Many of the recent Central American migrants – particularly the children – are seeking legal protection that requires consideration by an immigration judge. Unlike unaccompanied minors from Mexico or Canada, minors arriving from Central America or other non-contiguous countries are guaranteed a hearing under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to review whether they qualify for legal protection. While the case burden of U.S. immigration courts has increased dramatically, the personnel and resources to address this caseload has not kept pace, with only 249 immigration judges in all of the United States. With the backlog of cases exceeding 450,000 and climbing, the Department of Justice reports that it would need 495 to 540 immigration judge teams to eliminate the backlog within 5 to 6 years and keep pace with new cases. The backlog of cases ensures that migrants are in a holding pattern over several years, prolonging uncertainty and increasing the “pull” factor by giving them de facto permission to stay in the United States while they wait.
- Congress must commit to common-sense comprehensive immigration reform. Some of the recent migration from Central America is a result of outdated U.S. immigration policy, as well as the exploitation of a broken system. Undocumented immigrants from Central America who have lived and worked here for decades have no way to reunite with family, or even travel home for a visit. There are not adequate legal channels for needed workers who would be willing to come only for seasonal work, and then return home afterward. Many migrants decide to come to the United States, in part, because of rumors of lack of clarity about U.S. immigration law. Creating appropriate legal channels for immigration and allowing long-time, law-abiding undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows would help rebalance the system and relieve pressure for unlawful immigration. It will also increase border security by “shrinking the haystack” of unlawful activity at the border and allowing border officials to focus on people and things that may pose a true security threat to the United States.
Read the full report here: “Stronger Neighbors – Stronger Borders: Addressing the Root Causes of the Migration Surge from Central America.”