GUATEMALA CITY - Vice President Mike Pence had stern words Thursday for three Central American heads of state meeting to discuss the migration crisis on the U.S. southern border.
“This exodus must end,” he told them after a 90-minute meeting at the presidential palace in Guatemala. “It’s a threat to the security of the United States,” he added.
Pence and the leaders of the so-called Northern Triangle countries agreed to hold follow up ministerial-level talks on July 10 to discuss concrete proposals to resolve the migrant crisis. But absent was any discussion of the root causes of the decades-old problem of emigration from Central America, such as poverty, corruption, lack of jobs and public services.
In brief remarks at the end of the meeting, Pence urged the Central American leaders to beef up their border controls with extra police and arrest the ‘coyotes’ who smuggle migrants through Mexico and across the U.S. border. That included removing public advertisements for their services, which cost around $10,000 per person.
"Hold onto your children"
Pence closed by offering a blunt message for Central Americans, “straight from my heart, and straight from the heart of the American people.”
He went on: “If you want to come to the United States, come legally or don’t come at all ... Don’t risk your lives, or the lives of your children by coming to the United States on the road run by drug smugglers and human traffickers. Hold onto your homes and your homeland. Hold onto your children.”
The last four words may cause controversy as they come in the wake of the crisis over the Trump administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has resulted in more than 2,000 migrant children being separated from their parents.
The policy raised unusually strong protests from normally muted Central American governments, prompting the Honduran foreign ministry to call it “inhuman.”
Trump signed an executive order last week aimed at ending family separation. However, it remains unclear how and when the families will be reunited. However, if anyone thought Pence, accompanied by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, had come to Guatemala to make amends, they were sorely disappointed.
Thursday’s hastily-arranged multilateral meeting offered no concessions from the United States, or extra financial aid to tackle to region’s deep rooted social, political and economic problems.
To be sure, Pence spoke warmly about the need for collective approach to the immigration issue. “You are our neighbors. We want your nations to prosper,” he said.
Instead, Pence’s good neighbor approach was mixed in with some tough love. He began his remarks by virtually scolding the three presidents, saying he was “sad to report” that the number of migrants from their countries illegally trying to enter the United States had reached “staggering” proportions, with more than 150,000 so far this year.
Pence also rejected the claim by human rights groups and immigration advocates that they were fleeing persecution by organized crime and street gangs. “Most are making the journey seeking economic opportunity,” he said.
The three Central American presidents appeared unfazed by Pence’s remarks, instead speaking warmly of the need for greater regional cooperation with the United States.
Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales recognized his country had done a poor job in securing its “porous” borders. He also accepted Pence’s suggestion that more needed to be done to educate people about the risks of putting their lives in the hands of ‘coyotes.’
Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez also highlighted the threat from drug trafficking in the region. “We have a monster with several head and various faces,” he said, listing a series of trafficking problems, including drugs, guns, people and money.
Ironically, as they were meeting, in the plaza outdide the palace a group of police and family members were protesting over low police pay, about $300 a month.
“Our countrymen emigrate because of injustices, like low pay,” said Manuel Maldonado, 35.
But, both Morales and Hernandez, suggested that increased border security should go hand in hand with greater flexibility by the Trump administration over the status of undocumented citizens in the United States, including the 780,000 undocumented ‘Dreamers’ who were brought to the United States as children.
Hernandez asked Pence to reconsider the cancellation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a special visa offering temporary protection from deportation for 250,000 undocumented migrants from Honduras and El Salvador, due to natural disasters in those countries. “They have paid their taxes and led impeccable lives,” he said.
In the wake of the Fuego volcano eruption earlier this month that killed 113 people, with hundreds still missing, Morales also asked Pence to consider including Guatemalans for TPS status.
Pence expressed his sympathy for the victims of the volcano, but did not address the subject of TPS. The vice president had originally planned to visit a shelter for families displaced by the eruption, but instead his wife undertook that task while he met with the presidents.
But, critics are likely to be disappointed by the focus on border security and law enforcement.
“Curbing migration from the countries of the Northern Triangle will require more than warnings and demands that the leaders of each country tighten control of their borders or crack down on smugglers,” said Adriana Beltran, director for Citizen Security at WOLA, the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington DC-based policy watchdog.
While the United States has provided more than $2.6 billion in foreign assistance to Central American countries for the period 2015-2018, according to the State Department, much of that is for combatting drug trafficking.
The U.S. also supports anti-corruption efforts of the Northern Triangle by helping fund a United Nations-led effort to strengthen the rule of law through an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).
Under a regional initiative - the Alliance for Prosperity (A4P) the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras committed $5.4 billion in 2016 to develop opportunities for their people, improve public safety and strengthen institutions.
However, in Guatemala, public services and jobs have failed to keep up with rapid growth in the population which has doubled since 1985 to almost 18 million, more than six times its three million inhabitants in 1950.
Approximately 125,000 young people enter the Guatemalan labor force every year, but only around 25,000 jobs are created in the formal economy, according to Salvador Paiz, a prominent Guatemalan businessman and member of the Foundation for the Development of Guatemala (FUNDESA).
"We haven't emphasized sufficiently the root cause of the lack of [job] opportunities, nor have we done enough about it," he wrote in a column published Thursday in El Periodico.
A 2016 survey found that 11% of Guatemalans "were sure" they would emigrate in the future, mostly to the United States. Of those, 57% hoped to find jobs, while others were motivated by crime and the lack of security.
“We are highly productive manufacturers of children in a small country, where we no longer fit, and that is why we go where they don’t want us, because the survival of the species rules,” wrote Guatemalan academic Adolfo Méndez Vides in another opinion column Thursday, titled ‘Child Migration’ in El Periodico newspaper.
“The curious thing about the variations of migration is that previously young people went away at a productive age, to work, but now the families are sending their small children to save them from the future they fear,” he wrote. “It’s as if the parents had surrendered and resigned themselves to the discovery that getting rid of their children is best for them.”
Méndez Vides doubted walls or jail will stop the migrant flow, “because ingenuity and human will are unbreakable forces like the tectonic plates that cause earthquakes.”