Central America’s child exodus: One year later the humanitarian crisis is far from over

This time last year, an unprecedented number of Central American families and children arriving at the southern border set off alarm bells in the United States, raising concerns of a growing humanitarian crisis. The national conversation briefly touched on the root causes of migration, namely the violence and endemic poverty that forced these children and families to flee their homes, but the humanitarian crisis isn’t over. This conversation is still pending, and calls for policy solutions on U.S. soil and abroad.

Thousands of Central American migrants, including children and women, continue to flee violence and make the dangerous trek north. In fact, though migration has fallen since last year it is still on track to surpass any year prior to 2014. The difference now is that Central American migrants are simply not making it to our border.

{mosads}Increasingly, these migrants are being apprehended by Mexican authorities, a crackdown that has come largely in response to U.S. pressure. According to an analysis of official statistics by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Mexico’s apprehensions of Central American migrants increased by more than 80 percent – from 49,893 to 92,889 – in just one year. A murder last week of a 14 year-old Honduran boy, only days after he was returned to his grandparents from Mexico, demonstrates that protection mechanisms there are not in place. Deportations continue in spite of concerns over due process and unaddressed human rights violations.

Displacing the issue is a far cry from solving it. Violence, poor governance, and a lack of opportunity remain major factors behind the plight of migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Failing to address these underlying drivers of migration now will only make the challenges more difficult and expensive to confront further down the line.

For this reason, the $1 billion aid request for Central America holds significant promise. In the coming months, Congress should ensure that aid to the region extend beyond security to include funds that improve governance, and invest in economic development and educational opportunity. It is not the amount of money that will determine its success or failure. Instead, the strategy behind the assistance and the commitment of the recipient governments will prove crucial. The aid package must be carefully channeled to countries or agencies that have the political will to address the corruption and institutional weaknesses that plague Central America.

Ultimately, addressing the insecurity and hopelessness that force Central American migrants to flee requires both foreign and domestic policy fixes. Congress has the capability to make this happen, and this week we will see two important opportunities to do so. On July 7, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the government’s response to the border’s humanitarian crisis. And in the coming days, a Senate subcommittee will begin discussing the State and Foreign Operations bill that will detail funding for the administration’s Central America aid package.

Senators should demand that the Obama administration’s plan to implement the aid be grounded in clearly defined performance metrics. Second, senators should clearly signal to Central American governments and business elites in those countries that they must hold up their end of the bargain. 

Congress has an opportunity to address the causes of mass migration at their source. By assigning the resources Central America needs to become a secure and prosperous region, and holding both U.S. agencies and recipient governments accountable for results, the U.S. can play a leadership role in helping to end this crisis.

Investing now in a strategy to resolve the wide range of issues that beset Central America will ultimately prove the best course to not only reduce the need to migrate but also, ideally, transform a region that is closely linked to the U.S. by trade, culture and family ties.

Hanson oversees WOLA’s work on governance issues and economic opportunities in Central America, and  Beltrán leads WOLA’s Citizen Security program. WOLA is a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas.

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