Five ways Congress can address Central American migration right now

Five ways Congress can address Central American migration right now
© Getty Images

Homeland Security chief Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenRosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' House Republican condemns anti-Trump celebrities during impeachment hearing Acting DHS chief Chad Wolf stepping down MORE recently toured the border, hosted by Arizona Republican Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyCindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed MORE. Hundreds of miles away, in a detention center in the Arizona desert, dozens of Central American immigrant children under age 10 wondered if they would ever see their parents again.  

Nielson called for Congress to fund Trump's border wall and praised the president's new "zero tolerance" policy for prosecuting border crossers. McSally spoke about her new co-sponsored immigration bill, which, among other things, makes it easier to detain and deport immigrant children.


Building a higher wall and punishing and separating vulnerable immigrant families are not lasting solutions to the Central American migration dilemma, however. Research shows that punishment as deterrence doesn't work and won't stop Central American border crossers.


Solutions must address the root causes of migration that have their origin in social, economic and political conditions in the region. 

Those conditions may seem intractable, and Congress may seem hopelessly deadlocked on meaningful immigration reform. But there are important steps that can be taken right now by members of Congress, steps that could have a significant long-term impact in Central America.

Here are five things members of Congress can do right now to address Central American migration.

  1. Join the bipartisan Central America Caucusand make it bicameral.

This 33-member House caucus, formed in 2016, focuses on how U.S. policy in Central America can advance human rights and the rule of law, two essential pillars of any strategy to address the causes of out-migration.

  1. Speak out in support of Central American efforts to prosecute organized crime.

No solution to migration is possible as long as the Central American states remain captured by clandestine criminal networks. Impunity for government-linked organized crime undermines human rights and citizen security in Central America, and it siphons off vital resources that could be used for social development to mitigate migration. This issue is more critical over the long-term than focusing on street gangs like MS-13.

Guatemala's U.N.-supported International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) has made impressive strides in rooting out organized crime in that country. Yet, some members of Congress want to cut funding for CICIG. That would be a strategic mistake.

In addition to CICIG in Guatemala, Honduras also has an anti-corruption commission backed by the Organization of American States. Members of Congress should speak out forcefully in defense of these anti-impunity commissions and the valiant work of Central America's public prosecutors.

  1. Call for accountability for human rights crimes in Central America. 

Indigenous, environmental and human rights activists are being murdered in Central America at high rates, while rural communities are being violently displaced to make way for miningdams and agro-industry

In Honduras and Nicaragua, state forces have violently attacked peaceful protestors; indeed, government violence in the wake of Honduras' contested elections last year was one of the main reasons so many Hondurans joined the Central American migrant "caravan" this spring. Members of Congress should denounce these crimes and condition U.S. foreign aid on efforts to bring perpetrators to justice.

  1. Visit Central America.  

Join or organize a congressional delegation to visit Central America. Go beyond the military bases and diplomatic circles. Talk with civil society and community leaders and learn how ordinary Central Americans are confronting the problems that generate migration.

  1. Come to the border.

Meet with local community organizations that have deep knowledge of immigration issues and the effects of border policies. Visit the detention centers to see directly how families and children are being impacted. If an on-site visit is impossible, schedule briefings with D.C.-based policy groups like the Washington Office on Latin America and the Latin America Working Group, which have decades of experience working on human rights issues in Central America.

Members of Congress have it in their power to begin to unravel this Gordian knot. We have it in our power to demand it. 

Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American studies at the University of Arizona. She has more than 30 years of experience conducting research on Central American migration and human rights issues. She is co-editor of “Guatemala: History, Culture, Politics” and “Guatemala: The Question of Genocide.” She was an expert witness in the Guatemala genocide trials in 2013 and 2018.