GUATEMALA CITY - After images and audio recordings of children in metal cages at U.S. government-run facilities set off an international outcry, the Trump administration appears to be in full damage-control mode.
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, has raised unusually strong protests from normally muted Central American governments.
The Honduran foreign ministry has gone as far as calling it “inhuman.”
So, on Thursday Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will sit down with the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras - collectively dubbed ‘the Northern Triangle’ - for a rare multilateral meeting at the presidential palace in Guatemala City.
The White House has released few details about Thursday’s hastily-arranged meeting and government officials in the region consulted by Univision News, were also unsure of the agenda as of Wednesday afternoon.
The zero tolerance policy has led to widespread confusion about the Trump administration's border policy. Trump signed an executive order last week aimed at ending family separation. However, it remains unclear how and when the families will be reunited.
Honduran Foreign Minister María Agüero said in a statement on Thursday that the meeting would discuss security issues such as drug trafficking, and job creation, as well as migration. She explained that the meeting was organized at the request of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández during a recent visit to Washington.
Regarding migration she reiterated that Honduras was concerned about its citizens. "We have seen how the executive order has been a temporary solution to this situation," she said, adding that Honduras was seeking expedited due process to ensure family reunification in the shortest possible time.
Meanwhile, a debate In Congress over a comprehensive immigration reform plan failed once again this week to reach a broader solution to include other issues such as funding for President Donald Trump's border wall, and the 780,000 young 'Dreamers' who were brought to the United States as children.
The leaders of El Salvador and Honduras are also disappointed by Trump's cancellation of 'TPS', a special visa offering temporary protection from deportation for 250,000 undocumented migrants due to natural disasters in those countries.
'Good cop, bad cop'
"Vice President Pence has emerged as the quiet and reasonable 'good cop' to Latin American leaders, as compared to President Trump's aggressive and tweet-happy 'bad cop,'" said John Feeley, former U.S. ambassador to Panama, who resigned earlier this year over disagreement with Trump's policies.
Thursday’s meeting is expected to be friendly on the surface - for the TV cameras and photographers – but in private Pence is unlikely to offer much in the way of concessions. In fact, he may well be the one complaining - with some justification - and asking questions about why so many Central Americans keep abandoning their countries in such shocking numbers, risking their lives to reach the United States.
"Pence will never deviate from the President's policy line and he is capable of delivering hard messages," said Feeley noting how during the first stop of a Latin American tour on Tuesday, Pence told Central Americans thinking of immigrating to the United States; "If you can't come legally, don't come at all."
Change of plans
Nonetheless, critics concede they are happy that the Trump administration appears willing to discuss the problem. Pence was scheduled to stop in Guatemala on his way home from a visit to South America to meet with survivors of the eruption of the Fuego Volcano, outside the Guatemalan capital, which killed more than 100 people earlier this month.
The White House announced a last-minute change to his agenda on Tuesday in the wake of the crisis over family separation at the border.
Pence's meetings in Brazil and Ecuador included discussion about another spiraling humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, including offers of increased U.S. financial aid to attend to migration issues in neighboring countries.
Some observers find that ironic considering the Trump administration’s attitude to Central American asylum claims. “When a Venezuelan claims fear of being in his or her country, U.S. authorities believe them because there’s an openly repressive government,” said Adam Isacson, a Latin American security policy analyst at WOLA, the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington DC-based policy watchdog, who noted that Venezuela is by far the number one country for U.S. asylum claims.
“When a Central American claims fear, U.S. authorities think he or she is an economic migrant who’s ‘scamming’ and exploiting ‘loopholes.’ The generalized violence and misrule in Central America doesn’t fit the neat, traditional categories like authoritarian Venezuela.”
War and peace
While the surge in migrants at the border is undeniable, it’s not a new problem. Latin America experts note U.S. administrations have dealt with Central American migration for decades; ever since the region became caught up in the Cold War in the 1980s, resulting in civil wars that set back the economies of what were already some of the world’s poorest countries.
Tragically, when a historic 1987 peace agreement was signed - in Guatemala City – the region never properly recovered. Instead, it was engulfed by a new set of problems: gangs fueled by a wave of deportees from U.S. jails, as well drug trafficking and political corruption.
In 2015, the latest year for which data is available, as many as 3.4 million people born in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were living in the United States, more than double the estimated 1.5 million people in 2000, according to WOLA. About 55% of them were undocumented.
The Trump administration places most of the blame for the crisis on opportunistic migrants and people smugglers – the notorious ‘coyotes’ – as well as loose enforcement of immigration laws in Central America and Mexico.
During their upcoming visit, Pence and Nielsen “ought to focus on the root causes of migration, including the violence and the corruption that undermines the prospects for people to live safely at home,” said Adriana Beltran, director for Citizen Security at WOLA.
“Many families in Central America are making the desperate decision to migrate because they face greater dangers by staying home than by leaving,” she added. “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.”
Instead, in order to address the region’s deep-rooted problems, the United States needs to work closely with the Central American countries “to address the endemic levels of violence, corruption, impunity, and weak institutions that are depleting the state’s ability to provide security and basic services for their citizens, thus driving people to migrate,” said Beltran.
Recent Guatemalan governments have faced a slew of corruption scandals and current president Jimmy Morales in under investigation for illegal campaign funds. Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez recently won a highly controversial re-election that sparked mass street protests and in El Salvador, a judge this month ordered the arrest of 17 people, including a cabinet minister, for their suspected involvement in a corruption racket allegedly led by former President Mauricio Funes.
Even though violence has been reduced, with considerable U.S. assistance in recent years, experts say murder rates in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala continue to rank among the highest in the world. They also rank very low on an annual corruption index by Transparency International.
But WOLA and others note that Trump has cut the budget for foreign assistance to Central America to address the lack of rule of law, drug cartels and violence in the Northern Triangle.
In its latest budget request the Trump administration requested an overall 22% increase to the Department of Homeland Security budget compared to 2017, alongside a 36% cut in foreign operations aid to Latin America. That would roughly tie for the lowest level of aid to Latin America in 23 years of monitoring, according to WOLA.
“The fact remains that President Trump is ideologically opposed to foreign assistance ... I hope we see a reversal of this trend starting Thursday,” said Feeley.