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The Border Problem Beyond the Border

from American Ambassadors Live!

Amid the controversies surrounding U.S. border immigration issues, one key element of the problem has been ignored. Of course, Americans care deeply, and are horrified by, the accounts of children who are separated from their parents at U.S. border crossings. But to solve this problem, we must also care about the conditions in the failing states from which these people flee. The migration crisis is driven only partly by the allure of the United States. It is primarily a consequence of criminality compounded by poverty and weak governments in Central America.

The press has focused on the immediate crisis at the border and the tragedy of children ripped from their parents’ arms only to be sent to holding centers around the country. Some in the media go beyond this cruelty and examine the central question before immigration judges: is the applicant an economic migrant, who is not eligible for asylum, or a legitimate refugee who is? U.S. asylum laws limit the granting of asylum specifically to “refugees” who are persecuted based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or belonging to a particular social group. “Credible fear” of mortal harm at the hands of criminals can justify refugee status, particularly if a government cannot or will not protect an individual from that harm.

The primary contention of the Trump administration is that all those who try to cross the border are economic migrants, meaning that they flee poverty not the conditions listed above for asylum. The administration also contends that those who claim “credible fear” are being coached to use the code words needed to be considered for asylum.

While a degree of coaching may be taking place, U.S. diplomats in the region have reported that some parts of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are, indeed, controlled by criminal gangs. Murder rates in some districts are as much as 30 times the rates in the United States. In some areas residents must pay gang members for protection or risk being killed.

Some of the criminality is related to the narcotics trade. Most of it is driven by soaring poverty rates. Remittances from emigres comprise the largest single source of foreign exchange for each of the three countries. In each, small-scale agriculture is the primary source of income for the majority of the population. Farmers have been devastated by a multi-year drought and increasing temperatures. In fact, coffee cultivation is now possible only at altitudes well above what had been the case only years ago. Crop production has dropped by more than 50 percent— and in some areas fully 90 percent. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 3.5 million people need humanitarian assistance.

For most Central American migrants, risking the dangerous journey to the U.S. border is a terrible option, yet it is preferable to staying behind where jobs are nonexistent, food is scarce and criminal gangs are unchecked by functioning governments. The United Nations lists Central America as among the worst humanitarian crises sites in the world today.

For me and others who worked Central America issues in the 1980s, this situation is particularly painful. The United States supported these governments against rebels funded and supported by Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped supporting Cuba, the Castro government stopped supporting the rebels. U.S. assistance to the region never quite stopped but the levels of assistance fell through the 1990s only to be slightly increased in the George W. Bush Administration and remained at that modest level during the Obama administration.

Now, President Trump proposes a 38 percent cut in support to the region. Much of the cut is to economic support programs, although anti-narcotics efforts are fully funded. In other words, our efforts focus on what we see as our own problem—narcotics—and not the root cause of the mass migration out of Central America.

There are no easy answers to the problems in Central America; we cannot offer an off-the-shelf prescription for the difficulties in these countries. We can, however, accept the fact that support to these nations is in our national interest. Our support to these countries in the ‘80s was based on national security concerns driven by Cold War geopolitics. The concept of national security cannot be confined to proxy conflicts with a strategic advisory. National-security concerns extend to the consequences of failed or failing states as havens for threats against U.S. interests.

Some in Washington may not get this. However, it seems that Mexican president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador does. His office announced that he suggested a Joint U.S.-Mexican effort to address the structural causes of violence in and migration from Central America— something that affects Mexico as much as it does the United States. Funding would be provided in proportion to the size of the country. Seventy-five percent of it would be appropriated for job creation and production initiatives while the other 25 percent would go toward border security. Mexico seeks U.S. cooperation on this front primarily for financial purposes.

Cooperation of this type does not appear consistent with President Trump’s method of dealing with problems. He should, however, embrace the idea. We must do more than obsess about the problems on the border. We need not act alone. We must work with other governments to help find solutions to their problems, which are, after all, ours as well.


Ambassador Holwill served as U.S Ambassador to Ecuador from 1988 to 1989. Following his ambassadorship, he served as Counselor to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. His areas of expertise include international trade, international investment disputes, and the resolution of business problems in foreign markets.

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