To solve the southern border crisis, look past the border

As the Trump administration struggles with the consequences of its cruel, chaotic family separation policy at the southern border, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held hearings on Aug. 16 on efforts to protect unaccompanied children from Central America from human trafficking and abuse. Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) stated in his opening remarks that the committee would not, on that day, be looking at root causes of the crisis. So we decided to.

We’d argue that a foreign aid investment for the sending nations of Central America would offer returns that far outweigh the cost, and provide a far better deterrent to border crossings than our current haphazard, punitive approach. Administration officials know that, too.

{mosads}First, consider what the detentions are costing, both for families separated at the border and for unaccompanied minors, a problem with antecedents in the Obama administration. Setting aside humanitarian concerns, the return on investment is appalling. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the average cost of a bed in a basic shelter was $248 dollars a night in 2014, or $90,000 on an annual basis.


As Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) noted in the Thursday hearing, the Southwest Key contract for $500 million works out to $45,000 per child detained. In 2018, Health and Human Services (HHS) was paying $256 per night in a facility in Brownsville Texas, and in 2017, it paid more than $1.4 billion to accommodate nearly 41,000 unaccompanied children in its shelters. This costs taxpayers about $670 each day. The cost of holding someone in a federal prison? Roughly $85 per day.

As numerous reports have found, children separated from their families have been severely traumatized, suffering from a variety of mental health consequences. And vulnerable children stranded in the United States without adult relatives have, ironically, wound up in the hands of human traffickers, one of the evils that they sought to escape by fleeing their home countries in the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, three of the most violent countries in the world.   

Pointing to the 3 million migrants who left the Northern Triangle nations from 2007 to 2017, our hemisphere’s corner of the world migration crisis, a 2017 op-ed co-authored by then Secretaries of State and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Rex Tillerson and John Kelly, respectively, asked this question: What if comparatively small sums were used to keep these humanitarian crises from happening in the first place?    

Their answer was the Alliance for Prosperity. A joint effort of Northern Triangle nations with the assistance of the United States and the Inter-American Development Bank, the Alliance for Prosperity was to be modeled on Plan Colombia, which in the early 2000s helped free Colombia from control of the drug cartels, increased security and fostered economic activity. Investment in Plan Colombia had a 1-19 ratio of U.S. to Colombian and international development investment.

The Alliance for Prosperity was hailed by Vice President Mike Pence at a June 2017 DHS-sponsored conference in Miami as a powerful tool to fight corruption, crime and drug trafficking, and to bolster economic growth. This, Pence proclaimed, would be a powerful deterrent to both illegal immigration and the U.S. drug plague. Pence acknowledged that it was the victimization of its people — one in five are victims of crimes, including kidnapping and human trafficking — that drove a desperate flight from the Northern Triangle nations. The solution, Pence said, required shared commitment.

A year later, the vice president’s tone — and the administration’s commitment — has shifted. From a high of $750 million for the program in fiscal year 2016, the budget from the Alliance for Prosperity was cut 20 percent in FY 2017, and in FY 2018 the administration requested only $460 million. That’s a quarter of the figure HHS paid in 2017 for those unaccompanied children. In Guatemala City on June 28, Pence placed blame for the migration crisis squarely on the shoulders of the Northern Triangle countries, telling them, “If you want to come to the United States, come legally or don’t come at all,” ignoring the forces that impel terrorized citizens to choose between death or flight. Gone was the language of shared commitment and responsibility.

Like former Secretary (now White House Chief of Staff) Kelly, who as a U.S. Army general once directed SouthCom, current Homeland Security officials including Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have evinced interest in the Alliance for Prosperity model. Congress should restore prior year funding levels, and urge continued cooperation with regional leaders.    

Congress should also require the administration to reinstate an important tool from a prior administration. To stop the flow of unaccompanied children fleeing from Northern Triangle countries, in late 2014, the Obama administration began the Central America Minors Refugee/Parole Program, known as CAM, to allow the processing of application by children for refugee and asylum status in their home countries.

CAM came under heavy criticism for overbreadth in its eligibility definitions, among other things, but even if it is not reinstated in its original form, the same goals could be achieved through the FY 2019 refugee caps due to be finalized by the end of September — if they are made sufficiently capacious to accommodate the surge in applicants from the Northern Triangle.

These are steps with long-term returns on multiple levels: to the American taxpayers who are wasting money to jail terrified children, to the victims of violence in the Northern Triangle who remain in their home countries, and to the domestic battle to stem drug trafficking.

Meryl Chertoff is executive director of the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.

Tags Forced migration Heidi Heitkamp Illegal immigration to the United States Immigration policy of Donald Trump John Kelly Kirstjen Nielsen Mike Pence Rex Tillerson Ron Johnson Unaccompanied minor United States Department of Homeland Security United States Department of Justice

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