After decades of weakening U.S. engagement with Central America, the recent influx of undocumented children entering the country across the southern border has forced Washington to reconsider this neglected region and confront the problems that are causing the alarming exodus.
Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Guatemala on Friday to meet with Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and top officials from Honduras and El Salvador to discuss ways to reduce the flow of unaccompanied minors into the United States. The vast majority of children migrating northward hail from those three nations, known collectively as the “northern triangle” of Central America.
Lawmakers and Latin America experts welcome Biden’s visit to Guatemala, added this week as afterthought stopover to a previously scheduled trip to South America and the Caribbean. But the eleventh-hour planning of the trip only underscores the U.S.’ disconnect with Central America, analysts say.
“There’s not a lot of attention [given to Central America] unless there’s a crisis,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. Shifter calls the U.S. government’s lack of attention to Central America in the post-Cold War era “shameful” and
“shortsighted” because “these problems come back to bite the United States, as we’re seeing right now.”
Now the sudden wave of unaccompanied minors has touched off a humanitarian crisis at the border, as well as a political firestorm in Washington.
Since last October, 47,017 migrants under the age of 17 have been apprehended at the border while traveling alone. That’s almost double the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended between October 2012 and September 2013. Three quarters of the children caught in the roundup come from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The Obama administration has scrambled to ramp up efforts to provide food, shelter, and medical care to newly arrived children.
Republicans have criticized the White House’s response as ad-hoc and reactionary. They argue that offering temporary deportation relief to young undocumented immigrants who arrived before June 2012 has only encouraged more Central American children to make the dangerous journey north.
A senior administration official said Sunday that migrants crossing the border hoping for deportation relief have been duped by a “misperception.” The official stressed that all minors crossing the border illegally are subject to U.S. immigration law, including deportation proceedings. Biden will underscore that message in Guatemala, the official said.
U.S. lawmakers are also echoing that message to embassy officials from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), one of a dozen Hispanic lawmakers who met with Central American embassy officials in Washington this week, said his message to the foreign dignitaries is simple: “You need to tell [people in your countries] that the coyote is not your friend,” he said, adding that many of the smugglers trick people with false promises of a new life in the U.S.
“People are going to be put in deportation,” Gutiérrez stressed.
Getting a clear message to Central America is easier said than done. U.S. detachment from the region over the past few decades means Washington no longer has a strong partner in the region to advance its interests. Complicating the issue is poor communication and mutual mistrust among the governments of Central America, according to Shifter.
The lack of communication between the U.S. and Central America was on full display on Wednesday, when only one country — El Salvador — sent its ambassador to the meeting with U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Other countries sent embassy staff, but the absence of top diplomats frustrated several members of Congress.
“To me, that’s like a slap in the face that these people are not here to try and talk to us to solve this issue,” said Rep. Albio Sires (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee.
The U.S. government was deeply involved in Central America during 1980s-’90s, when it helped to fund counterrevolutionary movements and wars that became proxy battles between the U.S. and Soviet Union. After peace accords ended the final regional conflict in Guatemala in the mid 1990s, the U.S. turned its attention elsewhere — much to Central America’s dismay.
Though the U.S. implemented free-trade (CAFTA) and security (CARSI) initiatives with Central American nations, the overall engagement with and influence over the region has declined steadily over the past two decades.
Recent efforts to find a strong partner in the region have been mostly clumsy and ineffective. Most recently, President Obama sought to bolster ties with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes during a visit to that country in 2011. But the friendship failed to mature, and is less likely to do so now under president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former Marxist guerrilla leader.
The U.S.’ courtship of Honduras has been even more awkward, leading to international criticism over the country’s human rights record, commitment to democracy and soaring murder rate following a 2009 coup.
Violence and instability have become a major factors contributing to the immigration influx. Central America’s northern triangle, including Belize, has become one of the most violent regions in the world, with murder rates far exceeding any other corner of the Americas. Sixty percent of Salvadoran child migrants cited crime and gangs as the reason they are leaving, according to a recent survey cited by The New York Times.
The lack of economic opportunities in Central America has made it easy for gangs to prey on minors. In Honduras, 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, compared to just over half the population in Guatemala and nearly four out of 10 people in El Salvador.
Meanwhile, economic assistance from the U.S. has dwindled. The U.S. has budgeted $77.1 million in foreign aid for Guatemala next year, $48.2 million for Honduras, and $27.6 million for El Salvador. By comparison, Colombia is set to receive more than $280 million in 2015, according to government data.
“The United States has … ignored an opportunity to have better relationships with the countries to the south of us,” Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) told reporters Wednesday. He stressed that it’s in the U.S.’ best economic and regional security interests to “pay more attention” to the region.
Shifter said U.S. relations with Colombia could offer a model for how to re-engage with Central America. When Colombia faced the prospect of becoming a failed state at the turn of the century, President Bill Clinton authorized $1.3 billion aid package to the South American nation to fight drug cartels and revitalize the economy. For the next decade, Colombia was one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid, which helped stabilize and improve conditions in the country.
But Washington can’t just throw money at Central America, Shifter said. The U.S. also needs to reduce the flow of firearms south of the border, increase information-sharing with regional governments on criminal deportees, and combat the consumption of illegal drugs within its borders.
Given the scope of the problem and the U.S.’ recent track record in the region, Shifter isn’t optimistic that Biden’s visit will suddenly spark a greater commitment to Central America.
“Follow-through is always the problem,” he said. “I’m not sure there are grounds to believe [that] this visit is going to be any better.”
Sara Hussain contributed research to this report.
Editor's note: this story was updated at 2:55 p.m. to include mention of CAFTA and CARSI.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.