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If you thought the caravans were bad, you ain't seen nothing yet

The President's decision to cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador shows he just doesn't understand what drives irregular migration, nor how to stop it.
2 Abr 2019 – 04:52 PM EDT
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Migrants from poor Central American countries -mostly Hondurans- moving towards the United States in hopes of a better life, walk along the road between Zapopan and Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco, on their trek north, on November 13, 2018. Crédito: Ulises Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images

So you hate undocumented and irregular migration from Central America? Well you're going to hate it more now that the President has cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the countries from which the families and children we're seeing at the southwest border are fleeing.

The events last week were stunning, even by President Trump's chaotic standards. On Thursday the Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS), Kirstjen Nielsen, signed an agreement with these three Northern Triangle countries to bolster cooperation in an effort to stem irregular migration - a rational and constructive step that recognized the need to address the problem at its source. One day later, with no warning, the President pulled the rug out from under her by cutting off hundreds of millions of dollars in previously approved foreign assistance for programs that directly address the push factors of migration including, presumably, the very funds DHS was going to use under the freshly-signed agreement. Thanks for the heads-up, boss!

We know that much of the President's foreign policy is driven by transactional and personal diplomacy, but this most recent announcement proves that the President just doesn't understand what drives irregular migration, nor how to stop it.

First, we don't "give" those hundreds of millions of dollars to the governments of the Northern Triangle. There's no cash involved. Rather, the United States funds programs we design and implement in partnership with partner governments (as in the Nielsen agreement) and with civil society. These programs help reduce violence, improve governance and weak institutions, and create economic opportunities so that people will eventually see their futures at home and not in the United States.

Second, the Northern Triangle governments don't "send" their citizens to the United States. Migrants are fleeing violent communities, fleeing their lack of recourse to weak institutions like the police and the courts, and looking for work to support their families. The governments of Central America can't prevent their citizens from leaving any more than President Trump can prevent you from traveling overseas.

So, our policy is chaotic and contradictory. But we have to ask ourselves, after seeing illegal border crossings drop to historic lows in 2017, why are we seeing a spike now?

Three reasons: First, because we have a booming economy. As long as U.S. per capita GDP is 25 times that of Honduras, and as long as there are more jobs than job seekers, there will be a significant pull factor.

Second, though things have gotten better in the Northern Triangle (the murder rate in Honduras has been more than halved since 2012), all politics is local. For many people living in conflictive communities or rural poverty, things haven't gotten better enough, quickly enough to meet their rising expectations.

And third, and maybe most importantly, the President doesn't get that his own rhetoric is helping fuel the current surge of migrants at the border. During the first wave of unaccompanied minors in the summer of 2014, we learned that the smugglers were telling potential migrants "you have to go now, the border is going to get harder to cross". And it worked. We see the same thing now. The smugglers use the President's own bombastic words as proof that the border is going to close and that if they don't go now, it will be too late.

So what's the solution - how do we finally bend the curve on irregular migration from Central America? By sustaining our assistance to the Northern Triangle countries. By continuing to make them less violent, more accountable to their citizens, and more prosperous so that eventually they reach that tipping point where people decide to make a go of it at home. This is a long game and it requires an understanding of history and economic development in underdeveloped countries. Remember that Plan Colombia took 15 years of sustained effort with three successive U.S. Administrations to transform itself.

Meanwhile, the President insults and attacks the foreigners without looking inside his own government. If he really wanted to fix something, he would fix the broken immigration court system. The reason we have "catch and release", in which asylum seekers are released into the United States pending a far-in-the-future court date to adjudicate their case, is because those courts have a backlog of 800,000 cases. So rather than making a decision on an asylum request in real time, and repatriating those found not to have a valid case, everyone who makes a claim gets in, at least for awhile. This is ridiculous, and it's fixable.

Rather than spend billions on a wall, rather than close the border, rather than cut off foreign assistance meant to fix the problem, why don't we spend the resources necessary to fix the immigration courts? We wouldn't tolerate an 800,000 case backlog at the DMV, so why should we tolerate it at the border? Repatriating migrants in real time who don't qualify for asylum would send a powerful message back to Central America - don't waste thousands of dollars and risk your life on the journey because you probably won't get in.

The President's castigating Central American policy and his unpredictable and bombastic rhetoric will almost certainly continue. As former ambassadors who served in Central America, we predict more irregular migration, discredited and undermined cabinet secretaries, and an angry set of Appropriations Committees, who see a president once again violating the law by not consulting appropriately with them.

( James Nealon is a former US Ambassador to Honduras and Wilson Global Fellow. John Feeley is a former US Ambassador and Univision political analyst.)