The sharp rise in the number of unauthorized migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border in February seemed to confirm one of President Trump’s loudest claims — that the nation faces a full-blown migrant crisis that requires a border wall. More than 76,000 unauthorized migrants crossed the border in February, a 31 percent jump from January.
But what’s really happening at the southern border undercuts the president’s central claims. Last month, when he declared a national emergency to build a wall, he said “[W]e have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people, and it’s unacceptable.” Yet the number of people apprehended is still below historical highs, and 40,325 of them are parents and children. And the people entering are overwhemingly not criminals.
The migrants mostly come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — the area known as the Northern Triangle. They’re coming to seek refuge from brutal socioeconomic forces in Central America.
The Northern Triangle countries are among the most violent in the world. While homicide rates have fallen in El Salvador and Honduras in recent years, they still had the world’s highest and second-highest rates in 2016. Guatemala ranked 10th. In addition to facing the pervasive threat of violence, people in these countries must live under governments that have largely failed to provide fundamental rights and protections for their citizens. There’s a high incidence of gender-based violence, extortion by organized crime, and gang recruitment, as well as hate crimes committed against the region’s gay and lesbian population. Impunity is commonplace, due to weakened institutions deeply infected by corruption. For instance, about 90 percent of crimes in Guatemala go unpunished, with similar rates in Honduras and El Salvador.
All of these conditions conspire to exacerbate poverty and disparities in economic opportunity. Roughly 60 percent of Guatemalans live below the poverty line, while Honduras’s poverty rate is 66 percent. According to World Bank figures, Honduras ($2,480) and El Salvador ($3,890) were among the five countries in the continent that ranked lowest on GDP per capita in 2017. By comparison, the figure for the United States was $59,530.
Helping those countries grow economically and providing opportunity and security to their residents would help stem the tide of migrants. But US aid to Central America has hovered between only $500 million and $1 billion in recent years. Trump has tried to slash that funding, but Congress has largely rejected his attempts.
How aid money is spent is also critical. The administration has focused on security, with funds going mostly to rule-of-law efforts and to fight organized crime and drug trafficking. In contrast, the Obama administration had a broader approach. “They recognized that there were other factors driving people to migrate — poverty, high rates of inequality, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic corruption,” said Adriana Beltrán, director of citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group. “They were also financing programs related to violence prevention, workforce development, anti-corruption initiatives.” There’s evidence those programs were working.
The flow of individuals from Central America to the United States will continue to rise unless there’s a clear shift in the American response to the “crisis at the border.” Walls don’t dissuade people who are suffering through a humanitarian disaster. Rather, a solution requires political will, and not just from the United States but from the Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Honduran governments.