The Northern Triangle countries of Central America — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — have long been among the most unstable and violent areas in the Western Hemisphere. Three decades after civil wars and insurrections roiled the region, murderous street gangs now control entire neighborhoods, drug smugglers work with brutal abandon, corruption makes justice elusive and, according to a 2014 ruling by a U.S. immigration judge, a chauvinistic culture in Guatemala leaves women prey to domestic violence with limited protection from police. Those conditions have combined over recent years to persuade about 10% of the countries’ 30 million inhabitants to flee their homes, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and mothers with children continue to move north in hopes of gaining permission to stay in the U.S.
But countering the out-migration of Central Americans requires more than just immigration enforcement here, or in Mexico for that matter. Under pressure from the Obama administration, Mexico has tightened its southern border to choke off the flow near the source. Because this effort did nothing to address the factors compelling people to leave their homes, it managed to reduce migration only for a matter of months — until resourceful and desperate people found other routes. Now the number of unaccompanied minors and mothers with children reaching the U.S. border is again on the rise.
In an effort to relieve more of the pressure within the region, the federal budget for fiscal 2016 includes $750 million — more than a third above the last budget — to improve conditions in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in an effort to reduce the impetus to leave. The legislation tries to prevent the money from disappearing into corrupt coffers, directing it to be spent on improving the region’s economy, reducing poverty, combatting drug trafficking and gangs, and creating stronger and more transparent local governance, as well as helping those deported from the U.S. resettle in their home countries.
Making it easier for the fearful to seek protection closer to home could reduce the number of people turning to human smugglers and attempting the dangerous overland journey. At the same time, the administration has agreed to take in more of those fleeing the region who qualify as refugees. Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the government will increase by an unspecificed amount the number it will accept from Central America this fiscal year; the current cap is 3,000 of the 85,000 worldwide refugee slots. Considing the low overall limit, even a big increase in the region’s cap would be insufficient to resolve the problem, as is the $750 million in aid. But it’s a start.