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The CROOK Act offers rare opportunity for bipartisanship on immigration

The CROOK Act offers rare opportunity for bipartisanship on immigration
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Two weeks ago, the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously voted for a measure that will help address the root cause of America’s migration crisis — without once mentioning undocumented immigrants. How did Republicans and Democrats find consensus on such a polarizing issue? By focusing on the sprawling and endemic corruption driving millions of Central Americans from their homes.

The U.S. is facing its biggest migrant surge in 20 years, and nearly 92 percent of these families have come from just three countries: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — all of which are grappling with deep-seated government corruption. 

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenKim says North Korea needs to be 'prepared' for 'confrontation' with US The Senate just passed the next Apollo program Young Turks founder on Democratic establishment: 'They lie nonstop' MORE recently testified that combating foreign corruption was “absolutely essential” and “something we’re going to dedicate more focus, more time, and more resources to” because it’s an “Achilles’ heel” when those living in corrupt countries come to see the corruption of their leaders. 

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The Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, or “CROOK Act,” which now moves to the full House of Representatives, brings new, targeted resources to countries struggling in their fights against corruption. Dozens of civil society organizations and prominent individuals across the ideological spectrum have endorsed it, and it has bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. It deserves a vote by the full House, and must receive one quickly.

In Guatemala, corrupt alliances between organized crime and politicians are driving migrants north to escape violence and poverty. In El Salvador, a notorious system of cronyism aggressively prosecutes and inhumanely imprisons the poor, while leaving the influential to operate with impunity. In violence-ridden Honduras, “institutional rot” permeates nearly every government body in the country, as a powerful political establishment steals public money to fund their campaigns for election and maintain their standard of living.  

CROOK would establish, for the first time in U.S. history, a permanent fund for fighting foreign corruption. And to finance this fund, it employs a creative and synergistic tool: For every successful case that the U.S. government brings to enforce the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) where fines and penalties imposed on the company exceed $50 million, an additional $5 million would be levied and deposited into the new anticorruption fund. The FCPA is a 1970s law that makes it a crime for American companies to bribe foreign officials in order to, say, win valuable government contracts

Importantly, the funds raised by the CROOK Act would not only go toward strengthening countries’ capacities to fight corruption, they could also be used to develop democratic and rule of law-based institutions, giving the U.S. a rapid-response means of steadying faltering or fledgling democracies. For example, in Myanmar, where a military regime of “rapacious kleptomaniacs” recently wrested power from the popularly elected government, new support for civil society, independent media and democratic governance initiatives could bring timely democracy-building efforts to an emerging strategic partner. 

In Guatemala, previous international efforts were in fact able to strengthen the country’s institutions and root out deep-seated corruption in the national capital area. New efforts could similarly ameliorate a root cause of mass migration from the country’s border regions, which ultimately contributed to some 180,000 Guatemalan family members being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol in 2019.   

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In Latin America, many countries teeter on the brink of kleptocracy, where authoritarian leaders steal from the state to enrich themselves and tighten their stranglehold on power, impoverishing their citizens in the process. Such is the case in Honduras, the country of origin for some 175,000 migrants apprehended at the U.S. border in 2019, where top Honduran officials were found to have embezzled $335 million from the government agency charged with providing medical care and pensions.  

An estimated 3,000 patients died due to the resulting lack of medicine and proper care. And such kleptocracies, while appearing to exist “over there,” beyond the purview or concern of the United States, quickly reach our shores by engendering a more dangerous global marketplace for U.S. workers and companies, strengthening organized crime and terrorism, and weakening the rule of law that makes our global economy possible.  

The U.S. must continue to address corruption in our own financial and political systems. We must also be equipped to more quickly and directly confront corruption and kleptocracy abroad. From the Northern Triangle to the borders of the EU to China’s backyard, the need for focused and durable U.S. anticorruption engagement is clear. And the Biden administration’s good intentions couldn’t be any clearer. What’s needed now is a powerful first step, and with the CROOK Act, Congress must take it.

Scott Greytak is the director of advocacy for the U.S. office of Transparency International, the oldest and largest anticorruption coalition in the world.