By Kai Thaler
On Sunday, the US Border Patrol fired tear gas into Mexico at migrants, including children, attempting to enter the US near the San Ysidro border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. The use of a chemical weapon banned in war against families rightly provoked widespread condemnation (Border Patrol agents also used pepper spray against migrants in 2013, fired tear gas and pepper spray into Mexico in 2007, and have killed rock throwers at the border in the past). Migrants attempting to enter the US are frustrated by the Trump administration’s restriction of the process of seeking asylum, a legal right under US and international law, a situation that won’t be solved by processing asylum seekers on Mexican soil.
Most of those who attempted to scale the border fence were reportedly from Honduras, the country with the world’s second-highest homicide rate. Young people there are caught between murderous gangs, violent and corrupt police, and paramilitary ‘social cleansing’ squads who target young men, while gender-based violence rates are also high. There are similar, if slightly less violent, dynamics in El Salvador and Guatemala, and increasing state repression in Nicaragua. Despite changes in US immigration policy and enforcement under the Trump administration, the US remains for many Central Americans a place of hope for a better, more secure life.
In this environment, deterrence efforts will have limited effectiveness. Globally, while the absolute number of migrants is rising, this has been as the world population has also increased, so the percentage of migrants has remained relatively stable. Wealthier, more stable countries like the US, Western European countries, Canada, and Australia will always be destinations for economic migrants and refugees, as well as countries like Costa Rica and South Africa in their regions. Millions of people are willing to risk their lives on perilous journeys across Central America and Mexico, the Sahara and Mediterranean, and the seas of Southeast Asia, despite increasingly harsh immigration enforcement regimes because conditions at home are so bad.
Let’s set aside that immigration is in fact a net benefit for receiving countries economically, that immigration does not dampen the economic prospects of native-born US workers, that multiple US industries depend on immigrant labor, and that immigration either reduces or has no effect on crime rates. If the Trump administration actually wanted to engage in good faith efforts to reduce the flow of migrants and refugees northwards from Central America, what should they do? Work to improve Central American states and societies.
As Eric Levitz puts it, the US “owe[s] Central American migrants much more” than their current cruel treatment, and accepting asylum-seekers and economic migrants is arguably fair repayment for the US role in destabilizing the region. There is a long and sordid history of US military intervention and subversion in Latin America, alongside support for despotic regimes and coups like that in Honduras in 2009, and economic exploitation. The US also bears responsibility for deporting gang members who helped MS-13 become so powerful in Central America and for US consumers’ habits driving the drug trade. There is no appetite, of course, for military intervention in Central America, but the US can help stabilize the Northern Triangle countries and Nicaragua through a combination of aid and diplomacy.
Central American governments have tended to resort to ‘mano dura,’ iron-fisted approaches to policing gangs and drug trafficking organizations, but this has not stemmed violence in the region. Evidence from Mexico suggests that government crackdowns simply displace and may actually increase violence. Increasing use of violence by the security forces leads to abuses, outsourcing of security, and greater fear among citizens, reducing trust in the state. Therefore, increasing security assistance is also not a panacea for stabilization in Central America.
Instead, there is a need for a multipronged approach that strengthens the state and rebuilds citizens’ trust in it; supports civil society and community-based efforts for peacebuilding and economic opportunities; and allows for the increased flow of resources from the US to Central America. There is bipartisan consensus that US economic aid to Central America is vital for stabilization and helping address the root causes of migration from the region, yet President Trump has threatened to cut off aid to the region, alongside the military deployment to the border. This would only make things worse, since, as Shannon O’Neil points out, aid goes to “violence prevention programs, helping youth at-risk programs, helping people start small businesses, anti-corruption measures, trying to strengthen the rule of law, police training, trying to make life better, particularly in violent or difficult neighborhoods.”
While violence prevention is an understandable priority, working toward government accountability and increasing economic opportunities in northern Central America are equally important in ensuring people want to stay in their home countries. Corruption, ineffectiveness, and repression have diminished citizens’ trust in government institutions, which limits cooperation with authorities for crime prevention and disincentivizes political engagement and economic investment.
The Trump administration, however, has paid little attention to Central America, beyond the occasional statement of concern from the State Department, as Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández crushed protests amid credible fraud allegations around his reelection; Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has repeatedly interfered with his country’s UN-backed anti-corruption commission; and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government has killed and arrested hundreds of opponents since April of this year. In addition to supporting programs to build accountability and trust, the US should apply diplomatic pressure to ensure that leaders cannot run roughshod over society.
Finally, the US can help stabilize Central America by stopping the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s terrorization of immigrant communities in the US. Militarized immigration enforcement and the targeting of undocumented immigrants with no criminal record not only tears apart families and communities, it reduces employment among immigrant communities and thus decreases the remittances immigrants send home. Remittances drive economic growth in Central America and improve life there for the family members immigrants have left behind. So if the goal of US immigration policy were to reduce undocumented migration, rather than performative ‘toughness,’ the less ICE, the better.
We can expect none of these reasonable measures to be implemented by the Trump administration, but it is important amid the media maelstrom around the migrant caravan to continue discussing feasible, humane immigration reforms and policies aimed at helping Central Americans live better lives in their home countries.
Kai Thaler is an Assistant Professor in Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is an expert in civil war and regime change.