A growing influx of child migrants from Central America is rapidly becoming the Biden administration’s first major crisis, and its outcome is likely to become a factor in the outcome of the 2022 U.S. congressional elections.
Former President Trump, perhaps to divert attention from Biden’s successful campaign to beat the COVID-19 pandemic, made it clear in his Feb. 28 speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference that he will focus on immigration to propel his political resurrection effort.
Trump falsely claimed that since Biden took office there has been a “massive flood of illegal immigration into our country, the likes of which we have never seen before.” That was, of course, a typical Trump falsehood to fire up his anti-immigration base.
In fact, border apprehensions have been rising since April 2020, when Trump was in office. And they are significantly below their 2019 levels, and their all-time records in the early 2000s, according to the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
There is one category, however, where there is a larger-than-usual uptick: child migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the so-called Central American Northern Triangle countries. Among the reasons for the current increase in child migrants:
First, Northern Triangle countries have some of the world’s highest homicide rates. Many teenagers in these countries face a “join-or-die” ultimatum from gangs, so their parents often hire smugglers to get them to the United States.
Second, several years of droughts, and the 2020 Eta and Iota hurricanes have destroyed corn and bean harvests, leaving entire communities without enough food.
Third, the COVID-19 pandemic further ruined the region’s economy by bringing tourism to a halt.
Fourth, rampant corruption in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — from the top down — makes people skeptical of any change for the better and prompts many to want to emigrate.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, a close Trump ally, has been implicated by a U.S. federal court in drug trafficking. El Salvador’s elected autocratic president, Nayib Bukele, has marched with uniformed soldiers into Congress to intimidate legislators into approving a bill.
In Guatemala, violent gangs and drug cartels act with impunity, while courts release people who have been indicted in well-known corruption cases. Not surprisingly, experts say there is a crisis of “cumulative despair” in the region.
As many as 38 percent of Hondurans, 26 percent of Salvadorans and 25 percent of Guatemalans say the intend to emigrate, according to a poll by Vanderbilt University’s LAPOP survey.
“It’s stunning,” says Benjamin Gedan, a Latin America expert with the Wilson Center. “The number of people who want to migrate shows the magnitude of the problem.”
The Trump administration’s way to deal with this problem was to call some of these nations “shithole countries,” build wall on Mexico’s border, ask the Mexico to stop Central American migrants on its southern border, and try to cut foreign aid to the region.
In the process, Trump totally abandoned serious efforts to fight rampant corruption and violence in the Northern Triangle. Trump not only failed to criticize the region’s corrupt presidents who lavished him with praise, but looked the other way as they dismantled highly effective international anti-corruption groups, such as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, run by the United Nations.
Biden, on the other hand, rightly believes that the only way to stop the long-term exodus from Northern Triangle countries will be to attack the root causes of migration. He is proposing a $4 billion economic aid package for the region, linked to strong anti-corruption measures.
Granted, giving economic aid to corrupt governments is a dangerous proposition. Biden’s aid package should come with strong strings attached. In exchange for U.S. aid, the Northern Triangle’s questionable leaders should accept direct U.S. supervision of how the funds are spent, plus the arrival of new international anti-corruption bodies similar to the ones they recently expelled.
“It’s difficult to imagine a serious effort to rebuild these countries without international help to fight corruption,” Gedan told me.
I agree. I would add that without fighting corruption, there will be no improvement in living conditions, nor a decrease in migration. It’s time to help Northern Triangle countries, with the condition that their corrupt leaders allow an internationally supervised reset of their broken law-enforcement and justice systems.
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