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Mexico considering $30 billion Central American investment to stop migrant crisis — US should, too

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is considering a plan to invest $30 billion over the next five years to promote development in Central America’s Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The plan’s details are still unsettled but investing in Central America, and even southern Mexico, to reduce the number of people who feel that they have no choice but to leave the region is worth the investment.

Central America's political and economic development needs to be more of a priority. This plan might not address the needs of the millions of people who have already left and are in transit somewhere in Mexico or awaiting asylum hearings in the United States, which should also be addressed. A few million dollars here and there with little follow-through has not cut it. The United States should work with its Mexican and Central American partners to address the immediate and long-term needs of those living amidst a humanitarian crises.

Such a plan that addresses the political and economic needs of Central Americans would be a more humane response to the regional crisis than additional funds for border walls and family and child detention centers. The Trump administration, however, has given no indication that it is interested in dedicating additional resources to fund such priorities. And to be fair, simply throwing additional resources at what we have been doing for the past decade would not seem to be the wisest move. While maintaining its support for rule of law initiatives, the United States should increase its support for sustainable regional economic development.

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In addition to increasing assistance to Central America, the U.S. should support Mexico's efforts to tend to the needs of migrants in transit and to those open to long-term resettlement in Mexico. Thousands of Central Americans have disappeared traveling through Mexico, presumably at the hands of drug cartels, organized crime groups, and corrupt security forces. The United States is far better positioned to welcome a larger number of people from Central America but that doesn't mean that Mexico can't accept larger numbers as well.  

As I wrote in June, however, drug reforms, sustainable trade policies and opportunities for Central Americans in the U.S. are badly needed. The United States could also improve conditions in Central America, or at least not make matters worse, by reversing its policies towards Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for several hundred thousand Honduran, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan nationals. Although lower in impact, providing a path to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients from Central America would also help.

The United States could crackdown on the illegal transport of weapons across its southern border. The United States could also help Central America better respond to the adverse effects of climate change. The United States could also help Central America improve its use of renewable energy. While there are many areas where the United States could make a real difference in the lives of Central Americans, it is difficult to envision the current administration moving forward in a positive way.

While many would not view the Trump administration as a reliable partner on such an initiative for the region, another challenge is that the United States might not see the current administrations in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua as reliable partners either. Trump has repeatedly threatened to cut assistance to Central America if their government did not do more to stop their people from leaving their countries.

Our Central American partners do not have the best records when it comes to combating corruption and promoting good governance. In Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales has dedicated his first three years in office to dismantling CICIG, an organization widely praised for reducing corruption and strengthening the rule of law. He is also under investigation for campaign finance irregularities. The governments in El Salvador and Honduras have been connected to multi-million corruption scandals. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was reelected in a constitutionally questionable and likely fraudulent election last year. His brother was arrested last month on drug trafficking charges in Miami.

Irregular migration to the United States is at its lowest level in decades. The undocumented population in the United States is at its lowest level in a decade. The United States should work with the newly-elected president of Mexico and presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, to address the root causes of the humanitarian crises in the region.

Michael E. Allison is professor and chairman of the political science department at The University of Scranton. Follow him on Twitter at  @CentAmPolMike.