The situation at the U.S.– Mexico border is urgent, but the crisis is in Central America.
The urgency of dealing with the latest spike in migrant arrivals is self-evident. Overcrowded shelters, minors held in adult facilities for longer than the law allows, and days without access to showers or personal hygiene are all deeply problematic and worrisome.
But the solution to this problem cannot be a return to Trump-era policies of inhumane treatment as a policy of dissuasion. Family separation and forcing migrants to remain in squalid and dangerous makeshift shelters across the border and refusing to consider any asylum claims for Central Americans is morally wrong and bad policy.
The current situation is dire, but in contrast to the previous administration the Biden Administration has promised humane treatment and a return to the historic system of migrant protection that is not only part of our history and tradition but is required by international treaty. The fact that conditions are imperfect now, does not mean they will remain so permanently.
There are several things the Biden Administration is starting to do that can be supplemented to improve the current the border situation. Efforts to expand review of asylum claims in a timely and fair manner are a first step. Broadening legal avenues for migration, are also essential.
When given legal options for migration, most will choose that over risking exploitation by smugglers or corrupt officials. And standing up better asylum processing options in the region, as the Administration has proposed, will also reduce the peaks that often cause a backlog at the border. Ultimately, a wide-ranging reform of the U.S. immigration system, proposed several times before but become a political football in Congress and presidential politics, is the only long-term solution.
But the true crisis is in Central America where years of failing governments, extreme poverty and widening inequality, and record violence have created a sense of hopelessness that have driven migration for decades. These factors were exacerbated by a raging Coronavirus pandemic, and two successive category 4 hurricanes that pummeled Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala in November 2020. Nearly half the population of Honduras was impacted by the hurricanes, with tens-of thousands left homeless across Central America, many cut-off from water, electricity, and healthcare for weeks and months.
Years of neglect, corruption, and inaction on coastal development, deforestation, over grazing, unregulated hydro-electric dams, and reckless mining have collided with the global climate crisis to threaten the survival of poor and marginalized communities.
The “dry corridor” running from Guatemala through Honduras and El Salvador to Nicaragua has experienced draught-like conditions for over a decade. Indigenous peoples and afro-descendants, including the Garifuna in Honduras, have risked their lives to warn of the destruction of their lands and natural resources. According to Global Witness, which tracks deaths among environmental activists, Honduras and Guatemala were fifth and sixth globally for reported deaths with 14 and 12 respectively in 2020.
And behind these grim realities stands failing governments deeply corrupted by greedy elites that would rather protect their privilege than work for improving their countries. Honduras is a particularly sad case in point, although Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua all suffer from similar problems of corruption and impunity. When hurricanes Eta and Iota struck in November 2020, the country’s emergency response agency ( COPECO) was completely unprepared with shelter or emergency food needs.
Thousands of Hondurans huddled together in abandoned buildings or in makeshift shelters along roadways. Independent investigations also found widespread fraud and corruption in COPECO’s handling for Covid expenditures leading to several resignations at the top of several agencies. A rapper going by the name 'Killa' replaced the head of COPECO and admitted he knew nothing about emergency preparedness.
Unsurprisingly, decades of corruption and impunity across Central America have eroded public confidence in democracy itself. Public opinion surveys show growing perceptions of corruption and declining support for political parties is widespread.
A case being tried in the Sothern District of New York has uncovered direct links between drug traffickers and the highest echelons of the Honduran government including, allegedly, its current president. While President Hernandez denies it, several witnesses, including his own brother, have testified that he took bribes in exchange for directing security forces to protect drug shipment.
As one Honduran migrant told me in a shelter in Southern Mexico, “I know my president is corrupt so I have no reason to believe he cares about me or my needs.” Crime and violence, a broken justice system, collapsing social safety nets, environmental and economic disasters are the real crisis in the migration story. What happens at the U.S. border is the end of the story not the beginning.
What can the U.S. do to address these problems? First, fighting corruption and rebuilding public confidence in democratic institutions must be the starting point. It is not enough to say “the border is closed” or “don’t come, its dangerous.” When compared with Central Americans’ lived experience with violence, poverty, and corruption, these messages are ineffective.
The U.S. must stand alongside courageous Central Americans fighting for transparency and accountability in government and project a policy of hope for long suffering Central Americans. Only when they see a future at home will the crisis of Central American migration cease to be a border problem for the U.S.
Eric L. Olson, is Director of Policy and Strategic Initiatives, Seattle International Foundation and a Wilson Center Global Fellow.